In April 2001, I quit my job as a lawyer in New York City and moved to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. I walked away from a six-figure income and the prestige of working at one of the most respected law firms in the United States. At the time, I was inundated with shocked reactions by my fellow Muslims. They said I was crazy to leave behind a secure position, one that I had spent years of hard work and study to achieve. And to make it worse, I was throwing away a secure income to pursue a pipe dream.
At the time there were no Muslims known to be working as television or feature film writers, and the idea that I would just throw everything away on the minute chance that I could become one of the first to establish himself in Hollywood, an industry dominated by Jews, seemed beyond ludicrous. It appeared to be suicidal. I would not only fail, my Muslim friends told me, I would be bankrupt. Humiliated. I would be the cautionary tale that my friends would tell their children if they ever showed the temerity to embrace art as a livelihood.
Ten years later, by the mercy of Allah (God), I have proven them wrong. I am now an established writer who is accustomed to working at the highest levels of the Hollywood industry. I have sold movie scripts to major film studios, such as my epic screenplay on the love story of the Taj Mahal to Warner Brothers. I have worked as a writer and producer on prominent television shows, ranging from NBC’s Bionic Woman and Kings to the Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated Sleeper Cell on Showtime Network.
The latter provided me a chance to do important dawah, as the show revolved around a Muslim FBI agent who fights al- Qaida. Through Sleeper Cell, I was able to present an authentic vision of Islam as a religion of peace and wisdom that is very much at home in America. Muslims have complained for decades about how the media misrepresents Islam, and by the bounty of Allah, I have been in a position to finally change that.
That commitment to working within American media to transform the discourse on Islam has also extended to publishing. I have published two novels through Simon & Schuster focusing on great Muslim heroes and heroines. My first novel, Mother of the Believers, tells the story of the birth of Islam from the point of view of Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Through Aisha’s story, I was able to not only present the remarkable history around the formative years of the Muslim community, but also to present an amazing heroine who shatters every stereotype about Muslim women. Aisha was not a cringing, submissive homebody. Instead she was a firebrand, a fiercely intelligent, outspoken woman who was not only the Prophet’s most beloved wife, but also a poet, scholar, political leader and military commander. By presenting her story as a novel, I not only reached a large non- Muslim audience that had never heard of her, but also many Muslims who, despite their reverence for the sahaba (companions of the Prophet), actually know very little of the amazing history around the birth of Islam.
My second novel, Shadow of the Swords, looked at another pivotal figure, Salah al- Din ibn Ayyub, the great Muslim general who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Known to the West as Saladin, he was famed even by his enemies for his honor and nobility. At a time when many non- Muslims (and regrettably some Muslims) believe that Islam is a religion that promotes violence, that “jihad” means murdering innocent civilians in the name of Allah, the story of Saladin serves to remind us all that a true Muslim fights evil by embracing a life of ethics and moral dignity. By presenting Saladin’s story in the form of an action-packed novel on the Crusades, I reached a broad audience who had little interest in reading dry historical scholarship.
My novels and screenplays were written as part of my commitment to using my position as a Muslim in the media to promote a positive image of Islam – the very position that my fellow Muslims once told me could never be obtained. Looking back over the past 10 years, I am grateful that I did not allow their negativity to sway me. And by the mercy of Allah, others are now joining me on this quest. Muslims are beginning to come to Hollywood to explore their dreams of becoming writers, directors and actors. Muslim stand-up comics are becoming more prominent, as are Muslim journalists and bloggers. And – of course, it had to happen – the first Muslim reality TV show has appeared in the form of TLC’s All American Muslim.
Muslims are becoming a living part and parcel of Hollywood and the media. They are reshaping the image of Islam after decades of stereotypes and propaganda. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Muslim community still has a major obstacle that needs to be overcome if this trend is to continue and flourish. That obstacle is not external. It is not some cabal of Islamophobes in the media trying to hold us back. Anti-Muslim bigots do exist in Hollywood, and many of them do wield great power. But they are not the real obstacle. That great obstacle is the same one I faced a decade ago. It is the deep-seated insecurity of the Muslim community and its resistance to taking risk. It is the Muslim fear of failure that remains the greatest challenge to transforming how Islam is presented by Hollywood and the media.
Muslims are an incredibly hard-working people. We are highly educated. We are prosperous. And we are at the same time shackled by the chains of our own insecurities.
Growing up in New York City, I was blessed to come from a rare Muslim family where I was actually free to take a different path. Unlike every other young Muslim I knew, I was never pressured by my parents to follow the fields for which we have become famous in the past 20 years – medicine and engineering. I had no interest in math or science and had always been a writer at heart, a skill that my parents thankfully encouraged. And as far as I could tell in my community, they were the only Muslim parents who encouraged their children to develop artistic abilities. When I told my parents that I was leaving my job as a lawyer to become a full-time writer, they gave me their blessing even as other Muslims mocked me. Why? It was because my parents were deeply spiritual people who had a quality that Muslims love to talk about but in reality rarely demonstrate – tawakkul.
