The great oracle of English conservatism, Charles Moore, once pronounced Slumdog Millionaire the Islamic breakthrough movie, in the same way Four Weddings and a Funeral was the breakthrough movie for gays. Hindu violence orphans the young hero and renders him homeless on the streets of Mumbai, but he triumphs at the end, winning his millions and gaining the hand of his childhood sweetheart when he is asked the perfectly opportune question on a TV quiz show. The boy’s descent into poverty and ascent to great fortune happen because God wills it: Mashallah. It belongs to the deep wisdom of Islam that all events, even the most apparently random, occur at the behest of God. Hence the common response to questions about the future in the Arab world: “insha Allah.” Slumdog Millionaire is a sort of religious movie. Father Barron used it for a Word on Fire video to illustrate the theory of divine providence.
The Big Sick is a another kind of comedy. Ross Douthat declared it a defect that the movie requires Kumail, its Pakistan-born protagonist, to choose between his immigrant parents’ religious faith and the American girl he loves. Are the only two possibilities the re-creation of a rigid Pakistan-style Islamic practice in Chicago or complete secularization? Kumail choses freedom, secularization, a career as a stand-up comedian, and a blond American partner.
Traditional Islam is not, perhaps, as rich in humor as Judaism, but it does afford one great comedic possibility: the arranged marriage. Arranged marriages, so common amongst Indian and Pakistani Muslims, are a perfect foil for the comedic narrative arc of escape from harsh law into liberty and love. The movie tracks Kumail’s discovery of his courage to stop going along with the convention of parentally arranged marriage. He lives in two worlds: As a stand-up comedian he mocks Pakistan and its cultural and religious mores, but as a “good son” he fakes interest in the girls his mother causes “providentially” to drop by during visits home, and disappears into the basement “to pray” (i.e., play games on his phone). Kumail escapes imprisonment in an artificial America-Pakistan by performing his comedic routines on his family, and overturning his expulsion from the family through playful mockery. Comedy is not just for the stage but is a way of seeing the whole of life, one that subtly relegates his dictatorial parents to the realm of lovable absurdity.
Kumail is actually an agnostic, claiming not to know whether God exists, but contemptuously spitting out the word “Pakistan” in a climactic confrontation with his father, where he lays out his refusal to pretend to inhabit Pakistan whilst living in Chicago. It’s not God he is running from when he goes to New York, but an artificially transplanted culture. But if future Kumails were no longer to be required to take Islam and American life as blanket alternatives, a liberal Islam would have to flourish—not only here, but around the world.
A liberalized Islam is what many people say the world needs, but it’s not obvious how that will come about. It’s not clear to me, in particular, how or whether non-Muslims can play any role in this outcome, however devoutly they may wish for it. My dear departed friend Stratford Caldecott used to say that Catholics ought to encourage Muslims to enlarge the Sufi element in the religion. There is or was a Vatican project, to which he along with various other mystically inclined and otherworldly fellows belonged, designed precisely to encourage the “En-Sufi-ment” of Islam. (Note to my editors: I made up this word and am allowed to do so, because I’m a theologian.)
But why should Muslims care if Catholics wanted them to be a bit more “Sufi,” keener on allegorical interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith, and cooler on taking words like “jihad” literally? Would Catholics care if Muslims wanted us to be more like Trappist-Pentecostalists? The normal response to such external pressure is irritation and retrenchment. Wahhabi, literalist dislike of Sufism among Muslims prevails in direct proportion to Western admiration for it. Perhaps the correlation has a bit of causation in it.
My conservative friends want Muslims to dial down the Sharia (religious law), but to be allies for the good in moral causes, preserving a rigorous view of truth against liberals who make so much a matter of feelings. It would be great if more Muslims were involved in the fight against abortion. The Muslim theory that unborn babies receive their soul at forty days enables them to agree with us on eight of the nine months of pregnancy, and as Chesterton said, something is better than nothing! But it’s not clear how conservative Christians are going to persuade Muslims to reshape their religion to make them at once less susceptible to Wahabi literalism and at the same time fit to be eager warriors in Western culture wars.
From the nineteenth century on, some Muslims have sought to respond to modernity by developing liberal Islamic theologies. Early attempts read the sources selectively in order to adapt Islamic political and social teachings to Western standards. Like the liberal Judaism of the time, this approach drew on the moralizing side of the Continental Enlightenment. As in liberal Protestantism, the Father was Good; the Son, being human, even better and more philanthropic (well, the Jews and Muslims dropped this bit); and keeping God’s commands involved less tradition or ritual and more love of our fellow-men, all men being sons of the one Father. Liberal Islam, however, was felt by many Muslims to be an internal colonialism, a pale imitation of the Protestant liberalism whose God died when people realized that humanism could do the job of being philanthropic so much better than he.
It was unfortunate that the earliest attempts to liberalize Islamic theology were quickly followed, in the first half of the twentieth century, by the attempts of Muslim leaders like Ataturk, in Turkey, and Reza Shah, in Persia, to force their societies to emulate the secular West. When Muslims threw out the liberal theology, as they did increasingly from the 1980s on, they did so believing it was a sham propped up by the C.I.A., like the Shah of Persia, paid for by Westerners to keep Muslims subservient to the American Imperium. Liberal Islam was all too easily presented by Muslim reactionaries as a kind of Islamic Stockholm syndrome, which no self-respecting Muslim could endure. More important theologically was the fact that the Western puppet rulers were idolatrous, insults to God’s authentic governance.
It’s a typically modern temptation to think that since so many things we want are for sale to those who possess sufficient funds, it must be possible to buy a liberal Islam. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, is the American faith, so cannot the almighty dollar purchase a liberal Islam, one in which Kumail in The Big Sick can feel at home? But such an outcome is not subject to our volition. The reason is that we are not gods, and so we cannot providentially arrange for people to hold the ideas and engage in the behaviors we prefer. The deep wisdom at the heart of the “insha Allah” is that we have little control over events, and still less direct and designed impact on the ideas and practices of others. Any high school teacher and most college professors know that what goes into our students’ ears and what they actually hear are not quite the same words. We cannot arrange the next generation’s marriages, nor can we find external means by which to fix their beliefs about God. Kumail lets the comedic spirit guide him through life, and just as it guides him through the perplexities of dating, so the spirit of comedy can guide him toward faith. Kumail has learned that we live in a comedic cosmos, in which, at great cost to itself, love prevails over law.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion.