Teaching Notes: “Name that Fictional Muslim Character”

Source: Walt Disney Books
Source: Walt Disney Books

Teaching Notes

Mid-semester, I asked my Contemporary Islamic Civilizations section* to write down the first thing that pops in their mind when I say, “Name a fictional Muslim character.” I gave the students a minute, collected the names and then read them out loud.This is what they wrote (and how they wrote it):
  1. Aladdin: 4 students (one student also wrote: maybe not Muslim?)
  2. Salah al-Din/Saladin: 3 students (one specified Saladin from Kingdom of Heaven)**
  3. Malcolm X: 2 students**
  4. Scheherazade: 2 students
  5. Can’t think of anyone: 2 students
  6. Jafar (Muslim or just Arab?)
  7. Jasmine (Disney princess)
  8. Marjane Satrapi**
  9. Marji (from the book/movie Persepolis)
  10. Rumi**
  11. Amir Khan in Fanaa (Bollywood film)***
  12. Lead male actor in Kite Runner (not sure if he’s Muslim)
  13. Characters portrayed by the Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri
  14. Changez in The Reluctant Fundamentalist
  15. Abu Nazir in Homeland
  16. Muhammad Ali**

*All the students are Ivy League undergrads majoring in various subjects; most of them were raised and educated in the U.S.

**These are not fictional characters. I definitely expected the Aladdin characters, and I was not surprised that the students listed Saladin. I was surprised, however, to read names of 20th century North American historical figures…especially since the Autobiography of Malcolm X was required reading (in addition to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi).  Was it a result of mishearing the question (i.e., the student listed the first name s/he could think of rather than consider whether that figure was fictional)? Was it a reflection of their age? Or was it from ignorance of more recent U.S. history (i.e. post-World War II) and that U.S. high school students often receive a cursory treatment of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Cointelpro, Immigration Act 1965, etc. (if they are able to reach that time period at all)?

***Out of all the Bollywood movies with identifiably Muslim characters, a student who watches Hindi films first thought of Fanaa.  It does make depressing sense. The film flattens the local and material context of the Kashmiri struggle with India as a powerful nation-state by crafting a narrative which echoes narratives on U.S. national-security and the War on Terror. In a way, it’s another commercial film giving a Bollywood flavor to a Hollywood story. In this case, violence is de-contexualized and subsequently generalized under the category of “Muslim violence.” Here, Indian nationalism as love of nation (and national security) is made relatable to an American palate which has acquired a taste for the “Islamic terrorist/national-security threat” as a popular character, making Amir Khan’s Kashmiri character as a terrorist easily identifiable (and insidiously memorable) as “Muslim.”

About Sahar Ullah

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature and a Literature Humanities Preceptor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. She is currently completing her dissertation on the continuities and transformation of the amatory prelude in thepost-classical Prophetic Encomia.

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