Tawakkul is an Arabic term that essentially means “to trust in Allah.” Most Muslims pay lip service to the notion that everything is in the hands of Allah, who is Merciful and Compassionate, and that they trust Allah to sustain them. But in practice, most Muslims live their lives like frightened mice, afraid to take risks beyond what has already been demonstrated to be successful for others. The mad rush to fields such as medicine and engineering is a modern Muslim game of “keeping up with the Joneses.” A game predicated on living your life purely to impress your neighbors in a never-ending cycle of homogenous monotony.
The idea of living authentically, of using the skills, passions and talents you are born with, has been drummed out of Muslim consciousness as our self-identity has degenerated. Three hundred years ago, Muslims saw themselves as the leaders of the world in terms of art, culture, science and economic prosperity. Indian Muslims were building the Taj Mahal and the Ottoman Turks were poised to rule Europe. The Muslims of this era were bold risk-takers with a true embrace of tawakkul. They understood that their lives were in the hands of Allah alone, and they marched out into the world as fearless leaders, not afraid to fail.
Today, those Muslims are largely a memory. The Muslims of our time are the product of two centuries of Western political, economic and technological dominance. Muslims see themselves as an oppressed minority, struggling to catch up to non-Muslim civilization. They cling to endeavors that appear to promise economic security (hence the obsession with medicine and engineering). They are afraid to fail, and stick to what they see working for others. As a result, Muslims in America have created a nice middle-class world for themselves, but they lack the true power that comes from innovation, from risk, from the willingness to stand alone and try something new. They lack tawakkul, the knowledge that Allah alone grants real success.
As a result, they are slow to shift with the ever-changing economic tides of the world. Muslims rushed en-masse to become doctors in the past two decades, even as the medical field’s economics were changing under managed health-care systems. When many of my friends graduated medical school, they were bitter that their economic prospects were not as lucrative as they had imagined. They were upset because they had unthinkingly bought into their parents’ expectations that the medical field was “secure.” But Allah reminds consistently in the Holy Quran that there is no “security” in earthly life. Everything from loss of money to illness and ultimately death are presented as warnings to those who fall for the illusion of this life. An illusion that is based on the false notion that as long as one simply follows what others are doing, he or she is safe. Noah’s son took safety with the masses, rejecting his father’s idiosyncratic claim that God’s wrath was coming, and he perished in the Flood. Similarly Pharaoh took refuge in the security of his armies and was taught a final lesson by Allah as the waters came crashing down upon him.
So if there is no security, how should Muslims live their lives today? What does tawakkul mean in a world where risk is rewarded and complacency punished? The answer is that they should follow the very first Sunnah (practice) of the Prophet (peace be upon him) – to live authentically. Before there were prayers or fasts that defined the ritual of Islam, before there was even a group of followers that could be called an ummah (community), one man stood up before society and was true to himself. He said, “There is no god but God.” And he was laughed at, persecuted and ultimately driven out. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was true to himself, even when the whole world was against him. He had found his personal purpose in life, one that rang true in his heart and he followed it, fully knowing that the odds of success were slim and that the bastions of society thought he was crazy. The Prophet (peace be upon him) had tawakkul.
Muslims need to remember that first Sunnah, the Sunnah of personal authenticity. In your heart, you know what Allah has created you to do. It is found in your passion, in your secret longings. For me, that passion was writing, and I followed it despite all the naysayers gathered against me, despite the seemingly impossible odds. If your heart is excited by medicine or engineering as a craft, if it excites you more than anything else, then by all means do it. That is your personal authenticity. But if your heart would prefer to do something else, whether it be art, literature or becoming a stuntman or a jazz musician, and that is what you would do if you never had to worry about money or pleasing others’ expectations – that is what Allah created you to do.
By following your personal dream, you are showing true tawakkul. By giving up your heart to please others (who themselves are living their lives to please others in a never-ending chain of insecurity), you are committing shirk. You are saying that it is not Allah who grants success, but a human being who does not even know if he will live or die tomorrow.
When Muslims regain this understanding that their lives are in the hands of the Creator, they become free. They become authentic. They become leaders. They become the heirs of men and women who exploded out of Arabia and conquered half the world against all odds. Historians have never been able to properly explain how Islam expanded so rapidly and built an advanced civilization with such speed. There is no historical precedent before or after for such an enterprise. But the answer is clear. Muslims had tawakkul. They trusted God and took risks. They absorbed the knowledge, art and culture of other civilizations and boldly incorporated them into their societies. They were pioneers.
We Muslims are not an impoverished people burdened by the shame of colonization. We are the sons and daughters of the people who built the Taj Mahal. Let us reclaim our destinies as leaders of humanity by breaking free of the need for security. Death is the only guarantee on the journey. It is the only thing that we can be secure about. So let us have tawakkul and follow our hearts. And then the Muslims will conquer the world a second time.
Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood filmmaker and novelist. He holds a BA and MBA from Dartmouth, a JD from Cornell Law School and and MFA from UCLA Film School