Night of the Muslim Zombie

An art series & essay by Safdar Ahmed

Duane Jones as Ben in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Safdar Ahmed, ‘Hungry for flesh!’.

The zombie-Muslim in Western thought

This lithograph by an unknown artist of 1880 depicts a Muslim dhikr ceremony (the ritualised remembrance of God) in Cairo. Note the ghoulish features of the participants, who seem collectively possessed. The print is held in the Mary Evans Picture Library in London.
A historical photograph, captioned ‘Musselman at Dachau’, sourced from the Holocaust Education & Research Team Archive website.

The zombie war for civilization

In our time the theory of Islamic fatalism is employed by those who believe the ‘war against terrorism’ is actually a war against the entire Muslim world. This includes Samuel Huntington’s theory of an impending ‘Clash of Civilizations’ between Islam and the West, which has exercised a strong influence over far right-wing discourses in Europe and the US over the last two decades. Exponents of this theory include Bernard Lewis, Roger Scruton, Bassam Tibi, Irshad Manji, as well as the conspiracy theorists: Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders, to name a few. Huntington’s thesis is notable for over-determining the role of Islam in contemporary political affairs. The wars of the future, he asserts, will be waged not in the interests of nation states but to consolidate larger religious and cultural identities. Amongst the world’s major civilisations (of which he identifies seven), Huntington perceives the greatest threat in Islam, whose ‘bloody borders’ reflect an inherent antagonism towards non-Muslims, and general incompatibility with Western secularism and democracy. ‘The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism’ Huntington asserts. ‘It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.’

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Infection Spreads’.
Safdar Ahmed, ‘The Geert Wilders Zombie Survival Guide’.

An old fear — rising from the dead!

‘Muslim rage’ on the cover of Newsweek magazine.
Safdar Ahmed, ‘Zombie Fries’.
Safdar Ahmed, ‘Brain-Food’.
Safdar Ahmed, ‘Stop Islamo-fascist Zombie-ization!’.
Audience reactions to American Sniper.
A female Muslim zombie attacks in Dying Light.
Zombies in the urban landscape of Harran, from Dying Light.

Real zombies: religious and secular

I once explained the concept of Muslim zombies to a Hazara man from Afghanistan who had come to Australia as a refugee only to find himself imprisoned for over two years in an immigration detention centre. I wondered if he would associate the zombies I’d drawn with the type of xenophobia that saw him locked away for years and mislabelled an ‘illegal queue jumper’.

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Media Zombie’, watercolour on paper.
Safdar Ahmed, ‘Muslim + Zombie’.

Back to life!

As the zombie threatens and unsettles us, so can it lead to new understandings. For just as it draws a shaky line between us and them, so may it undermine the false oppositions on which this distinction is based. The zombie, in other words, may disturb the conceptual binaries that separate Islam from the west, reason from superstition, civilization from barbarism, and the sloppy clichés they invoke. I therefore submit a soft, squidgy hope: in the malleable (old and new) concepts of faith and identity which problematise and defy either/or categories. We should not follow Samuel Huntington (who was himself following Leo Strauss) in believing: ‘there can be no true friends without true enemies.’ No. Our identities are embroiled in a state of constant flux. Human beings are changeable and changing. We should all be zombified for this reason — if only to break our inert self-regard. You deserve to have your entrails wrenched out and eaten before your eyes if it jolts you from your smug assumptions. The zombie draws us back to life and into the real world.

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Zombie boat people’, watercolour and gouache on paper.
Safdar Ahmed, ‘Stop Creeping Sharia!’.
Safdar Ahmed, ‘Women in Islam’.


Georgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Zone Books, 2002.

Artist, flaneur and volunteer with Refugee Art Project.

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