Requiem For Arrival

“…we do not say that God forces rain to fall, it is not necessary to say that God forces a choice on man.”Ahmad Shafaat

There’s a difference between Allah forcing man to do something all the time and Allah being incapable of forcing His creation to do as He sees fit (determines). — Yours Truly

I, like a lot of Americans who were born in the early seventies, grew up with a love for science-fiction and fantasy. And while I’ve always been a lifelong fan of the genre, I’ve also never been naive of science-fiction’s mythos; a mythos which all too often places its white protagonists (see the trailer for the new Luc Besson film, Valerian) in a world where they are surrounded by aliens (real world “aliens” such as Blacks, Mexicans, Asians, or Muslims, are exchanged for a cast of extraterrestrial characters, often just caricatures of these various ethnic groups), whereupon they are conscripted into a campaign of conquest masked as heroism. This call to heroism is often instigated by a foreign, hostile, “alien” threat, revealing the perspectivism and propaganda being visited upon the entire genre: whites are inherently good, benevolent, courageous and civilized (especially the builders of civilization) and never are the aggressors.

It is for this reason I found Denis’ Villenueve’s adaption of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, Arrival, refreshing. I want to pause here before going any further and provide a spoiler alert. If you plan to see the movie and wish to savor the plot, then stop reading here, go see the movie, and then resume!

Arrival is a quiet, cerebral and engaging film. While it has many of the typical props any good science-fiction movie will have (space ships, a secretive government and military, aliens, spooky music, etc.) it does manage to avoid some common tropes (such as the white savior or feminist-ninja-syndrome recently on tap in The Force Awakens). Its visuals are striking and yet still allows for the well-written and for the most part, well acted characters to shine through.

So why am I, an Imam, and self-confessed lover of cheesy sci-fi, praising Arrival? Because it reveals, for me as a Muslim, some really good tidbits for thought, particularly on the subjects of determinism, agency, and rida’/ridwan (being pleased with what Allah decrees). I feel these are three issues that many Muslims today struggle with and even more so after the apparent victory of the GOP in the United States 2016 Presidential election. The question can be asked: with the GOP/white supremacists (so-called “alt-right”) in power, are Muslims bound (determined) to a horrible fate in America or do they posses agency—the power—if not to change the conditions of reality to their suiting, then to change their dispositions towards trying to achieve that which is pleasing to Allah? Can Muslims, despite these challenges, still live full, meaningful lives? According to Arrival, yes, we can.

Arrival plays with time, a hallmark in the sci-fi genre. In this case, it asks some poignant questions about fate, intention, and turns the understanding many of us have: if we had knowledge of what happens in the future and the past, we would doubtless change our actions to suit a more favorable reality. Louise Banks (portrayed by Amy Adams), Arrival’s protagonist, suffers an emotionally crippling blow at the film’s beginning with the death of her daughter who passed away in early childhood from a rare type of cancer. This leaves Banks emotionally “limited” for much of the film; she is highly intelligent, analytical, but also crushed by the death of her daughter. Through Banks’ encounter with an alien species who have come to the earth in mysterious obelisk-like space vessels, she comes to an alternative and non-linear understanding of time.

Arrival’s aliens (whose alien-ness*, amongst other things, is conveyed through their complex and nonlinear form of language) allow Banks to perceive the meaning of her child’s death, not through the lens of entitlement but through the lens of experience. How often, in the vernacular of our own cultural myths, do we hear the phrase, “so-and-so died too early”, or so-and-so is “gone too soon”. One could, in an attempt to validate such statements, say that they’re merely defensive mechanisms, articulated through our confrontation with the mortality of our loved ones, and ultimately with our own. I would not argue with such explanations, but given Islam’s stance towards death—and how it pushes us to accept the fate of others—I was pleased to see how Louise Banks ultimately reconciles her trauma by seeing that what was most important in her relationship with her daughter was not simply to extend the lifespan of her child’s life, but was to fully experience it. In moments of clairvoyance dispersed throughout the film, Banks ultimately comes to see that though she is powerless to change her child’s fate (the result of a genetic abnormality passed on to her daughter from her husband, Ian) she wouldn’t trade being Hannah’s mother for anything, even if she had to experience her death again. This is further emphasized at the film’s conclusion when it is explained who Hannah’s father is (Ian – played by Jeremy Renner); it was through Louise’s and Ian’s collaboration on the alien project that they fall in love. Had Louise not fallen in love with Ian, she’d never have married him and thus become Hannah’s mother, an experience too powerful and to meaningful to give up simply because she could not control it and the pain and difficulty she will experience. In my opinion this metaphor makes Arrival a very powerful film. It demonstrates the power of meaning and also lays bare the powerlessness we humans truthfully have over our fates. The question Arrival begs is, “are we willing to give up  meaning for security?”. We Muslims would echo what Allah says in the Qur’an,

فَيُضِلُّ اللَّهُ مَن يَشاءُ وَيَهدي مَن يَشاءُ ۚ وَهُوَ العَزيزُ الحَكيمُ

“Allah misguides anyone He wills and guides anyone He wills. He is the Almighty, the All-Wise.” Qur’an, 14: 4

…meaning that we do not have ultimate control over reality but we do have control over our disposition towards it and most importantly, towards Allah. If I may take creative license, Louise Banks essentially submits to the Will of Allah: she accepts the fate of her child to die in childhood; unarguably a grievous thing to experience, by submitting, whereby she relieves a great burden upon her heart all the while knowing full-well (a result of the nonlinear alien language which Louise learns and thus learns of her child’s fate) she will have to relive and re-experience her child’s death again.

