What is Islamic about Islamic cinema?

I’ve written a short essay for the Indonesian film journal, Cinema Poetica, ahead of my forthcoming book, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (2017), published by Palgrave Macmillan:

Wali Songo (Djun Saptohadi, 1985)

There is perhaps a queasiness on the part of filmmakers, critics, and audiences alike about the label ‘Islamic cinema’. Such feelings are understandable because the creation of a fence around ‘Islamic cinema’ means constructing a very artificial unity out of a corpus of diverse films which are as diverse as the expressions of Islam and what it means to be Muslim. Although it has been used without much qualification, the genre and category of ‘Islamic cinema’ requires some unpacking.

This short essay makes a case that ‘Islamic cinema’ produced in the Indonesian film industry can justifiably be called ‘Islamic’ while at the same proposing that the ‘Islamic’ in filmmaking and other cultural practices in general be expanded and inclusive. In my forthcoming monograph, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan), I endeavour to create a systematic definition of ‘Islamic cinema’ through a gendered lens. I found, through textual analysis, archival data, and interviews with filmmakers, that the ‘Islamic’ in film can often be elusive and ambiguous rather than fixed and conveys its religious message through an intersection of gender, class, and the nation.

Cynical film critics in Indonesia argue that a film becomes Islamic when the Islamic veil is a significant feature of its main characters, setting the tone, mood and expectations for the unfolding narrative. Although the Islamic veil has become the synecdoche of Islam in the public sphere, it is too superficial a sign to signify the ‘Islamic’ film. Other critics take a more effects-oriented approach namely that Islamic cinema has the power to transform its audiences. For the Muslim audience, films with a wholesome Islamic message are thought to have a didactic effect and turn viewers into better Muslims.

On the other hand, non-Muslim audiences, especially in the post 9/11 world, are supposed to learn that Muslims are a peaceful and democratic people. While serviceable, these arguments about what Islamic cinema are inadequate when one begins to consider the range of subjects and opposing ideological and political views featured in Indonesian films with Islamic themes. Furthermore, ‘Islamic cinema’ as pure didactism and propaganda assumes the passivity of its intended audiences. ‘Islamic cinema’ may indeed have a transformative effect on its audience but not always those intended by its producers.

Scenes from ‘Islamic cinema’ Indonesia comprises of non-judgmental representations of apostasy from the Islamic faith to an unabashed celebration of prosperity Islam (and the critique thereof). In some films Muslim women valiantly challenge the patriarchal biases of Muslim men while other films portray polygamy in a romantic light. How do we make sense of a religious preoccupation in films while maintaining that these films are in some way ‘Islamic’?

To attend to this question, I take a roundabout way and find possible answers in What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, in which the late Shahab Ahmed argues for a reclamation of the Islamic within the non-legal and cultural aspect of Muslim life. For too long, the legalistic dimension of Islam remained the pinnacle of what is properly considered ‘Islamic’ in the lives of Muslims. His approach is idiosyncratic as he advances his arguments with latent texts about the Islamic virtues of wine-drinking and visualization of animals and humans. There are many contradictions within Islamic practice across history and cultures that span the globe. We must embrace those inconsistencies in a “constitutional coherent manner, because this is the only way that we can map the human and historical reality of the internal contradictions of Islam”.

Like Jewish films, ‘Islamic’ cinema stands apart from other films with religious messages like The Passion of the Christ or Ben Hur, both incidentally not called ‘Christian films’ or part of a ‘Christian filmmaking’ tradition. All films in Indonesia are subject to production regulations to protect citizens from consuming material deemed blasphemous under Islamic law. Because of the restriction in Islam against the visual depictions of God, the prophet Muhammad, his family members, and other prophets, Indonesian films with Islamic elements are rarely ever about divine beings, prophets or even stories from the Quranic texts. For these reasons, film critic Eric Sasono argues that Indonesian films about the lives of Muslim individuals and communities are not commensurable with the typologies of Indian Hindu and Hollywood Christian films which bring into focus gods, prophets and tales from sacred texts.

