“Walaqad khalaqna ainsana min salsalin min hamain masnoonin. Waaljanna khalaqnahu min qablu min nari alssamoomi.”
“Verily We created man of potter’s clay of Black mud altered. And We created the Jinn before that from the smokeless flame of fire.”
In a time when we see token hijabis thrown onto screens, wearing scarves everyone graduated out of as kids (a casual reminder of how little research is done behind the scenes), Nija Mu’min’s Jinn does not beg for representation, nor is that any way to define the film. Jinn doesn’t explain what a bean pie is or how Black Muslims came to be, but instead asserts the community as deserving of existence, without justification, from the start. It doesn’t shy away from complexities, presenting its characters in their own mess and flaws.
Jinn follows a 17-year-old Black girl named Summer, whose mother, Jade, abruptly converts to Islam. Summer has her own preconceptions of Islam already—images of its members heading to prison, masjids being raided and oppressed Muslim women—and Jade’s conversion forces Summer to wrestle with her identity as a Black girl, as a dancer, as a new Muslim, and, as she comes to see herself, possibly something other than human.
Within Islam, the Jinn are beings of free will that exist on a plane parallel to our own. They can be like us, eating and drinking; having children and dying. When the trumpet blows, they will prepare for their own reckoning on Qiyamah. The Jinn’s position as something other than human is meant to make them inaccessible to us. What does it mean, though, when you have always been regarded as less than human? When the boundaries of humanity have been drawn outside of you, robbing you of your connection to the earth, there is often nothing left to turn to but smokeless flame.
For Black girls, the boundaries of humanity are a constantly pressing issue. Black girlhood has always existed as a threat. The old tropes developed to dehumanize Black women rear their ugly heads time and again, such asthe Jezebel, meant to suggest that Black women and girls are uniquely promiscuous, existing only for someone else’s pleasure, but never for themselves. The threat of Black girlhood is all too clear; the media talks of Black children as grown adults and Black girls are often chastised within their communities for being “fast.” Thesefast-tailed girls are children seen as capable of being homewreckers, luring in men, destruction inherent within their being. Girlhood and womanhood as threats are heavy burdens placed on girls’ shoulders long before they’ve even finished growing into themselves. Not only do these messages harm Black girls as individuals, but they also become easy to internalize and project back out.
Throughout Jinn, as Summer prepares for a talent show with two of her friends, Tati and Blaine, and Jade dives deeper into faith, the two have frequent disagreements over Summer’s dancing and dress. Eventually, Summer begins to spend more time with a Black Muslim boy from school, Tahir. In his home, Summer is introduced to a Black Muslim family and takes sanctuary within their conversations, even inviting Tahir to the masjid when she takes her shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. Still, Summer must navigate the faith for herself, outside expectations. As we watch Summer struggle to locate a sense of balance, and her place within Islam, Jinn asks one question:
Where do Black girls come from?
I am smokeless fire / I am the smokeless flame / born to an unknowing mother / she looks for God in me, but cannot find Him / hell / I look for God in me, but I can’t find Him…
—Summer (Zoe Renee)
“How’s the ‘Moozlem’ thing going?” Tati asks. She focuses in on Summer’s scarf, saying, “You’re not going to wear that in the show though, right?…It’s not sexy…I know your mom is making you do this, but I want to win.” When Summer asserts that she is Muslim, the two fight, and Tati adds, “I don’t care, you can’t just change religion one day! It doesn’t work like that!”
“Yeah, well, you change football players every week,” Summer says, turning to face the other girl, “so what’s really going on, Tati?” All three girls sit in stunned silence before Tati storms out of the room, knocking over a chair as she goes.
It’s important to note that Tati, one of the few non-Black characters in the movie, sees sex appeal as necessary for winning, even though the girls are still in high school. To Tati, Summer’s newly visible Muslimness presents a direct threat to a success that relies on sex, as Muslim women are frequently perceived as both oppressed and repressed. After their argument, Summer takes a picture in a padded sports bra with her scarf, posting it on Instagram with the caption, #HalalHottie.
Soon after, we see Tati looking up contact information for Summer’s masjid after she sees the Instagram post. #HalalHottie blows up and Summer’s friends show her reposts of her photo on Twitter. “If I was you, I’d be trying to get away before my Muslim mom sees this,” Tati tells her.
Through #HalalHottie, Jinn captures an important struggle of Black Muslim girlhood that is rarely addressed beyond a whisper. There are many preconceived notions of what constitutes Muslim sexuality, mostly propagated by Orientalism and Islamophobia, and the repressed trope is one of these, even as there is a rise of porn categories featuring actresses in hijab, speaking to how Muslim women are also often fetishized as sexual objects to be conquered. But most importantly, Summer is not a brown Muslim girl.
When discussing gendered Islamophobia, there’s often an unspoken assumption of a non-Black Muslim subject, who becomes the priority within these conversations. However, the tropes and stigmas that brown girls navigate do not universally apply to every Muslim. For Black Muslim girls, their Muslimness is read alongside their Blackness. As the repressed trope continues to dominate (hence a reporter’s surprise at seeing two Muslim women in Victoria’s Secret), in contrast, Black Muslim girls’ sexuality is still read through anti-Black tropes.
