Writer Azhar Usman Brings Joy and Islam to Hit Shows ‘Ramy’ and ‘Mo’
October 4, 2022
Recent hit shows on streaming services Netflix, Hulu and Disney+ are shifting the narrative about American Muslims in Hollywood, from “Mo,” which follows a Palestinian American refugee in Houston; to “Ms. Marvel,” about a teenage Muslim superhero; and “Ramy,” Ramy Youssef’s Emmy nominated, Golden Globe and Peabody award-winning comedy that just launched its third season.
If you stay and watch the credits for these series, you may notice one name popping up again and again: Azhar Usman. A comedian from Skokie, Illinois, who rose to fame two decades ago with the “Allah Made Me Funny” comedy tour. Usman has opened for Hasan Minhaj and Dave Chappelle, is a creative advisor and co-writer on the show “Ramy,” and is a writer on “Mo,” the hit Netflix comedy by Usman’s former touring partner, comedian Mo Amer.
For anyone following Usman’s career, these Hollywood credits rest atop a decades-long commitment to build a rich, more nuanced understanding of Islam and American Muslims for American audiences. Earlier in his career, Usman, a former lawyer, co-founded a Chicago-based foundation dedicated to Islamic spirituality and scholarship, inspired by the teachings of Umar Abd-Allah.
Usman is quick to point out part of a team in any writers’ room, and he considers himself a comedian first, but it’s clear that he’s helping shape a more nuanced and profound interpretation of Muslim spirituality in Hollywood. In a recent conversation with Silma Suba and Monique Parsons of Interfaith America Magazine, it’s also clear he’s only getting started. Audiences will be hearing from and seeing more of Usman in the months ahead.
The conversation has been edited for length.
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You’ve worked as a creative advisor and writer for “Mo” and “Ramy.” What has the work looked like in developing these shows?
My role on these shows, and these commercial projects, started from having real brotherhood, and real friendships with these artists and solo artists. And from this community of artists, people start to develop their own specific projects, and then their own specific visions. And then I just kind of found this lane where they all for some reason wanted to talk to me and get my take.
Ramy Youssef put it really nicely, he’s like, “You’re the guy who did the homework, you actually went to the class, you read the books, listened to the lectures.” I’ve taken this [spiritual] part of my life very seriously since I was a teenager. I’ve spent thousands of hours at this point just spending time with scholars and asking them questions and debating with them and arguing with them. And then they would give me homework and I’d go and read the book or watch the lecture. I’ve traveled all over the planet, trying to sit with these men and women who are, in my view, the real inheritors of tradition. They’re not ideologues; they’re not identity politicians. They’re real, genuine religious believers, of all backgrounds, converts, you know, Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, Africans, South Asian, Southeast Asians, like from everywhere.
And that has given me such a global perspective, that I think at this phase in my life I have some life experiences that I feel comfortable speaking about. Not in an authoritarian manner, but certainly in an authoritative manner. Like I do know what I’m talking about regarding certain matters. With that being said, I think what these guys are trying to tap into is: Here’s the guy who did the homework, went to class, paid the dues, has been around the block, and has a lot of perspective to add. And then I’ve just found this really nice lane where I can help them figure out what it is that they’re trying to say [in their shows].
I love words, and I love language. So, a lot of times, even if they start with a feeling or a raw idea, I can help find words and help them give words to what it is they’re trying to say.
Are they coming to you to talk about Islam, about comedy, or both?
I would say there are three things. Islam for sure, and then comedic punch. I am a funny comedian, thank God. Then also just this life experience thing. I lived through a 20-year marriage, which unfortunately ended at the end of 2017. There’s been a lot of life experiences gained. I got remarried in 2019. So now I’ve been married for three years in my second marriage. So, these are a lot of hard-fought life lessons. And I made a lot of mistakes, and there’s been a lot of learning vicariously from my terrible decisions.
What’s it like being in the writer’s room? How much of the storytelling is grounded in your own truth?
I would be remiss if I didn’t start by first explaining the way the show is written overall. Ramy has really developed a very distinct visual and artistic style, and also a storytelling style. In his mind, he has what he wants to create. The writer’s room is assembled with people who are at various levels, from writer’s assistants to producing writers. All that really means is a greater level of input in terms of how to steer and how to craft the boat that Ramy is trying to do work on in that particular episode or season.