3 Doa 3 Cinta (Nurman Hakim 2008)

The use of film as a medium for propagating religious messages goes back to the earliest days of cinema. Indeed, the apparent ‘Catholicism’ of early cinema is captured in Andre Bazin’s famous quote: ‘cinema was always interested in God’. Seventy films with biblical themes were made in the US and Europe before the First World War.

For the film scholar Conrad Ostwald, traditional cinema itself was a kind of secular religion: “The movie theater has acted like a secular religion, complete with the sacred space and rituals that mediate an experience of otherness”. This is because the film theater had been treated as a place of worship during the screening of biblical films. In 1908, the showing of The Life and Passion of the Christ was condemned by New York priest for taking place in a place of entertainment rather than in a church. Critics of the ‘secular’ screening suggested soothing organ music and incense burning to heighten spirituality of the film.

Biblical epics of early cinema became the wellspring for films made with other faiths in mind. The ‘Father of Indian cinema’, Dadasaheb Phalke was inspired by the life of Christ flickering across the silver screen:

While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the gods Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya… Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?

The fruit of Phalke’s inspiration was the first Indian feature film, Raja Harischandra (1913), based on the Hindu Mahabharata.

Like the biblical epics of early cinema, dakwah or Islamic preaching is widely regarded to be central to the function of Islamic cinema and media. Derived from the Arabic term da’wa to mean call or invitation, dakwah in the Indonesian context is a general term to denote efforts to propagate Islam in society. Although dakwah is used to convert non-Muslims to Islam, the term is more commonly invoked for the strengthening of the Islamic faith and guiding Muslims to live by Islamic principles.

The use of cinema for dakwah, however, is vaguer in its execution. Nevertheless, it was embraced by Indonesia’s pioneering filmmakers such as Asrul Sani, Djamaluddin Malik, and Misbach Yusa Biran who made films for the purpose of dakwah. Clerics and religious commentators have often tended to define the dakwah film in terms of what it is not, in that it does not have the ‘immoral’ elements of Hollywood cinema and the preoccupation of Indonesian cinema with horror, the supernatural, and eroticized display of women.

In his 1965 essay entitled ‘Film sebagai dakwah’ (Film as dakwah), distinguished filmmaker Usmar Ismail urgued other filmmakers to ‘make films a media of (national) struggle and a media for Islamic proselytizing’. Dakwah films, he asserts, need not to be religious or commercial akin to the 1956 Hollywood blockbuster The Ten Commandments but should affirm Muslims as subjects of God.

A fellow contemporary of Usmar Ismail, Asrul Sani, however, held a more critical view. Sani argued that all dakwah films made during the New Order and the period after were misguided in their approach. For Sani, Indonesian dakwah films are preoccupied with ritualistic and dogmatic Islam with the intention of substituting the role of the Kyai or religious leader. He even rejects the term ‘Islamic film’, arguing instead that “all films that go beyond the surface of life are [actually] religious films”.

The cinematic visualization of religious stories made with the very intent of moral didactism goes to the heart of the belief that films can be educational, spiritual, and above all, a source of moral good to be absorbed by ‘the masses’. Films with religious messages routinely begin with excerpts from sacred texts, sermon, an image of a holy structure, all of which allude to that something highly moral is to be learned from watching the film. Defying all classical theories of secularization and the retreat of religion to the private sphere, religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, now repackaged in a more popular format than ever (some say commodified) has found its way into public consciousness in brighter, glossier, and more mobile iterations.

To what extent will cinema remain a ritual in the 21st century? Cinema-going numbers have been dwindling since the rise of home-viewing video cassette tapes, television, and the internet. The cinema is no longer the only place where one can gaze upon images of the spectacular and receive tales of moral heroism. Like stragglers of a long party, faith, and cinema alike stick around promising an experience quite profound and mysterious. In its yoking of everyday jihad with global mission of terrorism, chaste love with the seductive yet soul-destructive power of money, ‘Islamic cinema’ may provide its viewers answers for spiritual conundrums both quotidian and world-transforming. Like other genres, there is a suspension of time and space, and an immediate connection is made between the viewer and the glowing purveyor of moral truths.

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