It’s no secret that positive Muslim representation is at an all-time low in the film and TV industry. Look at any show or movie that features at least one Muslim character and you’ll find that, nine times out of ten, they’re either a terrorist, a desert-bound camel owner, a clueless foreigner, or an oppressed wife. These are the kinds of stereotypes that Hollywood has been feeding us for decades and frankly, they’ve been further marginalizing real-life Muslim people in the process.
What’s more disturbing is the fact that both Arabs and Muslims are often presented as the same, even though that’s not the case. So to be clear: Arabs are people from Middle Eastern nations who can follow whichever faith they choose, while Muslims are a diverse group of people who follow the Islamic faith. Many people still tend to conflate the two because, according to Hollywood, all Muslims are Arabs and all Arabs are Muslims. And to add insult to injury, a very small percentage of these portrayals are well-rounded and complex characters. Author and lecturer Jack Shahem actually proved this once through his comprehensive study, where he watched over 1,000 films featuring Arab and Muslim characters and found that only 12 (yes, 12) of those portrayals were positive. Just let that sink in for a moment…
Though it’s been nearly two decades since Jack released that study in his book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, his findings still feel pretty relevant today. However, it gives us hope to see that some films and TV shows are working to include more relatable Muslim characters. Here are a few examples of fictional Muslim characters breaking down stereotypes.
As much as we do enjoy watching John Krasinski chase the bad guys on Jack Ryan, it’s Hanin’s story arc that truly stands out. For those who don’t watch the show, she may come off as another stereotype because she plays the Muslim wife of a terrorist (Suleiman). But on the contrary, she’s a brave and passionate character who would do anything to protect her kids.
Dina Shihabi, who plays Hanin, once explained: “I’m from Saudi Arabia, so I audition for a lot of Arab characters. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the women are victims and the men are just terrorists, and it’s very black and white. The way her story begins — she’s with her kids, she’s playing soccer, there’s a lightness to her. You get to see Hanin as a human being, as a mother. She’s smart and strong and complex. She’s a well-rounded human being and that’s very rare when I’m auditioning for Arab characters.”
Some would argue that Kareem Saïd was one of the most complex Muslim characters on TV. He was a Black nationalist and devout Muslim who actually got put in jail for blowing up a white-owned warehouse. And as soon as he got to prison, he immediately took charge over his fellow Muslim inmates, becoming one of the most influential prisoners in Oz. However, his actions often conflicted with his own beliefs and strict moral code. He constantly preached about love, compassion, and nonviolence, and yet, his quick temper and racist beliefs sometimes drove him to practice things that went against Islam.
Still, even despite his faults, viewers just couldn’t resist the fact that his character had so many layers. Yes, he could be prideful, and yes, he had serious anger issues. But there were also moments when he showed kindness and boldly addressed the corrupt prison system. His character was quite confusing to figure out at times, but that’s exactly what made him so fascinating.
It’s so easy to forget that this guy actually identified as Muslim on a few occasions. Why? Well because he’s far from the one-dimensional, super religious characters that we’re used to seeing on screen. Abed, who may or may not have Asperger’s, is a super intelligent and observant filmmaker who’s basically obsessed with role-playing. Plus, he’s pretty good at predicting other people’s behavior. He’s a fascinating and hilarious character that so many people can relate to. But more importantly, he reminds us that not all Muslims are strictly observant of their religion.
United Film Distribution Company
The historical action film centers on the life of the Libyan tribal leader, Omar Mukhtar. He was a powerful Muslim figure who went from teaching to leading the Libyan resistance movement against Italian colonizers from 1923 to 1932. Throughout the movie, he’s shown to be very careful and strategic in his battles against the Italians. But at the same time, he's selfless, moral, and uncompromising when it comes to his actions and beliefs. We’d say that Anthony Quinn did a stellar job of portraying Omar’s true character and how he impacted the Muslim community.
The legendary human rights activist was an influential leader of the Nation of Islam, and to say that Denzel Washington did this role justice feels like an understatement. In the film, we not only see the process of Malcolm’s religious conversion, but we also see how he eventually wrestles with the Nation of Islam’s teachings after his pilgrimage to Mecca. After learning that Muslims from all races could interact like equals (which contradicted what he’d been taught), he eventually separated himself from the Nation of Islam and converted to the Sunni faith. He also took this opportunity to become more politically involved and work with civil rights leaders.
It’s tough to fit all the details of Cassius Clay Jr./Muhammad Ali's life into a mere two and a half hours, but this film did a pretty good job of highlighting the boxing legend’s most important decade. We see his conversion to Islam, which was actually inspired by none other than Malcolm X (the two were very close). Islam completely shifted his perspective and beliefs but marrying someone who didn't follow the same faith presented quite a few challenges. He wasn't exactly a devout follower, but anyone who's been in an interfaith marriage or has faced resistance while converting could relate to Muhammad’s experience on some level.
Warner Bros. Pictures
How refreshing was it to see a confident hijab-wearing Muslim as the main love interest in a film? Aisha is far from the stereotypical meek girl who seems to be oppressed. Rather, she’s a skilled Muslim nurse with a vibrant personality and she has ambition. Plus, when Roger starts to fall for her, he has to follow her terms and respect the customs of her faith. It's clear that she's religious, but her faith doesn't necessarily define who she is. Compared to most other Muslim female characters, Aisha truly stands out. It was refreshing to see her unapologetically be herself while proudly sticking to her beliefs and values.
