May 5, 2014 By Interactive Scholars

Etiquette of a Muslim Filmmaker


I am a filmmaker by profession. The taboo which existed among Muslims against watching and making Muslims seems to have been broken many decades. Even the ultra-conservative Muslim groups in my locality have started to make films. So my question is not about the permissibility of watching or making films. It is about the ethics and etiquette that a filmmaker must stick to. There are films with violence and sex (to cite two major themes), which ultimately speak for shunning violence and sexual perversion. Is it okay that a broom with which we sweep dust might itself contain dust?

Abbas Khan, Karachi

There is confusion about the Islamic position on modern art forms, which have all been developed centuries after the Quran was related, the Prophet and Companions lived and normative texts of Islam were written and de facto authenticated. Movie and film is such an art form. Conservative scholars and literalists opposed watching movies, not citing convincing arguments and references. Some cite such weak narratives that suggest that the Prophet has prohibited acting. Even these narratives suggest con-artists, not actors. Since the question is contemporary and modern, it is far better to cite modern scholars in this regard.

Shaykh Yusuf al Qaradhawi seems to be the first scholar to take a positive stand on movies. In his ‘Lawful and Unlawful in Islam’, he says: No doubt that movies are important tools of instruction and recreation. They are like any other tool which in itself is neutral and harmless, any ruling concerning it will depend on how it is used. (The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Islamic Book Trust). He lists three conditions which render movies (both watching and making) desirable and good.

1. The content must be free from sin and immorality, indeed from anything which is against Islamic beliefs and manners.

2. Watching (by extension making) of films should not result in the neglect of religious obligations and responsibilities, including prayer and social and familial duties

3. Physical intermingling and free mixing among men and women in movie theatres must be avoided in order to avoid sexual temptation.

These conditions are references to study and use in working out in the formulation of etiquette. There is, however, impossibility of adopting norms and standards by Muslims alone in multi-cultural contexts, since censor boards and other regulatory bodies in all countries have adopted measurements which prevent films from violating ethics defined by good taste, communal solidarity, sanctity, respect for women etc. What Muslims can do is to light the torch of taqwa (God-consciousness and vigilance) in their mind to translate this consciousnesses to the desirable professional action outlined in the law of the countries where they live for the welfare of society.

Shaykh Qaradhawi’s condition about intermingling as well as others manners should be understood in context, which a person living in a country where such a taboo does not exist have reasons to contest. Intermingling of sexes is another problem, which we will discuss in one of the following issues. It is up to individuals to adopt modesty, which can’t be judiciously imposed on them.


Tariq Ramadan has introduced fresh ideas in this regard in his famous work ‘Radical Reforms: Islamic Ethics and Liberation (Published by Oxford University Press).’ He expressed concern over imposing rigid standards especially in the context of ‘Muslim societies and communities’ being ‘so afraid of the effect of alienating entertainment that they produce amusements and games that are either packed with religious references (and thereby no longer provide actual, necessary recreation) or childish (as if to enjoy recreation as a Muslim, one must refuse to become an adult or pretend never to have become one)’ (Page: 197)

In fact movies and art works posed as ‘models’ are actually in the tradition of old morality plays-chillingly boring. So Ramadan says: ‘Women and men who possess inclination and skill ought therefore to be invited to show more creativity, to integrate modern techniques of communication, to specialize in that universe and to show discriminating professionalism.’


However, there is what Ramadan terms as the alienating effect of globalized art or what Umberto Eco calls the carnivalisation of life in which ‘perversion….sets in…when everything is turned into play; into entertainment and the scale of meaning and values fades away.’ (Eco as quoted in Ibid, 196). ‘Is the objective (of art and movies) self-forgetfulness, giving full range to all expressions of human instincts (the natural attraction for physical appearance, money and sex). Deployment of nude bodies, in most cases, is done in order to exploit human instinct and sensitivities (Courtesy: Giorgio Agamben, Nudities, Stratford University Press Page 55-91). In our opinion, Islam does not vouch for it. We stand by what Bhasa, the ancient Indian theater theorist and playwright who wrote Natyashastra, says about exhibiting food and sex on the stage. He did not prefer it, since it might create desire in those who don’t have access to either and so might seek crooked ways to vent their desire. It is desirable that a Muslim filmmaker be conscious of the snares of a globalised consumer culture which will have devastating effects on the ethical fabric of the society. Sexual actions not shown but suggested in non-erotic ways in a film always aesthetically gives them polish. This is proved by talented filmmakers like Abbas Kairostami, Akira Kurosowa, Ken Loach, Majid Majidi, Christopher Nolan etc. This is also true of violence as well.


That a broom that sweeps dust may contain dust is an extension of the theory of catharsis. Aristotle, in his theory of tragedy, taught that viewing tragedy will purge people from violent emotions. Freudian psycho-analysts revived the theory in their postulate on sub-conscious, saying that negative emotions pent up inside an individual cause psychological symptoms. Post-Freudian thinkers have questioned this theory. Gillez Delueze says to the effect that desire-manufacturing industry has vulgarized desire and pleasure in such a way that while banning the genuine expressions of desire, it has created and exploited the taboo around the empty vulgar forms of desire and people try to satiate themselves by violating the taboo, ending up unsatisfied all the while.

If catharsis theory is right, pornography should cure the sex mania, while it remains, in the words of Alija Izetbegovic, that pornography is theory and rape is the practice. There are evidences to say that rape, explicit sexuality and nudity generate atavistic desire and voyeurism.  A filmmaker should be vigilant enough to see to it that the creative freedom he enjoys is not detrimental to the well-being of people.

Posted in: Q&A