Reviews > Film

Film on America

Testament to Humanity

By Nadya Chishty-Mujahid | June 2020

Arguably one of the most major Islamic scholars in the world today, and certainly one of Islam’s most important intellectual postmodern bridges between the East and West, senior American University professor Dr Akbar Ahmed has updated his 2010 documentary endeavour Film On America for rerelease this year. The documentary is unique, in that post 9-11 no balanced and comprehensive film study of Muslims across the United States has been as expertly created under the supervision and guidance of a major Islamic academic as this one. Over the course of their travels, Dr Ahmed and his team of young researchers and filmmakers visited over a hundred mosques (both new, as well as historic) quite literally from sea to shining sea.

It is evident from the very start that Ahmed’s purpose is to create a sweeping view of Islam across North America, thereby serving the dual purpose of dispelling ignorance about the religion, as well as promoting awareness regarding it. His team left no stone unturned in terms of being thorough from the geographical perspective: they visited the Midwest, the Deep South, California, New York City, a New Orleans drunk and heady with Mardi Gras sentiment, and even Plymouth Rock where the first white British settlers landed centuries ago. They visited some of the oldest mosques in the country (the origins of one of them dated from as far back as the 1800s, although it was more structurally formalized in the 1930s) and sundry Islamic communities ranging from financially struggling Black Muslim ones to an intriguing Texas-based Bohra community which boasts a literacy rate of virtually 100 percent. Viewers will be astounded to realize that there are still regions in the US where Islam is virtually unheard of (and where something as basic as taking brief prayer breaks while on the job becomes a serious bone of contention) while in others it is considered one of the most major threats to both ‘American’ culture and way of life.

Alongside the question of what it means to be Muslim, Ahmed and his team explore the question of what it means to be an American, and more specifically an American Muslim. I was struck by his gentle audacity in daringly interviewing members of hard-core white supremacist organizations who claim to adhere to Christian beliefs while combatting the ‘infidel.’ His team did not escape unscathed when it came to hatred and prejudice—their car windows were smashed and their equipment stolen during one of their trips. It would have been easy for Ahmed to have used his elite connections in order to simply interview majorly notable intellectuals like the great Noam Chomsky (who offers Ahmed some pithy insights into the Muslim predicament), Muslim Congressmen, well-informed female writers like the Zoroastrian Bapsi Sidhwa, and descendants of the notable Elijah Muhammad—all of whom are represented in the film. However, he determinedly goes a step beyond that and speaks with sundry imams of diverse ethnic backgrounds, rabbis, bishops, converts to Islam (although no apostates to the best of my knowledge), descendants of those who landed at Plymouth rock (of which the main female member of his team, a girl with a pearl earring, happens to be one) and members of both rich and poor strata of society.

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