As a South Asian American mother, an observant Muslim, an immigrant to the United States, and a brown woman living in a white world, the second season of Aziz Ansari's Master of None deeply resonated with me. The critically acclaimed series has been applauded for filling the void of minority stories in popular culture, and the third episode of Master of None, "Religion," is particularly resonant.
I’d heard a lot of talk about the episode from my Muslim friends, some of whom found it offensive. But I was eager to watch it. Because Dev Shah, the aspiring actor Ansari plays, is a first-generation American, as my children are, I thought it might give me some insight into their mindset about their faith. I wanted to know how their generation would view the collision of our tradition with American popular culture. What I learned wasn't exactly surprising, but it deeply affected me nonetheless.
In the episode, Dev's parents (played by Ansari's real parents) are out to dinner with their cousins, who are devout Muslims. Although Dev is not a practicing Muslim, his parents ask him to pretend to be pious around his relatives, which means he must pretend to go to the mosque, fast during Ramadan, and not eat any pork.
Because Dev is a dutiful son, taking part in his parents’ charade is second nature. But eventually, he gets tired of lying and orders a pork dish in front of his mother, which deeply wounds her. She feels guilty about not instilling him with a sense of respect towards his faith.
The episode explores some very real questions about identity and faith.
Because Master of None is satire, the challenges of being brown, Muslim, and an immigrant are exaggerated for comic effect. But the episode explores some very real questions about identity and faith, such as: What is a real Muslim? Can a Muslim pray and use ugly language at different times? Can he fast some days and eat pork on others?
These are existential concerns people of all faiths wonder about. But it's particularly relevant to the children of Muslims growing up in the United States, where a combination of Islamophobia and cultural pressure to assimilate makes it very difficult for first-generation immigrants to adhere to tradition.
I grew up in a Muslim-majority country, and I am an observant Muslim. Like Dev's mother, I constantly worry about the fact that I have not properly taught my children the importance of their faith. Growing up, I took for granted that there mosque down the street would issue the adhan (call to prayer) five times a day, or the Islamic studies at my school. By contrast, my children are growing up in a country where they must make an active effort to be an observant Muslim. While everyone else at school celebrates Christmas, it's difficult for them to get excited for Eid. When the other kids eat pepperoni pizza at the cafeteria, it's difficult for them to make excuses not to have a slice.
It's the latter concern — the desire to stand strong against the temptation of eating pork — that Master of None captures particularly well. Although he initially promises to avoid eating pork in front of his relatives, he is a connoisseur of fine foods, and the temptation of eating pork is too much for him. Eventually, he decides to skip Eid prayers to go to a barbecue festival with his cousin.
My children are growing up in a country where they must make an active effort to be an observant Muslim. When everyone at school celebrates Christmas, it's difficult for them to get excited for Eid. When the other kids eat pepperoni pizza at the cafeteria, it's difficult for them to make excuses not to have a slice.
While the scene is played to comic effect, anyone of Muslim heritage understands that Dev's pork consumption has a deeper meaning. The flesh of a pig is forbidden to Muslims, and it is often taboo in Muslim culture to even touch or pet one. Of all the forbidden pleasures Dev and his cousin experiment with, this is the most egregious transgression of all.
It is the secret fear of all devout Muslim parents, whether immigrant or native-born, that their children will succumb to the siren song of pork, ham, sausage, pepperoni, salami — you name it. My son, who is 11, often asks why he can’t eat the pepperoni pizza at his school cafeteria. He knows the answer – the Quran forbids it and we must obey God – but that doesn’t stop him from inquiring. He is an American child, with all of the independence and assertiveness he has learned from this culture.
So what did Dev Shah show me about my first generation children’s possible future? I learned that my own actions will form many of my children’s future choices. Unlike Nisha, Dev's mother, who only gives a Quran to Dev when he leaves for college, I taught the Quran to my children from the time they were able to read. My son has a well-worn copy, where he knows he can seek answers to all of life's most pressing questions. My family has also remained connected to the mosque, visiting almost daily for prayers.
But even though I have tried to pass down my religious faith and tradition to my children, it is often a struggle. I live in fear that they will give in to the temptations not only of pork, but of American culture in general. In "Religion," Ansari shows us the experience of millions of South Asians — Hindus, Sikhs, Christian and Muslim — who are rejecting the traditions of their parents because they feel no connection with or understanding of them. As a parent, that is one of my deepest fears.
Aziz Ansari shows us the experience of millions of South Asians — Hindus, Sikhs, Christian and Muslim — who are rejecting the traditions of their parents because they feel no connection with or understanding of them. As a parent, that is one of my deepest fears.
In the episode, Dev asks his parents why they cannot be happy that he is a good person, and why they demand that he adhere to Islamic regulations like praying or fasting. It’s a valid question, and it's one that my own children often ask when they feel too lazy to pray or too hungry to fast. But as an observant Muslim, I do believe that it is not sufficient to be a good person alone. Believing in God implies following His commandments, and while I will not hold it against my children if they choose not to follow in my path, I hope they will at least know that the path is there.
I hope that a decade from now, my son will be different from Dev Shah. I hope that he will choose to identify proudly as Muslim, and I hope that he spends Ramadan in reflection and prayer, instead of pigging out at a pig festival. In a political climate where Muslims are battling not only Islamophobia, but also policies like the travel ban, our faith is very much at risk. If I want my children to grow up to be well-adjusted adults, hiding our identity is not an option.