Arrival is a quiet, cerebral science-fiction story that serves up a lot of food for thought; there are aliens but no explosions. Space ships but no laser cannons. Yet despite the absence of these I am left feeling more hopeful and energized about my own prospects, not because I can do anything about them, but because I feel inspired to do something about my attitude towards the One Who Created them.

* Hat tip to the visual creators of Arrival for choosing their aliens to be cephalopods. Having grown up on Lovecraftian short stories of alien creatures with squid-like features was, I felt, a well-deserved nod to H. P. Lovecraft.

Islam Is A Foreign Locale

To paraphrase the title of Zareena Grewal’s Islam Is A Foreign Country, the title of this post reflects the observation I made of a recent video which has us following actor Morgan Freeman traveling about the world asking, Who Is God? My observations come ironically on the heels (ok, twenty-five years ago, but close enough) of Freeman’s (comical/abysmal) portrayal of the Moorish Azeem, in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

So … Morgan Freeman wants to know about Islam, huh? I know everyone wants to celebrate and feel good about themselves these days given Donald Trump’s apparent “victory” but there’s all kinds of wrong with this “encounter”.

  1. Morgan Freeman, an American, in order to find out about Islam, has to enlist National Geographic! and traipse off to some foreign country to encounter “real Islam”, as if the millions of Muslims living in America could not assist him with this project.
  2. Equally amazing in this project is that in order for Mr. Freeman to “understand who God is”, he has to go through a translator! As if the scrolls and secrets to Islam are only capable of being expressed through an ancient and inaccessible tongue. His encounter also emphatically, if subtly, suggests that he has now gone to the “real Muslims”, an imam from Egypt as if he couldn’t find plenty of imams right here in America (black, white, Asian, etc.), who are just as capable—if maybe not more so!—to explain what or who God is in Islam. And they might just look and talk like Mr. Freeman, too!

Which brings me to this: there is a concerted effort, on the part of certain non-Muslims (well intending and not), in partnership with elements of the non-indigenous American Muslim community (yes, immigrant Muslims and their progeny) to exclude those whom they do not deem to be real, authentic, knowledgeable, and capable (indigenous) Muslims.
For me, this is a sad day when one of America’s most celebrated actors has to journey off into the unknown—in favor of the familiar!—to know what Islam is and who Muslims are. If we do not come to see this as fundamentally undermining our existence here then there’s little hope that Islam will ever be able to sufficiently take root in this country, and will be successfully labeled as a foreign, hostile, enterprise.

Ironically, even my non-Muslim family (my brother) gets this while many non-indigenous Muslims argue against it
Ironically, even my non-Muslim family (my brother) gets this while many non-indigenous Muslims argue against it

How to Focus in a Time of Chaos – A Khutbah

[Direct download]

What is it that we are here to do?

Are we here to the activists?

Are we here to see affirmation and be validated by those who scorn us, and oppress us, and revile us?

Look to the Chapter of the Elephant:

قال عبد المطلب – إني أنا رب الإبل وإن للبيت ربا سيمنعه

[‘Abd al-Muttalib — the Prophet’s grandfather] said, “I am the lord of these camels and the House has a Lord and He will protect it.”

Allah says he sent Noah to warn his people:

إِنّا أَرسَلنا نوحًا إِلىٰ قَومِهِ أَن أَنذِر قَومَكَ مِن قَبلِ أَن يَأتِيَهُم عَذابٌ أَليمٌ
قالَ يا قَومِ إِنّي لَكُم نَذيرٌ مُبينٌ
أَنِ اعبُدُوا اللَّهَ وَاتَّقوهُ وَأَطيعونِ

“We sent Noah to his people: ‘Warn your people before a painful punishment comes to them.’ He said, ‘My people, I am a clear warner to you. Worship Allah, have taqwa of Him and obey me’.” Qur’an, 71: 1-3

إِنَّما ذٰلِكُمُ الشَّيطانُ يُخَوِّفُ أَولِياءَهُ فَلا تَخافوهُم وَخافونِ إِن كُنتُم مُؤمِنينَ
وَلا يَحزُنكَ الَّذينَ يُسارِعونَ فِي الكُفرِ ۚ إِنَّهُم لَن يَضُرُّوا اللَّهَ شَيئًا ۗ يُريدُ اللَّهُ أَلّا يَجعَلَ لَهُم حَظًّا فِي الآخِرَةِ ۖ وَلَهُم عَذابٌ عَظيمٌ

“It was only Shaytan frightening you through his friends. But do not fear them – fear Me if you are muminun. Do not let those who rush headlong into kufr sadden you. They do not harm Allah in any way. Allah desires to assign no portion to them in the Next World. They will have a terrible punishment.” Qur’an, 3: 175-176

وَمِنَ النّاسِ مَن يَعبُدُ اللَّهَ عَلىٰ حَرفٍ ۖ فَإِن أَصابَهُ خَيرٌ اطمَأَنَّ بِهِ ۖ وَإِن أَصابَتهُ فِتنَةٌ انقَلَبَ عَلىٰ وَجهِهِ خَسِرَ الدُّنيا وَالآخِرَةَ ۚ ذٰلِكَ هُوَ الخُسرانُ المُبينُ يدعو مِن دونِ اللَّهِ ما لا يَضُرُّهُ وَما لا يَنفَعُهُ ۚ ذٰلِكَ هُوَ الضَّلالُ البَعيدُ

“Among the people there is one who worships Allah right on the edge. If good befalls him, he is content with it, but if a trial befalls him, he reverts to his former ways, losing both this world and the Next World. That is indeed sheer loss. Instead of Allah, he calls on something which cannot harm him or help him. That is extreme misguidance.” Qur’an, 22: 11-12