BILAL AND saeed are best friends from Cleveland, Ohio. They appear to be two ordinary funloving men looking for some excitement in life. Bilal and Saeed are Afro- American converts and they wear the badge of Islam with pride.
When they popped up on the season’s premier ofthe CBS hit reality show, “The Amazing Race,” it was like “Hey, check out those brothers.” For those unfamiliar with the rich cultural diversity in the Muslim communities of North America, the spirited duo appeared to be in the wrong race. “Someone should have told them it was not a race to Mecca.” And Bilal and Sa’eed were soon nicknamed by fans ofthe show as “The Beards.”
The two made it clear that while the prize money was important, they were determined to take time out to offer their obligatory five daily prayers regardless of how intense it got. And that’s exactly what they did at Los Angeles International Airport just before boarding a rushed last minute flight to China.
Can you imagine two well-built Muslim men with kufis and long beards praying openly at an American airport? Reality TV needs a reality check. Throughout the show, the two fussed over their diet, quibbling over what was halal and how to dress.
At the end ofthe very first episode, Bilal and Saeed were sent-home. There was no cry about Islamaphobia, bias or racism from these two gentlemen. Although they displayed disappointment, (Saeed had quit his well-paying job to join the race) the men affirmed their faith before an authence of millions. BiIaFs parting words: “Being a practicing Muslim, this is truly what it means to me to be in this race. I don’t gamble, I don’t bet against the odds. My bank account is checking so that I don’t get interest. I don’t have credit cards. This (losing) proves that we have no control over the decree of what it is that the Creator has in store for us. Mankind can only get what he strives for. If God wills it, then you can have it. ”
In just one episode, millions of viewers from around the world were exposed to a slice of American Muslim culture spicedup with a great deal of jurisprudence (fiqh), snippets of creed ( ‘aqida), and the beauty of excellent conduct tasawwuj) that no Islamic organization, big and small, has ever been able to achieve in all the years since 9/ 1 1 .
Bilal and Sa’eed’s valiant foray into the glitzy world of show biz is one example of just how much Islam and Muslims are creeping steadily into that nebulous grey area we call “public space,” where cultural norms are constantly being negotiated.
But before you greet this new trend with a loud euphoric lakbir, you should consider that getting a handle on popular culture is as unpredictable as the weather. A great deal óf what we’ve been seeing by way of entertainment is a welcome change from the negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims that has characterized most of what Hollywood has churned out in the last few decades.
Ridley Scott’s portrait ofthe Muslim hero Salahuddin Ayyubi in the movie “Kingdom of Heaven” is a welcome shift in the narrative. On the other hand, Albert Brookes’ “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” while harmless, was a display of compound stupidity. A film titled “In the Name of God” caught my attention because its poster of a topless male had the Arabic “basmallah” written on his back. The film described itself, however, as an attempt to “explore the complex intersection of Islam and sexuality.” It is not surprising that it was the closer ofthe “first ever queer Muslim film festival.”
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) recently commissioned eight episodes of a risky sitcom titled “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” a play on the hit show “Little House on the Prairie.” “Little Mosque” describes itself as a “funny, warts-and-all look at life in a small Muslim community in rural Saskatchewan,” of all places. “Instead of hoisting pitchforks, rolling down hills and selling eggs . . . (the Muslims) will be trying to interact with the denizens of a little prairie town in a post Sept. 1 1 world.”
The Muslim cultural reach is extending itself into the world of print as well. Bright burgundy colors and the stunningly beautiful face of a hijabed sister is how the magazine, “MUSLIM GIRL: Enlighten. Celebrate. Inspire,” announces its launch in Jan. /Feb. 2007. Hijab! Now there’s a hot cultural potato. It got the British Minister Jack Straw knee deep into trouble.
The question here is whether our excursion into the realm of popular culture will serve to separate heresy from the deep religious truths ofthe tradition or will it turn the tradition on its head by making a mockery of everything Muslims hold sacred?