The Variability Of Muslim Life In Nijla Mu’min’s JINN

Mu’min’s coming-of-age film encourages the spectrum of Muslim life.

Not long after his creation, Allah commanded every being in heaven to bow down to Adam. The Angels, celestial beings completely bound to the will of Allah, all submitted. But one figure did not bow: Shaitan, Iblis, an exceedingly prideful individual of the Jinn – beings with free will that Allah created from smokeless fire. When asked why he refused to bow, Shaitan insisted that because he was made from fire, he was superior to Adam, who had been created from clay. For his arrogance, Allah banished Shaitan from Paradise, and promised him an everlasting punishment in Hell come Judgment Day. In the interim, Shaitan devoted himself to disturbing the future faithful and inducing enmity amongst mankind.

Shaitan achieved his first victory when he convinced both Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of a tree in Paradise that they had specifically been told by Allah not to eat. Suddenly cognizant of their nakedness, they covered their privates with leaves. For their disobedience, Allah banished Adam and Eve from Paradise as well. But, because they asked for forgiveness, the question of whether or not they and their offspring would be punished in Hell, or returned to Heaven, hinged on the quality of their existence on Earth, a place of temporary settlement and enjoyment.

The story of Shaitan’s (Satan) rejection from Heaven does the best job of illustrating the differing natures of the triumvirate of self-aware, willful entities in Islamic religious mythology: Angels, Jinn, and Humans. While the Angels are unquestionably faithful to Allah, Jinn and Humans are another story. The Jinn, who live in their own society parallel but invisible to our own, are shape-shifting, free-traveling entities. Historically, demons, ghosts, monsters and mental health issues have all been attributed to them. Some are considered good-natured. Others (like Shaitan) are a literal manifestation of evil. They inhabit an uncanny space within Islam that allows for considerations of the strange and the supernatural. Islam is a religion that aggregates the Abrahamic religious tradition. It’s drawn from a Holy Book that (relative to the Bible) is a succinct summation of both the Prophetic myths and Abrahamic moral ethics. The religious ethos emphasizes the clear manifestation of form, practice, and order – as established by Muhammad (PBUH), the final Prophet – to the deepest impulses of spirituality, faith, and worship. So, considerations of the Jinn – in conjunction with the more concrete facets of Islam – allows for a sense of mysticism and, by extension, the exercise of imagination.

For Summer, the protagonist of Nijla Mu'min’s Jinn, the Jinn serve as a kind of conceptual anchor that – in the sudden rush of her mother’s religious metamorphosis – Summer can recognize herself in. For Summer’s mother, Jade, the straightforward monotheism of Islam exhibits a simplicity and oneness that brings her comfort. But, as a well-known network TV meteorologist, Jade is hesitant to wear her Hijab on-air, negotiating the actualization of her religious identity with the presentation of her public persona. Adding to that pressure is Summer’s own resistance to Jade’s attempts to share the most fulfilling aspects of her developing religious identity with her daughter.

Summer’s reticence is understandable. At 17, Summer is naturally a mutable person. She’s charming enough to flirt with the girl behind the counter to get extra pepperoni on her pizza. A talented dancer whose art is both a means of self-expression and a connection to her maternal grandmother. Amidst the pressures of High School and the pending decision of her application to CalArts, she is becoming more and more aware of the complexity of her emerging identity and life. And adding to Summer’s confusion is the changing conception of her own mother.

Jade, a woman who comes from a small, broken home – and is separated from Summer’s father – set an example for Summer as a career woman who made her own lane in life, and took pride in adaptability and expression. So, her mother’s sudden embrasure of what appears to Summer as a limiting concreteness of Islam, contrasts with how Summer perceives both her own tumultuous self-conception, and who she thinks her mother is.

And yet, Summer also can’t ignore the genuine emotional fulfillment that her mother is feeling. So, with some encouragement from her Father, she commits herself to learning more about the religion. Summer’s initial conception of Islam is based on stereotypes about the subjugation of women and hearsay about selling bean pies as a cover for a drug ring. And when Summer notices her mother’s attraction to the religious leader of the Masjid, Imam Khalid, she unkindly suggests that her mother is just trying to get over her separation with Summer’s father. But when Imam Khalid gives a teaching about the nature of Jinn, in comparison to Angels and Humans, Summer is able to see some of herself in Islam. It’s enough for her to commit more fully, and Summer takes the Shahadah, a public, official declaration that a new believer takes to become a Muslim. 

Summer is torn between her curiosity about Islam, and her personal inclinations as a young artistic woman. She’s unsure if the two can be reconciled. Her romantic relationship with Tahir, the Muslim boy at her school whose family attends the same Mosque that Jade joined, helps her feel more welcome. Tahir, born and raised as a Muslim, wears shirts that reference Civil Rights figures, and has a copy of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing script on his corner table. Like Summer, he’s young and black, with creative interests. His parents love having her around. And while the Jinn represented a conceptual space that Summer could fit herself in, Tahir and his family demonstrate a more tangible example of what life as a young Black Muslima could be like.

Summer’s increasing comfort with her identity as a Muslima is bothered by an act of rebellious expression she did before taking her Shahadah. A selfie she took while wearing a Hijab and an insert-padded sports bra, with the hashtag halalhottie. The photo trends enough to reach Imam Khalid, who makes it the topic of a sermon in which he all but calls Summer out by name. The Imam thinks that Summer’s action reflects badly on the Masjid, and Muslims in general. Tahir’s mother, Rasheedah, criticizes the Imam for publically embarrassing a teenager for a mistake with unintended consequences. Jade frustratedly feels like Summer is sabotaging an environment that she feels comfortable in, and bans her from performing a dance routine she choreographed for her school’s talent show. And since Summer’s natural desire to express herself and receive validation has such negative consequences, her worries that her more fiery nature could never really lend itself to her perceived strictness of Islam is given further justification.

Instead of backing off, however, Summer remarkably doubles-down on her self-actualization and self-expression. She has sex for the first time with Tahir, and performs at the talent show. Further embracing the metaphor, Summer recites a poem, emphasizing her feeling that as a Jinn, her changeability contrasts too greatly with her mother’s stricter adherence to her new identity.

What Summer has trouble realizing is that all of the Muslims in her life are as changeable as she is. In an early scene, Imam Khalid is supportive of a young man who wants to marry a woman that isn’t a Muslim. But Khalid is unable to completely extend that kind of empathy to Summer, burdening a young, new Muslim convert with the expectations of an entire religion. Tahir’s mother, Rasheeda, defends Summer’s revealing Instagram post, but is so aggravated when she learns that Summer and Tahir have had sex, that she bans Summer from her home. And Jade’s conversion to Islam and ultimate decision to wear her Hijab on-air is as much an extension of Jade’s identity and self-expression as Summer’s dancing is.

What Jinn does such a great job of dramatizing – between Summer as a passionate, inexperienced protagonist, and the people she gets to know – is that beyond misconceptions and stereotypes, Muslims are variable. Muslim identity is not limited to Islam alone, but is integrated with social factors like Blackness and Gender, along with professional and artistic interests. This is as true in Islam as it is in any other religion. I recognized as much of myself in Tahir chilling in a corner surrounded by his drunk peers as I did in Summer’s anxiety that her artistic and romantic impulses would prevent her from fulfilling Islamic standards. This is because in the very wide spectrum of Muslim life, their experiences are equally valid. Jinn are made from fire, Humans from clay, but discriminatorily categorizing the two is what fueled Shaitan’s arrogance. What’s more important is what is shared; a free will, composed of and expressed through the constituent elements of our lives.