“I feel that the problem’s really that I just don’t know what kind of Muslim I am. Like there’s Friday prayers and then there’s Friday night and I’m, like, at both. I wanna pray. I wanna go to the party.”
The Hulu original series, Ramy, takes us into the world of a young Muslim man as he struggles to live out his faith. Ramy (played by Ramy Youssef, who created the show and co-wrote most of the episodes) is from an Egyptian-American family living in New Jersey. His life is directionless. He and his friends are concerned with, but not always observant what is halal (permitted) or haram (forbidden). Ramy does not drink or do drugs, but he sleeps around and watches a great deal of porn. He wants to be a good Muslim. He is clear that he believes in God (“God God, not yoga”). But he’s not sure how to live up to the calling of being Muslim.
The fact the Ramy is Muslim is important to the story, but it should be noted that the kinds of struggles he goes through are really not that different than they are for someone seeking to be a good Christian, a good Sikh, a good Jew, or a good Buddhist. He recognizes that there is more to being Muslim (or any religion) than just prayer and worship. If one doesn’t shape one’s life to the teachings, what good is the religion?
It is hard to characterize the series. On the surface it is a sitcom that looks at Ramy’s life with his friends and family. He and his sister Dena (May Calamawy) are thoroughly at home in American culture. His parents (Amr Waked and Hiam Abbass) still hold on to many of the ways they brought from Egypt. Ramy also struggles in his job working for his rude bigoted Uncle Naseem When the film is in sitcom mode it often relies mostly on sexual humor (sometimes crude sexual humor). But then an episode will come that is heartbreakingly serious. Some of those serious episodes center on one of Ramy’s family members. We get a chance to see their struggles with living in two cultures as well.
There are two seasons of the series currently available on Hulu. In Season 1, we follow in Ramy’s failing search for balance in his life. He keeps looking for ways to live in accord with his faith, but not only comes up short, he often makes even bigger mistakes. He understands that his life is sinful, but seems powerless to overcome himself. At the end of the first season, he makes a trip to visit family in Egypt. This is a pivotal event. He meets and falls in love with his cousin (Rosaline Elbay), but he also discovers Sufism, a more mystical movement within Islam that speaks to him.
Season Two has a much different vibe. Having returned home, Ramy learns of a Sufi center near him, and connects with its leader, Sheikh Malik (the fabulous Mahershala Ali). The Sheikh is initially uncertain about taking Ramy on as a student. He senses that Ramy is too self-centered to truly learn. That self-centeredness becomes an ongoing issue in Ramy’s life through this season. But soon, we see Ramy begin to mature. He seems to be living into his faith for the first time. He even gains the romantic attention of the Sheikh’s daughter, Zainab (MaameYaa Boafa). But the more he seems to mature, the more he risks losing if he fails. And indeed, his self-centeredness will prove his undoing.
Ramy is the most spiritual show I’ve seen on TV in many years. Although it is centered in Islam, it offers insight for people of any (or no) religion. It treats religious faith as an important part of life. At the same time, it makes it clear that following a spiritual path can be very difficult. It also gives us some insight into some of the barriers that we can place between ourselves and God. Is it enough to follow the rules? Even that seems beyond Ramy’s abilities. Do we improve ourselves by helping others? Or is helping others only a way of making ourselves feel better about our shortcomings? It even raises a difficult question of if we practice a religion because of ourselves or because of the God in the center of the religion?
Near the end of the final episode of Season Two, Ramy, his life in ruins hears a CD made for beginners in Islam. It quotes the Quran: “Truly God loves those who come unto him in repentance and loves those who purify themselves”. I suspect this is part of the framework for the next season. It is also an important concept for Ramy (and us all) to come to terms with. It suggests that God does not turn away from us even when we fail in living in God’s ways. It also suggests that the recovery of spiritual wholeness begins by our turning again towards God. I am reminded of one of the most significant phrases in Islam is three words (in Arabic) that are put at the beginning of all but one of the Suras in the Quran. They translate as “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful”. It is the compassion and mercy of God that many of us—across religious boundaries—rely on.