Well, who could forget Morgan Freeman’s portrayal as Robin’s trusty sidekick, Azeem Edin Bashir Al Bakir? After Robin escaped from prison and saved his life, Azeem promised to repay that life-debt and he made sure to kept his word. He went from being a useful companion (remember how he led Robin out of prison?) to becoming a trusted advisor and bodyguard. But aside from that, Azeem was a skilled fighter, a wise philosopher, and better yet, a genuinely good friend. Anyone who has seen this would agree that it was refreshing to see such a positive and lovable portrayal of a Muslim character.
Most people might remember Sayid Jarrah as a cold-blooded killer with anger issues. Or some might be quick to point out that he technically didn’t follow all the rules of Islam (for instance, he wore gold and he had intimate relations with someone before marriage). But even though he was a complicated character with a very dark past, he tried to make up for all the wrong he did – and his Muslim faith played a huge role in that. He practiced many Muslim rituals and most of his decisions were influenced by his beliefs. So while he had violent tendencies and did things that contradicted his faith, deep down, he was a genuinely kind guy with good intentions.
Speaking of complicated Muslim characters, Amir is by far one of the most memorable, although not necessarily likable for most. He grew up as a selfish, spoiled rich kid and he was too much of a coward to help his best friend (Hassan) when something traumatic happened to him. But even with these flaws, he worked to redeem himself. After escaping to America and spending years living with his guilt, Amir saw an opportunity to make up for the wrong he did to Hassan. He actually returned to Afghanistan to rescue Hassan’s son, and while this didn’t necessarily erase his weaknesses, it made him relatable and truly highlighted his growth.
Arastoo Vaziri was a proud and devout Muslim who was always kind and sympathetic — especially when it came to his patients. But perhaps his most memorable moment on the show was when he had to care for a 9/11 victim. While others assumed that it would be too uncomfortable for him, he actually insisted on serving the patient. Why? Well, because he understood that the men responsible didn’t act out of religion, but rather, out of arrogance and hate.
Pej Vahdat, who plays the character, once mentioned that it was actually refreshing to play “a brilliant scientist helping people solve crimes, and not committing them,” because usually, he'd get called in for roles like the “bodega owner and the taxicab driver.” Thank goodness he landed this awesome role.
It’s easy to see why Nimah and Raina Amin became fan favorites. The twins, who are portrayed by Yasmine Al Massri, are both strong, determined and intelligent characters with fascinating back stories. While Raina wears her hijab at all times and adheres to the rules of Islam, Nimah is not as religious. But of the two, most Muslim fans seem to connect more with Raina, who proved that even though she's more conservative, it doesn’t prevent her from being the amazingly successful and talented woman that she is.
Yasmine said: “I've been receiving messages from young Muslim girls saying, 'Thank you for showing that character.' I've never seen a positive veiled woman on television before. A hero, smart, sexy and competitive. I feel like I have a very honorable mission.”
Buena Vista Pictures
The film, which was inspired by Michael Crichton’s novel The Eaters of Death, focuses on the adventures of an Arabic Muslim traveler after he gets exiled to the Northern Barbarians. When he encounters the Vikings, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan has an air of arrogance because he finds their ways off-putting. But in time, both he and the Vikings develop a mutual respect for each other after discovering how they could help one another. It was clear throughout the film that Ahmad was pretty religious, but not to a point where it defined who he was. Also, his character growth showed how Muslims could get along with (and even learn from) others who have completely different lifestyles and beliefs.
20th Century Fox
The historical drama was inspired by the Third Crusade of the 12th century. Although many critics weren't impressed with the film, it's one of the few that actually portrayed Muslims positively. One character that truly stood out was the chivalrous and compassionate Muslim leader, Saladin (based on the real-life Sunni Muslim).
The American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC) praised the movie for its positive portrayal of Muslims: “[Ridley] Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven presents a more complex and human representation of Muslim characters than is evident in most Hollywood films. We definitely welcome 20th Century Fox and Ridley Scott’s efforts to provide a fair and multifaceted portrayal of cultural and religious realities during the Crusades. We also thank Ridley Scott for arranging this screening.”
The film follows a successful, young Pakistani whose life gets turned upside down following the 9/11 tragedy. As the attacks happened, Changez Khan was abroad on business, but when he returned to the U.S., he didn’t get the warmest welcome. He was suddenly forced to navigate in a world where Islamophobia was at an all-time high, which caused him to reconsider his own purpose and place in the world. We imagine that his story hit home for quite a few Muslims who had to endure all the tension, violence, and discrimination after this tragedy happened.
Adena El-Amin from The Bold Type is one of the most controversial characters to ever grace the small screen. But if you ask us, it’s a big step forward for representation. Adena is the complete opposite of your typical Muslim character because she’s a bold, outspoken, and passionate gay woman. She also has a strong moral center and she’s never afraid to tell it like it is.
One pansexual Muslim woman, Nor, shared how powerful it was to see a character like Adena: “It was very nice to be represented. Especially the fact that she’s a successful Muslim woman who wears a hijab. I want people to know that Muslim women who are LGBTQ exist and that we can be religious too at the same time. Many hijabis are seen as weak or oppressed or that we are here to serve men when that is not true.”