(Integral America) You'll notice one name often appearing in the credits of recent TV programmes: Azhar Usman. These recent successes for Netflix, Hulu, and Disney Plus have another thing in common that is impossible to miss: they are changing how Hollywood views American Muslims.
In Houston, "Mo" follows a Palestinian American refugee. The protagonist of "Ms. Marvel" is a Muslim teen superhero. The comedy "Ramy" by Ramy Youssef, which has garnered Golden Globe and Peabody awards, is semi-autobiographical.
Usman, an attorney-turned-comedian from Skokie, Illinois, first gained notoriety with the "Allah Made Me Funny" comedy tour two decades ago. Since then, he has worked as a creative adviser, co-writer, and writer on the Netflix series "Ramy" and "Mo," which is hosted by Usman's former touring partner, Mo Amer.
Usman's accomplishments are the result of a long-standing dedication to helping American audiences have a more sophisticated knowledge of Islam and American Muslims. Usman co-founded a foundation devoted to Islamic spirituality and learning earlier in his career, which was motivated by Umar Abd-teachings. Allah's
Usman prides himself on being a comic, but it's obvious that he's influencing how Muslims are viewed in Hollywood. It's also evident from a recent interview he had with Silma Suba and Monique Parsons of Interfaith America Magazine that he's just getting started.
You've contributed to "Mo" and "Ramy" as a writer and creative advisor. What did the process look like for creating these shows?
Real brotherhood and genuine friendships with these performers and solo artists were the foundation of my role on these shows. From this group, individuals begin to create their own distinctive enterprises, followed by their own distinctive visions. They all seemed to be interested in my opinion for some reason, so I just sort of found this path.
"You're the man who did the homework, you actually went to the class, you read the materials, and you listened to the lectures," Ramy Youssef said, putting it quite beautifully. Since I was a youngster, I have taken this aspect of my life—my spirituality—very seriously. I've now spent thousands of hours conversing with academics, asking them questions, engaging in debate with them, and having arguments with them. They used to assign me homework. I would watch the lecture or go read the book. I've travelled all over the world in an effort to sit down with these people who are the true heirs of tradition.
They are not extremists or identity politics. They are sincere religious adherents from all walks of life — converts, you know, from India, Pakistan, the Arab world, Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, to name a few. And it has given me such a broad view that I believe I have certain life experiences at this point in my life that I feel comfortable sharing. Certainly authoritatively, but not in an authoritarian way.
And because I adore words and language, I frequently can assist (my fellow comedians) in finding the right words to express what they're trying to say, even if they only have an emotion or a vague idea.
Islam for sure, followed by a humorous punch. Thank God, I'm a funny comedian. Then there is the simple matter of life experience. My 20-year marriage, which sadly came to an end at the end of 2017, was one that I experienced. In 2019, I remarried. I have now been in my second marriage for three years. These are a lot of lessons learned the hard way. I also made a lot of blunders, and many people have gained knowledge through my bad choices.
How does the writers' room feel like?
On any given day, there are eight to ten persons in the room. It's a special atmosphere since everyone in the room is aware that our goal is to help Ramy realise his vision. And in order to achieve that, there is a tacit understanding that not only is it completely private, but that it is also a genuine safe zone where everyone feels comfortable sharing and saying anything. Each writer contributing to the project brings a certain level of radical authenticity, and Ramy selects the works he wants to use.
How much of the narrative is based on your personal reality?
I've spoken openly about making many poor choices in my life, about my regrets, and about things I wish I could have and could have done better. Some of those make an appearance in the show and in Ramy's persona. The emotional truth is there, even though it's not connected to a particular fact pattern.
Both "Mo" and "Ramy" include Islamic religious knowledge into their stories. What was it like to introduce the general public to that aspect of Islam?
Frightening. It has been quite terrifying. Because I strongly disagree with the notion that a smart person should watch a fictional television programme on a platform like Hulu or Netflix in order to become religiously literate. My God. Since that's not even my objective, the idea as a whole scares me to death.
Instead of being a purpose, religious literacy in the programmes ultimately comes off as practically a side effect. It's a result of simply wanting to depict Muslims in a grounded, realistic manner. The television programmes "Mo," "Ramy," and "Ms. Marvel" are descriptive rather than directive. They are not instructions on how to be a Muslim; rather, they are descriptions of actual Muslims.
According to how I looked at it, there is a lot of inaccurate information about Islam available. There is a great deal of material that violates every religious principle. I simply want to contribute to providing better information—maybe not perfect—but at least superior options.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, made a statement that greatly frightens me. A hypocrite with an expressive tongue, he observed to his companions, was what he feared most for his community, particularly as time progressed. If the spiritual instructors I spend a lot of time with have taught me anything, it is to be wary of those who make bold claims. Even though I make every effort to be careful, that is still a claim. It's similar to keeping to my lane. I perform comedy.
The prophet added that after fulfilling all of the requirements for religion, God liked nothing more than to fill followers' hearts with delight. I wish to bring happiness into the hearts of believers, not only Muslims but all people who have any inkling that there must be a higher power.
Which sequence or episode from the series you've worked on is your favourite?
In a clip from season two of "Ramy," Ramy's family welcomes Zainab and her father, Sheikh Ali, who will later become his wife. In that occasion, it was crucial to make mention of Arab bigotry toward Black people. A stinging condemnation of identarian Muslims who talk a lot about Islam while simultaneously destroying the Black community by opening a booze store in the centre of the neighbourhood is made in this extremely nuanced debate. Therefore, scrutinising that and drawing attention to it were crucial.
The father-son dynamic was a major theme of the show. Being the father of four sons, a lot of my own experience was mined and incorporated into that episode. I received a tonne of responses from folks expressing that the father-son moments near the end made them cry.
What does your life's interfaith work entail?
The main lesson I've taken away from my interactions with the Sufi gurus is that everyone is curious about life's meaning. And the shortest, most straightforward response I've discovered that has been the most compelling and calmed my heart is that the goal of life is to love and serve others.
Love God, love God's creation, and serve both God and God's creation. God will love you if you work on worthwhile projects that help people and God's creation. It's not about myself or my ego, in any way. What I desire is not the issue. I'm not the problem. It's about giving back to the community after serving your mother, father, and other immediate family members. These are realities that are simple to state but challenging to put into practise.