Samirah al-Abbas: When No Representation is Better than Bad Representation
If someone were to ask me what I identify as, I would answer Muslim, Canadian, and giant nerd, in that order. I might tack bookworm onto it too. Ask anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you I can be found doing one of three things: reading, writing, or interacting with online creative spaces. While I have rarely been unwelcome in those spaces, those spaces have very rarely been inclusive for me or my beliefs as a Western Muslim, largely because Western Muslims simply aren’t represented very well (or at all) in Western media.
Which is interesting, considering Muslims are not a global minority. As of 2015, there were roughly 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, making up 24% of the global population. According to census records, there were approximately 3.45 million Muslims living in the US, 25.8 million living in Europe, and over 1 million living in Canada.
The numbers alone should mean that you would see quite a few depictions of Muslim characters in our media, and there has been some strides towards improving and increasing the representation of Muslims, some successful…but many, many more less so.
Unfortunately, Muslims tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to characterization. If a female Muslim character isn’t being made to take her hijab off on-screen for ‘plot’ reasons, then her father is abusive and oppressive (as depicted in Elite). The male Muslim character is almost always violent, chauvinistic, and/or a lapsed Muslim held to different standards than the Muslim women in his life (such as in Sana and Elias Bakkoush in Skam).
Worse, Muslim characters are often typecast either as terrorists or some sort of agent who cooperates with blatantly and proudly corrupt law enforcement to mete out justice against the ‘dangerous’ Muslims, as in Homeland.
In fantasy or historical media, Muslim and Muslim-coded characters often speak with harsh and exaggerated accents, or are stereotyped as unprincipled and filthy comic relief (such as Gad Hassan in The Mummy). In comedic and slice of life media, their beliefs and practices are often presented as farcical, restrictive, inflexible, or archaic (see Little Mosque on the Prairie).
Every time I see these portrayals, I physically cringe. Depending on how bad it is, I become so outraged that I need to rant at length with someone until I feel less injured by it. It’s come to the point where if I hear that there’s a Muslim character in a show, movie, or book, I preemptively brace myself for the offensive portrayal I suspect is coming. Unfortunately, my expectations are very rarely subverted.
Case in point: I came across a blog which had, as its title, ‘Samirah al-Abbas Deserved Better’. The name rang a bell, and a quick Google search later gave me the answer I was looking for. Samirah is a character belonging to children’s author Rick Riordan, who is most well known for writing a series titled Percy Jackson and the Olympians, on the half-human children of Greco-Roman deities — a series I read and enjoyed, for the most part.
As it turned out, Riordan wrote another series in a similar vein called Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, this time featuring the half-human children of Norse deities and beings. Oh no, I thought, because while I can personally enjoy the portrayal of fictional deities without feeling as though I am jeopardizing my religious beliefs, I didn’t think the same could be said for a character living in such a world.
And I was right, unfortunately. Samirah al-Abbas is the daughter of a human and the Norse god of mischief, Loki — although, in this series, Riordan depicts Loki as an ice giant rather than a deity.
To explain how problematic Samirah as a character is, it’s necessary that I give you a quick primer on what a Muslim is. If you distill Islam down to its very core principles, it would be:
1) the belief in one Ultimate Being who created everything, maintains everything, and is Beginningless, Eternal, and One (without partners or progeny)
2) that this Being, whom we call God, sent messengers to teach humanity about their origins as a created species and to transmit God’s commands to them
3) that the last of those messengers was our Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa salam)*.
Belief in (and testifying to) these three principles is what makes a person a Muslim. It is foundational and all anyone needs to be considered a Muslim. It is not technically required that you practice any of the rituals or abstain from that which is prohibited, such as alcohol and pork, because as long as you still believe these tenets, you are Muslim.
Conversely, the opposite is equally true. You could be a committed adherent to Islamic rituals and practices and never partake in that which is forbidden, but if you don’t believe in those tenets you aren’t Muslim. Essentially, all ritualistic actions are rendered meaningless by a lack of belief in those aforementioned principles.
Let us now return to the issue that spurred this analysis (and this article as a whole). Samirah, a practicing Muslim, lives in a world in which the Norse pantheon is not only real, but known to be so by her, as she personally interacts with them.
“Sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it? An atheist and a Muslim walk into a pagan afterlife.” — Samirah al-Abbas in Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor
On the face of it, there’s no problem here. Samirah is a fictional character living in a fictional world where the Norse deities are real, have relations with humans, and beget demi-god children.
But Samirah is also explicitly Muslim.
Here’s the thing. In a world where various deities are real and have actual effect on the world and are known to be real, there wouldn’t be any Muslims. There couldn’t be. Muslims believe that their God is a real and actual Being that Exists, and one of the absolutely necessary characteristics of that Existence is Oneness.
Furthermore, we don’t (or, to be more specific, we’re not supposed to) take this solely on faith. We’re meant to arrive at this conclusion through logic alone. In fact, if a Muslim can’t come to this conclusion using only their intellect, their faith is considered deficient.
To have a Muslim character in a world where multiple deities are real is a slap in the face of Muslims everywhere (and, frankly, to other monotheistic religions as well), because evidentially, in-universe, there is no One God.
