Media is a very powerful tool and can influence people’s thoughts. While people enjoy watching movies or reading stories, people do not always realise that many of the very popular stories were influenced by Islamic concepts and /or real Muslim characters. While people take their influence from various sources and sometimes fictionalise certain things for entertainment purposes, this can be a problem if the stories and images presented are wrong or distorted, even when they are based on facts. This is not only true about Arabs and Muslims but even with others, such as with the World War II movie, U571, which was based on a true story but the British characters were deliberately changed to being American. You can find out more from here
The image of Muslims in particular has been distorted. Research has been done in this area such as with the book, “Reel bad Arabs: How Hollywood vilifies a people”, which is explained in a documentary by Dr Jack Shaheen. He explains how he analysed more than 1,000 Hollywood movies and that their negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims subconsciously causes people to see them negatively. You can find out more by watching the documentary from here
A simple example of how popular images can influence people’s thoughts like this can be with the name “Osama”. What is the first thing that comes to your mind? Many people would be reluctant to keep the name Osama because people would immediately associate it with “Osama Bin Ladin” and not think of “Osama ibn Zaid”, who was the son of “Zaid ibn Al Haritha” the adopted son of the Prophet PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him); both were noble companions.
This article therefore gives a list of various famous movies and the Islamic concepts and /or Muslim characters that influenced them. This is not an extensive list as there could be more:
Genie: many movies include a “genie” such as “Aladdin”, “I dream of Jeanie” and many others. However, they are not simply strange creatures that live inside bottles and grant wishes! From an Islamic point of view, there are other intelligent creatures who have their own free will like humans known as “Jinn”. They have their own families, communities, speak different languages and many other things that are similar to humans. They normally live in remote places, which might explain many ghost stories and they are created from fire so humans cannot see them and they travel very quickly from one place to another, perhaps explaining some UFO sightings. You can find out more about them from here
There is even a verse in the Quran called “Surah Al Jinn” that you can read from here. The location mentioned by the verse about Jinn gathering around the Prophet PBUH now has a mosque called “Masjid Al Jinn” build there. It is in Makkah, Saudi Arabia.
As many people cannot see Jinn and often see such stories in mass media, some people hold all sorts of superstitions about them and use amulets or other things to ward them off. But this is not permissible. You can read more about this ruling from here. Regarding protection from Jinn, verses of the Quran can be recited. You can find out more from here
Wizards: many stories contain wizards such as those who work in labs and make all sorts of magic potions. This is very popular especially in movies such as The sword in the stone, Fantasia and even Harry Potter. In many ways this is based on works of early Muslims in the field of alchemy as they were alchemists (there is even a popular novel by Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemist” based on this idea). Most notable among them was Jabir ibn Hayyan. According to some narrations, alchemists also tried to change elements into gold /silver and using something called the “Philosopher’s Stone” (notice the title “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). You can find out more from here. The word, alchemy is from الكيماء Al Kimya in Arabia and “elixir” from الأقصير Al Aqsir in Arabic
Jafar from Aladdin: When you hear the name “Jafar”, you might very well make the connection of the evil advisor /magician who tries to kidnap a princess in stories such as Aladdin (and in the computer game, Prince of Persia). Maybe some people might again be reluctant to keep the name because of this. However, he is based on a real character, Jafar ibn Yahya, who lived in Baghdad during the time of the Abbasid Caliph, Haroun Al Rashid. According to some accounts, far from being evil, he was probably an advocate of science, which the Abbasids were famous for. You can find out more about him from here. If you ever read the original version of the story “Aladdin”, you will know that Aladdin was not Arab at all but was actually Chinese. The villain was a person pretending to be his uncle and came from Morocco. This is very different but is based on real events /people as there is a sizable Chinese Muslim community including the Hui people and there are other Muslim groups such as the Uyghur Muslims. A much more accurate version of the story has been depicted in the television movie “Arabian Nights” from 2000.
The Princess from Aladdin: The princess is often presented as not having any authority, being overpowered by men, being locked away inside the palace, trying to escape to live an ordinary life and much more. Again, this sort of image is completely wrong as some of the women who lived in palaces or “harem” such as during the time of the Ottoman Empire were very powerful and had a great influence on the society in general. If you can read Arabic, you can see that one of the meanings of “Harem” can actually mean “protected”. The Harem was the area where the women lived in the palace. Based on the meaning of the word, they were perhaps protected in the palace and highly valued. You can read the Arabic meaning from here. Some women who lived in the palaces had very high positions. One such woman during the time of the Ottoman Empire was “Hurrem Sultan” or Roxelana. You can read about her here. A very famous woman that had power was Zubaidah, who was the wife of Haroon Al Rashid during the 8th Century in Iraq. She personally financed the construction of 400 wells to help pilgrims travelling from Iraq to Makkah. This project was called “Darb Zubaidah” and is named after her. It is also a World Heritage Site. You can find out more from here
Sultan from Aladdin: The leader of the Muslims during the time of the Ottoman Empire was known as a Sultan while those before that during the time of the Umayyads and Abbasids were known as “Caliph”.
Alauddin Khilji from Padmavaat: This movie had a lot of controversy around it as the main character, Padmavaat, was Hindu but had some sort of relationship with the Muslim character, Alauddin Khilji. Perhaps the most obvious difference can be seen in the image of the character of Alauddin Khilji. In the movie he is portrayed as being a savage barbarian but that is very different from his painting:
Of course not all Muslims are good and some were even tyrants throughout history. To his credit, Alauddin Khilji was able to successfully fight off Mongol invaders who were attacking India, which was extremely difficult and very few people managed this. You can read more about that from here. While it might seem trivial, the Mongols were extremely powerful. With the case of Iraq for example, they massacred and burnt down the capital city of Baghdad so badly that some historic accounts record that the sea became black from the ink of books that were thrown into it. You can read more about that from here. Imagine that the Mongol armies had in fact not been defeated and managed to enter India. What would they have done to the country?
The Rising: This movie was based on a real Hindu freedom fighter during the time of the British, Mangal Pandey. It gives some insights into the rising of 1857 and fight for independence 90 years before India’s independence in 1947. What many people tend to forget however is that among the Indian freedom fighters were many Muslims. You can find out more from here and here. There is also a list of some Muslim freedom fighters here. The character of Bahadur Shah Zafar II who was the last Mughal Sultan is also mentioned by name in the movie.
Akbar from Jodha Akbar: This is a very popular love story that has been made into many movies and television dramas, such as the movie “Jodha Akbar”, “Mughlai Azam” and many others. It is about a Mughal leader in India, Akbar, who had a Hindu wife, Jodha, who had a great influence on him and made him more religiously tolerant towards Hindus unlike his predecessors. The villain in some versions of the story is his Muslim wife, Ruqayya Begum, who was always making evil plans against Akbar’s son, Salim.
In many ways, I feel that this is perhaps the most distorted version of a historic account in a movie /drama that I have come across. Akbar did in fact have a Hindu wife, but she was never actually mentioned by name as she was famously known under the name “Mariam Al Zamani” and some think that her real name might have been “Heer Kunwari”. She was not known to have accepted Islam but had a Muslim burial and also sponsored Muslims to go for the Hajj /Pilgrimage to Makkah. You can find out more about her from here. As for Ruqayya Begum; far from being evil and planning against Akbar’s children, she was very much the opposite as he did in fact mention her by name and she helped to bring up and look after his children. You can find out more from here.
Regarding Akbar being religiously tolerant and that other Muslim leaders were not; there are many things to think about. For example: The British ruled India for about 200 years and people fought for independence for a very long time including Muslims who worked closely with Hindus and every year their success is celebrated on 15 August is India’s Independence Day. Muslims however ruled over various parts of India for almost 1,000 years in various forms but there was no mass uprising against them /annual independence celebrations for independence from Muslim rule. Why is that? Likewise, during the 18th and 19th Centuries, there was an industrial revolution in the UK while the British ruled India as much of their wealth came from there. However, just before them, the Muslims were ruling various parts of India but they did not take the wealth back to Central Asia to places such as Afghanistan where many of them came from (an easy to realise this is that most of the famous Muslim monuments such as the Taj Mahal, Jami Masjid and Qutb Minar are in India and not in Afghanistan or Iran). There was also another Muslim leader, Aurangzeb, who is often seen as not having any religious tolerance and destroying Hindu temples and yet he moved his capital to a city named after him, Aurangabad, and even today one of the main attractions are the very large and ancient Hindu temples at the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. You can find out more about Britain’s role in India from this video by an Indian politician, Dr Sashi Tharoor, at Oxford University in the UK from here.
