Picture this: two strangers outside a masjid are embroiled in a lively discussion over a minor campaign undertaken by a 13th century Turkish tribal leader who doesn’t even have a recorded biography. No, they are not historians specialising in 13th century Turkey. No, they are not even Turkish. They’re just one of the many, many fans of the massively popular, semi-historical, fantasy adventure television show Dirilis: Ertugrul. Seems strange? Well, not in this universe.
So how did a show starring previously unknown actors created by a newbie director gain so much popularity that it airs in 30 countries, is dubbed/subtitled in even more languages, boasts its own cosplay and merchandise, and even has several dedicated meme pages? How is it being picked up by major streaming services like Netflix and YouTube? How does it command a several-million-strong fanbase that even includes world leaders? Why are people hosting Ertugrul-themed birthday parties and printing Kayi flags on phone covers? And most importantly, why do the supposedly ultra-orthodox, music-is-haram, tv-is-shaitan touting, wildly-conservative Muslims love it so very much? Honestly, play the opening theme in any grocery store and a Muslim person will emerge from the other aisle to share a knowing nod.
It is rather heartwarming, and deeply surprising, to see how a TV show seemingly brings together people. Despite the fact that it is set in medieval Turkey, featuring warriors on horseback and damsels in elaborate head-dresses, it could not be more relatable to its viewers. Those who watch Ertugrul, almost see themselves reflected in it. It has found a dedicated following among Muslims, without being overly religious and preachy or stereotypical and cliched. It has managed to capture the hearts, minds, and imaginations of an audience who grew up feeding on mainstream media, but yearned to see themselves represented in it.
Think of all previous Muslim characters you’ve seen, from the gun-toting Hollywood terrorist to the shayari-dropping Bollywood poet, or even the occasional azaan soundtrack in quirky indie movies. I’m not saying that all Muslim representation in mainstream movies is negative, but the good ones are few and far in between. Dirilis: Ertugrul came and changed the paradigm. It worked quite the way hypernationalist parties work (which seems apt, considering it has also been accused of being political propaganda), it found its target audience and stuck to it. It didn’t try appealing to commercial interests or perceived prejudices, it just made a show for a relatability-starved Muslim audience, sprinkled with authenticity and creativity, and it did wonderfully.
I suppose there’s a lesson or two here for us Muslims (apart from ibn Arabi’s highly quotable sayings), a lesson about how we want to move forward as an Ummah. We don’t see ourselves represented in the media because we always rely on others to tell our stories for us. We expect someone who has probably never met a Muslim person in their life to show accurate, honest portrayals of Muslim characters. That’s absurd, and inevitably leads to disappointment. The solution isn’t abandoning and demonising media altogether, it’s too wonderful a platform to do that. The solution is, quite simply, to tell our stories ourselves. Look at the show in question, for example. Ertugrul is a show created by Muslims, starring Muslims, for Muslims. And look at how successful it turned out.
For too long we have presented our stories the way we expect to be seen, not the way we want to be seen. We’ve all seen Dirilis: Ertugrul, but perhaps it’s time for a Dirilis: Ummah?