Warning: contains spoilers!
In 2016, Malaysian actor and director Syamsul Yusof made RM17.4 million (USD4.2 million) at the box office with his supernatural horror film Munafik. He is now back with a sequel Munafik 2 which grossed RM5.65 million (USD1.37 million) in box office sales on the first day itself. Twitter is abuzz with praises for the film and its director, raving specifically about a climactic scene towards the end of the film. Some people have even gone as far as to say that everybody should watch the film “Demi Allah” (“For Allah”).
Unlike the previously reviewed horror comedy Hantu Kak Limah there is absolutely nothing funny in how Syamsul Yusof depicts the jinn (hidden concealed creatures described in the Quran) and their loyalty to their master Iblis (Satan).He shows the possessed characters with many jump scares and violence. The movie plays on certain Muslims’ religious hypocrisy and misinterpretation of Islam, and this creates an effective fire and brimstone scare tactic that creates a very specific type of horror element in the film.
Munafik 2’s horror is contextual, stemmed from the idea that not all preachers in Islam teach the right and true ways of Islam. This is exaggerated by the antagonist’s character Abu Jar played by Nasir Bilal Khan, a preacher who is leading his village into damnation by preaching a false interpretation of Islam. Abu Jar is revealed to be a worshipper of Satan, who is turning Muslims against the true path of Islam using violence and intimidation tactics. Enter the protagonist Ustaz Adam, a role reprised by Syamsul Yusof, the religious leader at a neighboring village, who has come to Abu Jar’s village to try to heal the former religious leader who is now very sick due to Abu Jar’s witchcraft, and subsequently to also help his daughter Sakinah, played by Maya Karin. The film then centers on Abu Jar’s hatred towards Ustaz Adam, and the measures he takes to destroy him through acts of slander and witchcraft.
There are two obvious themes here: Firstly, the importance of sticking to one’s faith and the ‘true teachings of the Quran’ in the face of any adversity, and the second being the fact that religious leaders are also human. Despite being pious and well-versed in religion, Ustaz Adam is constantly disturbed by a mysterious being that whispers to him about how he is not as pure as he thinks he is. Later in the film, Ustaz Adam is revealed to have been possessed by a jinn and murders his own mother under this influence. This showcases to the audience how even the purest of religious practitioners are still subject to evil, but teaches the audience that even in the face of such adversity and ‘tests from God’, one’s faith in Islam must not waver, because Muslims are only put on this earth to serve Allah.
I agree with Yusof’s message of how there is always more to learn about the religion and that leaders who claim to know everything about Islam can be ignorant too. However, I disagree with his decision to create a cautionary tale to scare the audience into being better Muslims. Principally, I disagree with any attempt to scare a person into practicing any faith – be it Christianity, Judaism or Islam, to name a few. Religion is a sacred relationship that one has with one’s Maker and should not be governed by religious bodies or authorities. These institutions are meant to advice and guide, but not lay down laws based on human interpretation of the Holy Books. Hence fire and brimstone tales such as Munafik 2 do not contribute to helping one enhance their relationship with their Maker, but instead just scares them into following ritualistic practices.
Tropes like these are not uncommon in films related to religion, which makes Munafik 2 incredibly unoriginal in terms of style. A key scene within the film where Ustaz Adam is strung up in front of all the infidels and slandered by Abu Jar is eerily similar to depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus – specifically the 2004 Mel Gibson movie Passion of the Christ. While I appreciate the religious narrative in a film about Islam, I would prefer it if didn’t resort to an overdone and typical trope that’s been reused and recycled many times over through many mediums. If the intention is to showcase Islamic narratives, Syamsul Yusof could definitely do much better.
However, Munafik 2 is beyond well received by the Malaysian Muslim audience. This isn’t surprising. Naysayers and critics of Munafik 2 have also been verbally attacked and called disbelievers of Islam or lacking understanding of the religion to appreciate what the film has to offer. This calling out is un-Islamic as Prophet Muhammad once said that difference of opinions between the ummah is a blessing.
It would be better if both fans and naysayers alike take the lesson of the movie to heart and improve their faith, as opposed to moral policing and criticizing each other. Only then will the purpose of the film be fulfilled and its box office success more justified.