Layla and Majnoon: This is a very famous story especially in the Indian Subcontinent about two people who loved each other but could not be together. One of them went mad; “Majnoon” in Arabic. This is based on the true story of a man, Qays, who loved a woman, Layla, but she married someone else and he was extremely upset and wandered off into the desert. You can read about his story from here. Interestingly, there is a town in Al Aflaj on the East of Saudi Arabia, which has the name “Layla” and might have been where she came from. A very similar adaptation to this story is that of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s play, Othello, is also very similar to the 1,001 Nights story, “The Three Apples”.
Hector Barbossa and Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: These are the two main characters in the famous movie franchise but both were influenced by Muslims. The first is Hector Barbossa who is based on Hayreddin Barbarossa, who was one of the greatest admirals during the time of the Ottoman Empire. You can read more about him from here. Captain Jack Sparrow was inspired by Captain Jack Ward /Jack Birdie /Yusuf Reis (he was known for being drunk a lot of the time but later converted to Islam and was also a successful admiral during the time of the Ottoman Empire). You can read his story from here.
StarW series: This is an extremely famous movie franchise. The story itself is set in space but it is interesting to see that the types of clothes that are worn by the Jedi are very long, hooded robes that look very similar to those worn by the locals in North Africa, such as in Morocco. The hero, Luke Skywalker, also lives on a desert planet in a house that looks similar to a cave. This was actually filmed at real places in Matmata in Tunisia where many people live in homes called “Troglodytes”. Other movies were also filmed there such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.
Assassin’s Creed: This is a very popular computer game series which has been adopted into a movie. The word “Assassin” comes from the Arabic “Hashashin” (eater of hashish /cannabis). It is based on a group of people from Alamut in Iran headed by Hasan ibn Saba (from the Nazari Ismaili Shia sect), who targeted and killed people, much like assassins do today. You can find out more from here.
Salahuddin from Kingdom of Heaven: This is a movie that portrays Arabs and Muslims in a positive light and includes the character of Salahuddin Al Ayyubi, who defeated the Crusaders in Jerusalem. There was also a dynasty, the Ayyubids, who lived in Egypt and were descended from him. You can find out more from here.
Dracula: There are many movies about this person, usually portrayed as an evil vampire who drinks people’s blood. More recently, there was another version, Dracula Untold, whereby the leader of Romania, Vlad III (Dracula), very badly defeats and humiliates the invading Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II. Again, this is different from the reality. Vlad III worked with the Ottoman Empire to regain control of Wallachia but then turned against them. There were conflicts and the Ottoman Empire stopped at a city as they saw that it was deserted. Eventually, Vlad was defeated. You can read the story from here.
Ibn Fadlan from the 13th Warrior: This is based on a book by Michael Crichton, “Eaters of the Dead”, which was made into a movie “The 13th Warrior”. It is based on a real person, Ahmed ibn Fadlan, who was one of the very early Muslims to go very far North into the land of the Russians and Scandinavia. He has documented his travels including his insights into the habits of the people and their customs. A large part of his story has been fictionalised for the movie. You can find out more about him from here.
Azeem from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves: Robin Hood is a very famous character who has had many movies based on him. He was from Nottingham in the UK so there is a visitor centre and a statue of him. Among the movies about him was the movie “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”. During that time, Robin escapes from Jerusalem and he befriends a Muslim character, Azeem. This is of course fictional but notice how it makes reference to Muslims being there in Jerusalem long ago. You can read more about the Muslim role there from here.