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The history of Islam in America (documentary)

This documentary was fascinating to direct and was a real eye-opener as a British Muslim. I’ve attempted to sum up my thoughts on the documentary below: 

America’s history is by far one of the darkest histories of any country. It is a country build on the blood of others, the land of others, and the rights of others, make no mistake about it. It is a country whose foreign policy today pillages, bullies and steals from other countries for its own benefit. The reality of America is far from pretty…

…the idea of America however is quite the opposite A land of the God-fearing and the free, liberty for all and justice for all, equality, safety, freedom of speech and thought, the idea that all men are equal and have the opportunity to become successful via the American Dream. It certainly sounds Islamic to me. And indeed, to say that Islam was an influence for the Constitution is not far from the truth. Jefferson was certainly well-read and understanding of Islam and the philosophies it taught, owning a Quran, and advocating the equal rights for Muslims, inspired by the philosopher John Locke. Beyond this, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is even honoured with a statue in the U.S. Supreme Court for being of the greatest lawmakers in history.

But the history of Islam in America goes far beyond that. Today’s Republican party likes to think of Islam in America as alien, Arab, evil, comprised of close-minded, hate-spewing refugees who secretly want to come to America just to murder the Americans they hate so much. It reminds me of a comic cartoon I once saw – the angry, racist Americans shouting at the quiet, peaceful Muslim woman with signs saying “Islam is hate”. But the reality of Stateside Islam is extremely different, as Faraz Hamedani and I were about to discover, as we set out to produce this documentary.

Within our communities I am best known for my love of poetry. But another fascination I have is with history, particularly history that isn’t taught to us, that is widely unknown. I always wonder to myself – we know so much about the rise and fall of civilisations across Europe, the Middle East, India and China… but what happened in North America, this massive continent of greenery, mountains, desert-heat, snow and ocean over the millennia? Who walked those lands long before Columbus set foot on it, and before the Native Americans roamed free on it? What events transpired over the centuries? Perhaps we will never know. But there are hints, here and there, of Muslims who set foot and traded with the Natives, even settled and married them, long before the British landed. This at first intrigued me before it fascinated me, and I was adamant about sharing this fascination with the world, through this documentary.

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America’s Muslim Heritage Museum – a museum tucked away in the notorious South-East Washington D.C. – attempts to portray the Muslim heritage of America, and the pay-off is incredible. Displaying documents, pictures, manuscripts and books from as early as the 1300’s – prior to Columbus – walking us through century by century history that has never been taught to us. Walking through this museum, holding my 5D DSLR and filming Faraz work his magic, every so often we would pause, look at each-other and just mouth “wow”. It was a moment replicated again and again throughout our gruelling 5-day filming experience in and around D.C. and Maryland. But once the record button was pressed to end to final filming, we both knew that this film would be something special.

The documentary is a journey, beginning with scoping the atmosphere of Islam’s place in America today, before plunging into the pages of history, beginning with the 1300’s and flicking through till today. Of course, it is a brief history of Islam in America, but it is a testament to those Islamophobic American politicians, media and citizens, that Islam has been here for longer than they know or care to know – and is as part of the American fabric as any other faith.

The documentary ends with the credits superimposed on an old shot I filmed of an American flag in New York, and Faraz quoting a speech on Islam in America by Eisenhower. Make no mistake about it, the conclusion is not that America is a wonderful country without its flaws, namely an oppressive and tyrannical foreign policy and an illegal war under its belt. But what the conclusion is trying to say, is that maybe, one day, America will be what it envisions itself to be – a land of justice, equality and freedom for all – and as Faraz ingeniously adds – “including Muslims.”

It is a documentary you must watch and a documentary you must share – to tackle the biggest test of Muslim America today.

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