2010 Abraham's Children. New York: Cinema Guild.
Notes: DVD, 77 mins
Reviewed 27 Jun 2011 by:
Jack David Eller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Muslim youth - United States - Social life and customs
Children of immigrants - United States - Social life and customs
ABSTRACT: In a gentle way, the film illustrates that young Muslims in America struggle successfully to integrate their American identities and their Muslim identities—and that Muslim youths are not only normal people but hold many of the attitudes and values that other Americans wish they could instill in their children.
While America is busy with the work of combating Islamic terrorism, there is also much work to do in combating Islamic ignorance—not the ignorance of Muslims but the ignorance about Muslims. In times of war, there is a strong tendency to simplify, and unfortunately to exaggerate and even demonize, the ‘enemy,’ but cooler heads understand that Muslims are not the enemy and that, even if they were, we would still have to find some way to share the planet.
The fact is, as “Abraham’s Children” explains at the outset, that Muslims and non-Muslims are already sharing not only the planet but the country: according to the film there are six million Muslims living in the US (although the American Religious Identification Survey calculated 1.4 million Muslim adults in 2008), with 600,000 in New York alone. The DVD further estimates that 10 percent of the students in New York schools are Muslim.
The point of the project is to show that Muslim children are children, that they are like any other American children in some ways yet unique in their Islam in other ways. For instance, the film opens with scenes of Muslim youths doing normal American things. As one commentator notes, “People are grappling with their Muslim identity and their American identity.” And this is of course not exclusive to America or to Muslims: as studies like John Bowen’s Can Islam Be French?, Irfan Ahmad’s Islamism and Democracy in India, and Hakan Yavuz and John Esposito’s Turkish Islam and the Secular State illustrate in three different contexts, Muslims struggle to adapt to their local cultures or to adapt those locals cultures to themselves—every bit as much as Christians or Jews or Buddhists do.
Most of the film consists of youngsters talking about how they live as Muslims in American society. Two sisters, ages 11 and 12, are shown playing, at prayer, and at school (in a coed class) where their mother is their principal. They talk like all girls about boys, marriage, and careers, even if the things they say are heavily inflected with Islam. Their parents are divorced and they are being raised by a single mother, like many American children are. The movie also features and explains some of the practices and beliefs of Islam, like the famous ‘five pillars of Islam’—shahadah (statement of faith), salat (daily prayers), zakat (giving), Ramadan (fast), and hajj (pilgrimage). In the Bronx, we meet 17-year-old Kasem, a Yemeni boy. He discusses his assimilation to American culture, especially the strangeness of sitting in mixed-gender groups. The film follows him to the mosque (which he calls a “good place to be) and to home cooking with his brothers.
After a short segment on halal (‘pure’ like kosher) and haram (‘forbidden’), the film moves to Long Island where we are introduced to the ‘Desi’ Pakistani clan. Saleem (boy, age 16) wants to be on the Broadway stage. Haleema (girl, 12) likes to write from her imagination. Sam, friend of Saleem and older brother of Haleema, is shown bowling and playing chess. They discuss the restrictions on Haleema because of her gender, yet she also does karate, which makes her feel independent and confident. Isma Chaudhry (an adult woman) and her family figure prominently in the second half of the production. She tells how women have to learn how to interact with boys and not live in a ‘bubble’ yet must form respectable relationships. The youngsters discuss the restrictions on dating and boy/girlfriends. According to Chaudhry, religion “does not endorse any kind of intimate relationship outside of marriage.” Since there is no dating, families start the interviewing or matching process. One young couple recounts the arranged meeting (not arranged marriage) that led to their wedding. It is well known that American culture and fashion trends dominate in high school, but the Muslim youths featured in the film tend to ignore and be ignored by that scene. The kids are all remarkably chaste and innocent and comfortable with that fact. They are also relatively comfortable with the gender roles, although they make it clear that women have more equality and freedom than most Americans assume. One boy describes his family, in which both parents are doctors and are equal in the home.
Back to the lives of the children, young Ahmad plays in a rock band and engages in other youthful activities, while Anam (a girl) is a competitive figure skater. That causes a certain problem, as the dress code in Chaudhry household is modest and traditional. However, Anam’s skating outfits are typical skimpy dresses, not representative of Muslim norms at all. We also attend a big family dinner party in the Chaudhry household.
In the Bronx, Naeemah (16 year old black girl) and sister Saeedah have parents who both converted to Islam in their adulthood. The father was a drug seller in his earlier life. For a time both girls were home schooled, then placed in a Muslim, after they came home from public school having played in ‘The Three Little Pigs.’ The sisters are shown arguing homeschooling with other young girls, as well as clothing, marriage, and education. They all discuss the infamous hijab, which most choose to wear willingly. The final section of the film features Ramadan, the month of fasting. The kids talk about the difficulty of fasting during daylight hours but how they survive it. We also see them breaking the fast with their evening meal. After a brief segment on prayer, the film reminds us of the interest in Islam after 9/11 but the corresponding lack of accurate knowledge. Isma Chaudhry’s is even shown engaging in interfaith initiatives. At the very end, the youngsters comment on how they are like all other American kids. In some ways they are right. In other ways, they are like American kids used to be—and like some parents wish their American kids would be. They are humble and respectful, in no hurry to grow up, not oversexed and fashion-conscious like stereotypical youths. I hope that instructors and the general public pay attention to “Abraham’s Children.” It is a salutary antidote to much of the misinformation about Muslims in America, as well as a reminder that youths of any race or religion in America today do not have to conform to the superficial pressures of popular culture.
Level/Use: Suitable for college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of youth culture, anthropology of Islam, and cultural diversity, as well as general audiences.