This particular anti-Blackness, filtered through gendered Islamophobia, is why Summer’s #HalalHottie blows up. Summer, as a Black girl, is hypersexualized. And in Jinn, we primarily see non-Black (Muslim) men on Twitter re-posting Summer’s picture with comments of their own: Halal hotties make me hard; Take off that scarf and show me what you got; Egypt loves Halal hotties!
In a khutbah, Imam Khalid addresses the photo, “It’s important for us to understand that Islam is not for show…I see some of my young Muslimahs flaunting their bodies and using Islam as a way to be liked. Astaghfirullah.” Although Imam Khalid does not mention Summer by name, the film cuts to shots of other Muslim women looking over at her. Some of them side eye her, brows furrowed, mouths pulled down. The masjid knows who the imam is speaking about. Even Jade—whose relationship with Summer is rife with tension—knows to turn to her daughter and ask, “What did you do?”
When the world constructs Black girlhood as something inhuman, other Black women can internalize these messages. This can be seen in Jade’s growing discomfort with her own daughter’s sexual expression: as Jade tries to locate her place within the community, and the film hints at a potential romantic interest between her and Imam Khalid, Summer’s transgressions put this into jeopardy. Summer has become a hashtag, a moment of rebellion against Tati’s remarks where she tries to assert sexiness, coming back to punish her. This moment highlights how Black girls do not win by trying to re-assert their sexuality; there is only temporary survival in accepting what is assigned to you.
“Stop, khalas, stop, before your photos becomes actions,” Imam Khalid urges during his khutbah. As faces turn and Summer runs from the room, the imam’s words follow her, “and the truth that you sought here in this masjid becomes the fire that some jinn burn in.”
They call them jinn / not people or angels / beings with free will to do evil or good / my mother throws God at me / but I was born a smokeless fire / she was born of clay / I may never see my mom again / she disappeared in a holy book for another day
Jinn’sexploration of Black Muslim girlhood stems from a long tradition of Black women exploring and constructing their own selves. The origin of Black girls may read as a simply theoretical debate, but it exists in direct response to real events. Racial science once noted Black people’s “dissimilarity to the rest of mankind” and, as Edward Long wrote, “must we not conclude that they are a different species of the same genus?”
Throughout the 19th century, Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman, was displayed in freak shows throughout Europe. Fascination was driven by her body and, in part, the sexualization of Baartman’s body type has played a role in thecontinued objectification of Black women’s bodies. She died on December 29, 1815, at 26 years old, but the exhibition did not rely on her being alive to continue: Her brain, skeleton, and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. And of course, there is Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken from her body without her knowledge and eventually used to form the HeLa cell line, cells which have been used extensively in medical research, while her family received no proper compensation.
This disrespect of Black women’s bodies leads to questions about where Black girls come from. If the world around us reduces us to flesh and cells to exploit, then there must be something beyond that negative expanse of subjugation. For Black girls, the question of origin becomes another way of reclaiming agency over ourselves.
The origins of Black girls, and the act of re-constructing the self that Summer partakes in, become processes of reckoning, following in that same tradition. In 1993, Lucille Clifton penned“won’t you celebrate with me;” Her poem about making self, as noted by Robin Ekiss, speaks to a particular self—specifically, about creating self as a Black woman: born in babylon / both nonwhite and woman / what did i see to be except myself?” Clifton wrote. “i made it up / here on this bridge between / starshine and clay, / my one hand holding tight / my other hand.
Throughout Jinn, viewers watch as Summer follows in the footsteps of Black women before her. Where Clifton made self up with clay, Summer redirects to the flame after her loss of sanctuary. Because for Summer, that sanctuary is gone after she and Tahir sleep together. His mother, once her only defender, stands outside on their porch and tells Summer that Islam is not a joke; Jade receives a vague call about the incident and bans Summer from performing in the talent show. Jinn shows us, again and again, how Black girlhood is often seen as a threat—by mothers, by community, and sometimes by Black girls themselves. But while the filmnotes Summer’s struggles as a new Muslim, it is Islam that gives her the option to be something else. Instead of only existing in an undefined expanse, she comes to see herself as jinn.
Jinn is a coming-of-age film and coming into anything is never easy. There are films that focus on white teenage girls who navigate misogyny, who may be bullied, who struggle, but who remain people. Jinn reveals how Black girls’ navigations of life, as messy as anyone else’s, catapult them into something else. Because Summer’s dancing is sexualized, because she is #HalalHottie, because she slept with Tahir, because she is a Black girl, she is seen as less than human.
Jinn is not a love letter. It does not paint with gold or lie to score brownie points. Instead, Jinn is familial, a normally quiet cousin who sits down after a family gathering and pours all of your beauty and ugliness and complexities onto the screen. It’s a letter to Black Muslims, to Black American Muslims, to Black women who converted and the children who came with them. In Summer, we see Black Muslim girls who continue to navigate transitions into adulthood on a precipice; the girls who look for God in themselves and sometimes cannot see.
Summer’s internalizing of messages about who she is culminates after she flees to her father’s house and performs in the talent show anyway. It is her chance to be free through self-expression. She starts the dance with a scarf partially covering her head, which falls as the choreography progresses. At the end, she asks the audience if she can recite a poem for them. Her mother has come to stand in the back of the crowd. “I am smokeless fire,” Summer begins, looking out, “I am the smokeless flame.” Through her poem, we see all of Summer’s frustrations channeled into the only available path she sees for herself. We are witnesses to a collision of beings meant only to be addressed behind whispers of ayatul kursi: the Black girl and the jinn.