The writer’s room has eight to 10 people on any given day. It’s a very unique environment because everybody in the room knows that we’re here to support bringing Ramy’s vision to fruition. And to do that, there’s a tacit agreement that not only is it totally confidential, but also a real safe space where everybody feels like they can share and say anything.
So, everybody that writes on the show is kind of bringing a type of radical authenticity to the project, and then Ramy is deciding which pieces he wants to use. Think of it like a sports team, where everybody’s playing a different position, and he knows what this person is really good at and what that person is really good at, and he will elicit their input accordingly.
So, as far as my truth, I have talked about making a lot of bad decisions in my life and a lot of regrets that I have, and things I wish I could’ve and should’ve done differently. Some of those find their way into Ramy’s character and into the show. It’s not tied to a specific fact pattern, but the emotional truth is there.
Both “Mo” and “Ramy” have religious literacy around Islam weaved into the storytelling. What has it been like to bring that side of Islam to the mass audience?
Frightening. It’s been very frightening. Because, fundamentally, I reject the premise that an intelligent person should go to a fictionalized television show, on a network like Hulu or Netflix, to get religious literacy. My God. That whole idea is so frightening to me because, honestly, that’s not even my intention.
The way I look at it is that there’s a lot of bad information about Islam out there. And there’s a lot of content that is highly objectionable from any religious value standpoint. So, I’m just interested in helping to offer better information, maybe not perfect, but at least better alternatives. There’s a statement of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that scares me very much. He said to his companions that the thing he feared most for his community, especially towards the end of time, was a hypocrite with an eloquent tongue.
If I’ve learned anything from the spiritual teachers that I spend a lot of time with, it is to beware of the makers of claims. I try to be careful in making claims and even that is a claim. It’s like staying in my lane. I’m a comedian. My job is to be funny, make people laugh, give them joy, my personal spiritual intentions behind that are between me and God.
There’s also a statement of the Prophet where he said the thing that was beloved to God, after completing the religious obligations, is to enter joy into the hearts of the believers. I want to enter joy in the hearts of believers, not just Muslim believers, just human beings who have any sort of notion in their heart that there’s got to be a higher power. Beyond that, the religious literacy in the shows ends up being almost like a consequence, not a goal. It’s a consequence of just wanting to show a grounded realistic portrayal of actual living Muslims. These shows [“Mo,” “Ramy,” “Ms. Marvel”] are descriptive, not prescriptive. They’re descriptions of living Muslims, not a prescription on how to be a Muslim.
What’s your favorite scene or episode you’ve worked on?
There’s a scene in season two where Ramy’s family hosts the woman that will go on to become his wife, Zainab, and her father, Sheikh Ali. Just what that scene would look like and grounding that and then making sure to address the Arab racism against Black people was a very important scene. Having this very nuanced dialogue that is like a critique and a devastating criticism of these kinds of identarian Muslims who talk a lot about Islam, but then they’ll go and set up a liquor store in the middle of the hood, which is devastating the Black community, and they don’t even connect that hypocrisy themselves. So, putting that under the microscope, calling attention to that, that was important.
So beyond just being a staff writer and contributing to the whole season, working on that specific episode, which is called “Frank in the Future,” was a really emotional and truly artistic experience with Ramy. The episode also focused on the father-son dynamic. As a father to my four sons, a lot of emotional material that was mined and found its way into that episode really touched a lot of people. I got so many messages from people saying that they cried at the end because of the father-son moments.
What does interfaith work look like in your life?
There is a controlling or guiding narrative that I’ve found from my Sufi path. The biggest takeaway that I’ve learned from the Sufi teachers I spend time with is that everyone always asks: What’s the purpose of life? And the shortest, simplest answer I’ve found that has been the most convincing and has put my heart at ease is that the purpose of life is love and service.
Love God, love the creation of God, serve God, serve the creation of God. Find worthy projects, bring benefit to people, bring benefit to the creation of God, and God will love you. It’s not about me, it’s not about my ego. It’s not about what I want. It’s not me, me, me. It’s about being of service and of course, first and foremost, to your mother, to your father, and then to the community. These are truths that are easy to speak about, and the most difficult thing to implement.
I am developing an original television show that further explores or leverages my work and experiences in developing and creating, and writing for Muslim themed content, entertainment. I am also developing a podcast with Mo Amer.