Riordan touched on this issue in his first series Percy Jackson and the Olympians. In a page on his website entitled, ‘The Lightning Thief Rationale’, he states:
The Lightning Thief explores Greek mythology in a modern setting, but it does so as a humorous work of fantasy, and makes no attempt to subvert or contradict Judeo-Christian teachings. Early in the book, the character Chiron draws a clear distinction between God, capital-G, the creator of the universe, and the Greek gods (lower-case g). Chiron says he does not wish to delve into the metaphysical issue of God, but he has no qualms about discussing the Olympians because they are a “much smaller matter.” The gods of Olympus are depicted as powerful beings who interact with their children and demand respect.
I am curious as to how Riordan defines ‘capital-G God’ versus ‘lower-case g gods’, and what differentiates them. If the pantheons he depicts are not actual deities, why are they referred to as such? To erase any confusion, and out of respect for the monotheistic religions which exist within his fictional world as they do in the real world, could Riordan not have, instead, classified them as spirits with magical powers who were, perhaps, confused as creator beings because of those powers?
Regardless of his intentions, Riordan’s fantasy worlds contradict Islamic beliefs; the simultaneous existence of an ultimate God and multiple lesser gods is completely and unconditionally irreconcilable with Islamic theology.
I don’t know how this got past Riordan and his editors and publishers, and the only explanation is that they were either totally ignorant of Islamic theology (which is unlikely, considering how open Riordan was about his research efforts), or they simply decided to dismiss the troubling connotations of having a Muslim as not only a character in a polytheistic world, but one who interacts with those deities.
How could any Muslim character still consider herself Muslim when she knows multiple gods exist? It would have been more appropriate to have her leave Islam upon realizing the truth of her world, because her beliefs have been categorically proven to be untenable!
The worst part of this is that Riordan himself was fully aware of the problem of Samirah.
In his post ‘Samirah al-Abbas and other thoughts’ he says,
“[Samirah] would have a complicated personal situation to wrestle with, in that she’s a practicing Muslim who finds out Valhalla is a real place. Odin and Thor and Loki are still around. How do you reconcile that with your faith? Not only that, but her mom had a romance with Loki, who is her dad. Yikes.
Thankfully, the feedback from Muslim readers over the years to Samirah al-Abbas has been overwhelmingly positive. I have gotten so many letters and messages online from young fans, talking about how much it meant to them to see a hijabi character portrayed in a positive light in a ‘mainstream’ novel.”
Notice that he doesn’t address everything he just labelled as ‘yikes’ nor answer the questions he brought up, questions he’s aware Samirah would have to wrestle with if she is an intelligent and consciously practicing Muslim (which he has written her to be).
And then he concludes with, essentially, self-satisfaction with his incorporation of a Muslim character in a ‘positive’ light. And while he apologizes, in the same post, for other issues in his representation of Muslims, he never returns to this foundational problem.
Finally, Riordan says,
“If you are of a marginalized group I have written about, and you have read the books in question, and you feel hurt by the depictions, I absolutely apologize. My only request would be that you judge what I have written by actually reading what I wrote, in context, and not by what you’ve heard secondhand on social media.”
I’m going to detour briefly from the point of this article to break this apology down, because I think it’s a teachable moment on how not to apologize for your mistakes (which we will all invariably make, so let’s learn together).
The ‘if you’ of this statement undermines the sincerity of his apology by placing the responsibility for the offence on those who ‘felt hurt’ by his choices, rather than on himself, as the perpetrator of the offence. You can read more about such non-apologies here.
Back to the issue at hand: Riordan asks that people read his books to gain context before judging him for his creative choices — which is good practice, generally, but also completely irrelevant for our purposes, because Samirah shouldn’t exist at all in the world of Magnus Chase. I don’t need to read this series to know that. No one needs to read this series to know that. Riordan himself should have accepted this after he realized it, which he did!
Riordan chose to write about the Norse pantheon, as is his right, but then also chose to incorporate a Muslim character into that universe, despite the fact that doing so categorically invalidates her beliefs and the beliefs of the Muslims who exist in his fictional universe (not to mention other monotheistic religions, but I can only speak from my perspective).
Riordan should have accepted, in the course of
“read[ing] five different English interpretations of the Qur’an…the entirety of the Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim hadith collections….three biographies of Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and well over a dozen books about the history of Islam and modern Islam…[taking] a six-week course in Arabic…’fasting’ the month of Ramadan in solidarity with [his] students…[memorizing] some of the surahs in Arabic…[and reading] some anti-Islamic screeds written in the aftermath of 9/11 [to] understand what those commenters were saying about the religion”
that Samirah’s character is inherently an offensive portrayal of a Muslim.
I say accepted because he did realize it. He owned up to this! But since Samirah exists, he clearly didn’t care. He couldn’t have cared. He chose to write her, he chose to invalidate her identity, and he chose to fictionalize a real belief that over a billion people hold within the context of the universe he created, and I can only assume he did so because his perspective as a non-Muslim, his choices, and his desires to have this representation in his series trumped, for him, his responsibility to respectfully represent this character and her beliefs.
The tenets of Islam are not hidden or obscure. This was a conscious decision, a conscious choice, and a conscious commitment to creating this narrative regardless of the fact.
So, dear reader, this is my advice to you. Don’t just cavalierly paint people into your worlds and your media without really thinking through to the connotations of their contextual existence. Do your research. Talk to real people who share the identities you’re writing about. And most importantly, accept your findings, even if they go against your wishes or hopes, or require you to deviate from your plans for your characters and stories.
I promise you, sometimes, not representing someone is the best and most respectful choice.
*an Arabic honorific it is required for Muslims to use whenever our Prophet is mentioned by name, and is often roughly interpreted as ‘peace and blessings be upon him’