For busy parents and families, movie night may be the only time they have to spend together. Although screens, in all their manifestations, are not our preferred parenting aid, they have become a constant in our children’s lives. As much as we hate to admit it, sometimes our battle against the TV, laptop, smartphone, or tablet is a fight we cannot win. It seems that adolescents bond more with their electronic devices than with their parents these days. Thankfully, there are ways that we can make the screen work for us.
I am sure you have heard the expression, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Ideally, we want to create opportunities for our children to spend time in the masjid, exercise, and engage in productive activities. But there are days and moments when our children prefer to watch television over spending time outdoors, tossing a ball, or playing a board game. At that point, it is time to throw in the towel and cuddle next to them.
There are quality alternatives to the inappropriate movies and television series commonly found on popular streaming platforms. With a bit of research and prescreening, we can discover the right programs to suit our family. In my Muslim home, I try to prioritize films and programs that represent our diverse Islamic community. It is important for children to see themselves represented in literature and media, to reinforce their Islamic identity. In addition to that, they experience media through foreign lenses to explore other cultures and learn about other members of our faith.
While there are lectures and khutbahs available on YouTube and other websites, your tweens and teens may resist anything that seems too academic or preachy. For them, a family movie night is meant to be fun and entertaining. After spending all day at school or studying, they just want to relax and unwind. Also, keep in mind that you are competing against modern shows with advanced cinematography, excellent actors, intriguing plots, over-the-top action, well-written scripts, and fancy special effects.
Fret not, there are options that will have you microwaving popcorn, serving snacks, and gathering in front of the TV together in no time. The following is my list of must-see shows and movies with Muslim characters and stories that can teach valuable lessons to your children and open the door to crucial conversations.
Note: Some of the shows or movies on this list are rated PG-13, R, or MA, and/or contain violence and subjects that may not be suitable for younger children. This list may be more appropriate for children ages 12 and older. Parental discretion is advised in all cases. Please read through, but be sure to research more about each and prescreen before watching with children.
There are several offerings that deserve special attention as classics.
1. The Message
The 1976 film, The Message, is a classic in every Muslim home, and it is beneficial to revisit it annually. It tells the story of the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, until the end of his life, as well as the adversities he and his followers faced from Mecca to Madinah, and back to Mecca again.
2. Lion of the Desert
This 1980 movie is likewise an important historical film about the story of Omar Mukhtar, a Libyan Muslim hero who fought against the colonizing forces of General Rodolfo Graziani, a colonial governor appointed by Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1929. When General Graziani arrives in the Italian stronghold of Libya with orders to destroy all resistance from Libyan nationalists, rebel guerrilla leader Omar Mukhtar, bravely leads soldiers in their fight for freedom. Both The Message and Lion of the Desert were directed by Moustapha Akkad.
3. Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta
Journey to Mecca was released in 2009, but I already consider it a classic must-see. It follows the story of the famous traveler Ibn Battuta as he sets off from present-day Tangier, Morocco to Mecca to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. At only 45 minutes, the movie is a short watch that will leave you wanting to know more about the great Ibn Battuta. Maybe you can turn that curiosity into a lesson later on!
There are a number of documentaries that make the must-watch list.
1. Rise of Empires: Ottoman (Netflix series)
This epic docuseries takes us on a journey to the Ottoman court, as a young Sultan Mehmet II prepares to conquer Constantinople (present-day Istanbbul) in 1453. According to imdb.com (Internet Movie Database), an online database of information related to films, television series, home videos, video games, and streaming content online, “Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II wages an epic campaign to take the Byzantine capital of Constantinople and shapes the course of history for centuries.”
2. Rise of Empires: Mehmet vs Vlad
In the second season of Rise of Empires, we learn about the feud between Sultan Mehmet, the Conqueror, and Prince Vlad Tepes Dracula, the ruler of Wallachia (present-day Romania). (Warning: gory violence)
3. Koran by Heart
This is another masterpiece that is revisited in our house, but rather than a classic movie, it is a beautiful documentary about Quran memorization. The HBO film highlights child competitors from three different countries that gather in Egypt for an international Quran competition during the month of Ramadan. Viewers get to learn a little about life in Senegal, Tajikistan, and the Maldives, as well as the intricacies of the Quran and its memorization, and the planning of this wonderful competition. (This movie is perfect for children of any age.)
4. Islam: Empire of Faith
This documentary is a fascinating summary and introduction to Islamic history. From Imdb.com: “Islam: Empire of Faith is a documentary series, made in 2000, that details the history of Islam, from the birth of the Islamic Prophet, Muhammad to the Ottoman Empire. The first episode deals with the life of Muhammad, the second with the early Caliphates, Crusades, and Mongol invasion, and the third with the Ottoman Empire and Safavid dynasty.”
This is a category of movies and series that are worth watching. A note of caution about Turkish dramas: They are in Turkish with English subtitles. They contain violence, and although blood is blurred out, they may still be too much for younger viewers.
1. Dirilis (Resurrection) Ertugrul (Netflix, kayifamilytv, osmanonline.uk)
Get ready to go back in time to the 13th century and meet Ertugrul, the father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. The Resurrection is a Turkish series with five seasons of non-stop action, cultural gems, Islamic values, and drama based on history. Watch as Ertugrul and his tribe, the Kayis, face many adversaries like the Crusaders, Mongols, Byzantines, and inside traitors in their quest to find a homeland. Warning: This show is highly addictive!
2. Kurulus (Establishment) Osman (kayifamilytv, osmanonline.uk)
This series is the follow-up to Dirilis Ertugrul, and follows the life of Osman, the son of Ertugrul and founder of the Ottoman Empire. It is currently in its fourth season.
3. Uyanis Buyuk Selcucklu (Awakening: Great Seljuk)/The Great Seljuks: Guardians of Justice (kayifamilytv, osmanonline.uk)
This series tells the story of the Seljuk Empire’s Sultan Malik-Shah I, and his son, Ahmad Sanjar, with a glimpse at the empire’s structure, political events, and how it became an Islamic state. You will be surprised to see Imam Al-Ghazali and other famous scholars make an appearance since they were alive during that time period. Few shows equal or surpass Dirilis Ertugrul in brilliance, but this show does a spectacular job, and, in my humble opinion, it is just as good.
4. Alparslan Buyuk Selcucklu (Alparslan: Great Seljuk) (kayifamilytv, osmanonline.uk)
Jump back to the past to get to know Malik-Shah’s father, Sultan Muhammad Alparslan, a great Muslim hero and leader of the Seljuk Empire. As a prequel to Uyani Buyuk Selcuclu, it is just as superb and is still ongoing.
For Teens and Young Adults
Some movies and series have content that may be too mature for younger children due to some questionable content, references to intimate topics, foul language, and violence. However, some teens and young adults may be able to handle these with parental supervision and guidance. I have compiled another list of other movies and series that families of older children may be able to watch together while staying mindful of sensitive topics. Keep the remote in hand to pause, forward, or stop a movie or show when needed.
Some options to consider are:
1. The Swimmers (Netflix)
Follow a Syrian family as they make life-altering decisions during a time of chaos and war.
From Netfix’s official website: “From war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics, two young sisters embark on a risky voyage, putting their hearts and their swimming skills to heroic use.”
2. Farha (Netflix)
Farha, the main character in this miniseries, is a Palestinian girl coming of age during a very turbulent time. Watch this heartbreaking story that is based on a real-life account but keep tissues nearby. This series may not be suitable for sensitive or younger viewers. From Netflix’s official website: “After persuading her father to continue her education in the city, a Palestinian girl’s dream is shattered by the harrowing developments of the Nakba.”
3. Malcolm X
Biographical epic of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist turned Muslim leader, from his early life as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam, to his journey to Islam. Directed by Spike Lee, the movie, Malcolm X, is based on the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, and it is a fascinating look at the life of the civil rights leader and Muslim convert who became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz. (There are some follow-up documentaries to consider like the docuseries, Who Killed Malcolm X.)
