Despite the fact that Utah is home to a dozen or so mosques and more than 30,000 Muslims, residents of the Beehive State often know little more about Islam than what they see in Hollywood films.
The Utah Humanities Council and the Utah Cultural Celebration Center hopes to change that.
In February, the two groups will jointly present a series of films — a re-enactment with commentary, a series of filmed lectures, and a documentary — followed by discussions that explore the rich world of Islamic faith, history and art.
The first one, “Prince Among Slaves,” on Monday, tells the extraordinary story of 26-year-old Abdul Rahman, the son of a West African king, who was captured by enemies and sold into slavery in Natchez, Miss. When he was captured, Rahman had been studying in Timbuktu (now in Mali), which was a center of Islamic learning and literature at the time. The young prince had a certain dignity in his gait based on his status in his homeland, which he tried to convey to his American owner. All the farmer got was “prince,” which became his name. The African, through his intellect and natural leadership skills, helped his master become one of the wealthiest cotton growers in the South.
The film follows Rahman for the next 40 years, including his marriage to another slave, the birth of nine children, his growing prominence in the area and finally, his attempt to return to Africa after a local printer realizes that he can read the Quran. The printer writes to U.S. President John Quincy Adams, urging Adams to meet the African, somehow mistaking him for a Moroccan (Morocco was then an ally of the U.S.). Rahman is finally freed and goes on the speaking circuit trying to raise enough cash to free his wife and children. Stories about him became legendary in the Antebellum South.
“There were lots of Muslims who were brought to America through enslavement and contributed to this society in an unrecognized way, not just through brute labor,” Alex Kronemer, the film’s executive producer, said last year, according to a report in muslimmatters.org. “Their familiarity with crops, their brain power contributed to the making of America.”
Rahman’s sense of self is clearly traced to his Islamic schooling and adherence to its teachings, but the film doesn’t really delve into those aspects.
On the other hand, the second film, “Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World,” to be shown on Feb. 10, is much more explicitly about Muslim beliefs as expressed in art. Striking visual images of Islam are splayed out across nine countries and through more than 1,400 years of history. Viewers go inside mosques to catch a peek at sun-dabbled mosaics and swirls and pen-strokes of Islamic calligraphy as a way to understand Muslims’ sense of awe.
The final film, “Koran By Heart,” on Feb. 24, is the compelling story of three 10-year-old competitors — two boys and a girl — in Egypt’s annual Quran competition, which attracts 110 participants from around the world who come to display their abilities to recite selected passages from 600-page volume of the Islamic sacred book, which they have committed to memory.
One is from Tajikistan, one from Maldives Island and one from Senegal. Not all the competitors can read or speak Arabic, so when the judges correct them or given instructions, they have no idea what is going on.
The filmmakers focus on the background, training and circumstances of the three contestants, and follows them from their homeland to the streets of Cairo and up to the stress-filled final round, as each child feels the pressure to perform for their families, their nationalities and their faith.
“There is a passage in the Quran that says if you memorize the Quran and teach it to others,” the boy from Tajikistan says in the film, “you will be successful in this life and the next life.”
Muslim Journeys is a project of the National Endowment for the Humanities, conducted in cooperation with the American Library Association, the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University, Oxford University Press, and Twin Cities Public Television.
The film series explores three films from the Bridging Cultures Bookshelf Series:
Feb. 3 • “Prince Among Slaves”
Feb. 10 • “Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World”
Feb. 24 • “Koran by Heart”
When • Films begin at 7:30 p.m.
Where • Utah Cultural Celebration Center, 1355 W. 3100 South, West Valley City
Tickets • Free