This is a coming-of-age story that is relevant for Muslim youth growing up in marginalized communities. There are many social dilemmas revealed in this movie including divorce, strained family relationships, crises of identity, spiritual abuse, and isolation. It offers a unique perspective on how the September 11th attacks triggered the islamophobia still rampant today. The film can also teach parents a lot about what young Muslims may face when going off to college or into “the real world.” From imdb.com: “Amid a strict Muslim rearing and a social life he’s never had, Tariq enters college confused. New peers, family and mentors help him find his place, but the 9-11 attacks force him to face his past and make the biggest decisions of his life.”
This moving and often gut-wrenching film is based on the true story of a man named Saroo Brierley, who found his biological family by using Google mapping technology. While it is a sad story, there is a triumphant ending, and children can learn a lot about valuing their family and persevering in the face of adversity. From imdb.com: “A five-year-old Indian boy is adopted by an Australian couple after getting lost hundreds of kilometers from home. 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.”
6. My Name is Khan
Speaking of perseverance, the movie My Name is Khan is all about it, telling a complex tale about a young Muslim boy growing up with Asperger’s syndrome in India. He eventually moves to the U.S. and deals with the stigma of being on the spectrum, an immigrant, and Muslim. To top it off, the September 11th attacks happen, causing nationwide turmoil and strained relationships. What ensues is a spectacular chain of events in which the main character proves that we are greater than our fears.
7. Al-Rawabi School for Girls (Netflix miniseries)
This is a great watch for teens and their parents, but make sure to watch it together to discuss some heavy subjects. For a basic summary, here is how the streaming platform, Netflix, describes their hit show as: “The bullied outcasts at prestigious Al Rawabi School for Girls plot a series of risky takedowns to get back at their tormentors.” (I recently wrote a complete review of the series for Sound Vision here).
For Younger Children H2 Header
For younger children, there are lots of options that offer wholesome and Islamic content. Check out these for starters:
Find your own List of Suitable Movies and Shows
Do not just take my word for it, do some research of your own to find what is best for your family. There are special vetting websites available for parents to peruse before deciding on what to let their kids watch. Some of these include:
In their own words: “We’re committed to recommending age-appropriate media that kids can enjoy and families and teachers can feel good about: movies and books with diverse characters, made by diverse creators. Apps and games that don’t collect kids’ personal data. Great online learning activities. And so much more—all using our ratings based on research and child development guidelines.”
In their own words: “The purpose of kids-in-mind.com is to provide parents and other adults with objective and complete information about a film’s content so that they can decide, based on their own value system, whether they should watch a movie with or without their kids, or at all.”
In their own words: “Our main goal is to give parents an idea of what they will encounter when they take their kids to the movies. With that in mind, we look at a film’s violence, sexual content, profanities, and substance use as well as both positive and negative themes included in the script.”
In addition to these websites, now there are also subscription streaming channels like USHub and Alchemiya offering Muslim family-friendly movie and show options, as well as documentaries. There are also services that help filter out the content you would rather not see in regular programs and films. One example is VidAngel, which describes itself as “an American streaming video company that allows the user to skip what objectionable content based on user preferences regarding profanity, nudity, sexual situations, and graphic violence.” I have yet to try their service or anything similar, but it sounds like something families may want to think about.
Nowadays, our children have access to an unlimited amount of video content by way of social media. Instead of losing them to their mobile phones, why not convert screen time to family time with some quality movies or shows? The bottom line is we have options when it comes to entertainment at home. Let us be wise about how we approach this time with our children and be prepared.
Want to make it a community event? Some Islamic centers, schools, and Muslim youth groups are taking “edu-tainment” a step further by organizing family movie nights and boys/girls gaming tournaments or film screenings at the masjid. Approach your masjid’s board or youth committee to help plan a special family night. The added perks of unity, providing a safe space, and prayer in congregation is sure to make it a blessed gathering, inshaAllah, God-willing.
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.