Serial and the American Muslim: A Perspective

Editor's Note: The author wishes to remain anonymous. Cover image from

The podcast Serial has riveted millions of listeners throughout the world, investigating the murder of 18 year-old Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago and the case against Adnan Syed, the young man convicted of the crime. The series has garnered attention for highlighting the mysterious circumstances and inconsistencies of the investigation, and many now openly question whether Adnan was wrongfully convicted. But beyond the “whodunit” appeal in the series, we should never forget that this is a real story, about real people, with real consequences. As Serial comes to an end, here are some of the broader lessons we can reflect upon as a Muslim community.

Increasing Compassion For Others

We label and form judgments of others routinely on their mere appearance, heritage, socioeconomic status and other features on the outside, without knowing anything about them. Even when we do “know” a few things about someone else, especially if that is something we perceive negatively, it’s nowhere close to an accurate picture of who they truly are.

It’s easy to characterize someone like Adnan Syed based on his conviction or his reported indiscretions in a very simplistic, black and white manner. But as you learn more and more about a person, their life, their upbringing, their challenges and circumstances, it changes your perception. It’s fair to say that for many of the millions listening to Serial, the way they view Adnan today as a person is different from how they saw him in the first episode. Learning the details about someone’s story naturally develops the rahmah (mercy and love) we have for them. It transforms them from a one-dimensional caricature/stereotype to a complex, nuanced human being who we can more readily understand—and treat more fairly.

We’ve been privileged, in a way, to learn so much about Adnan over the course of Serial, because it reinforces the need to be compassionate for others when we don’t know their whole backstory, which applies to the majority of people we interact with in our lives. We don’t know about the struggles and stress faced by those who gruffly pass by us in the street, or who walk paths in life that we might disapprove of. If we did, we would surely be more compassionate with them then we actually are. There is so much more to a person than a singular action they commit. Depersonalizing others because of how they appear on our own checklist eventually validates our injustice towards them. It’s what eventually sets the stage for widespread cruelty and repression in a society. Humanizing others, meanwhile, increases our compassion and engenders hope and equity.

Never Pass Judgment and Move On

Just because someone has been convicted of a crime, we really don’t know what they have truly done. Aside from the fact that there are countless individuals wrongly convicted for various reasons, even for those who are actually guilty of the crime, we can never claim to have knowledge of that person, their state, and their ultimate fate. There are numerous occasions where the Prophet ﷺ warned Companions from making their own judgments on believers who were convicted of serious crimes, as they were unaware of the import of their repentance and their ultimate position with Allah.

While maintaining his innocence for the crime for which he was convicted, Adnan has had the courage to own up to many of his personal missteps that others use to deride and discredit him. "At the end of the day, if I had been a good Muslim", he says, a sentiment that could be shared by any of us. Those missteps are in the past, and should remain there. As long as we continue to dig up the pasts of people, all it does is point to our pettiness, jealousy and self-righteous "piety", which only degrades ourselves. Let them move on, and move on yourself.

Allah Is The Concealer

There have been numerous details about Adnan’s life that have been put in the public eye, details that are private and personal—and have nothing to do with his guilt or innocence. No one, no one, deserves to have their character dissected in a public forum, and he now has had to endure it a second time. Everyone has a skeleton in their closet, but Allah, out of His sublime Mercy, conceals our faults from others. He is the Concealer of flaws, and we should be thankful that Allah has kept them out of public view—for now. That could change at any time, especially if we ourselves make a point of trying to expose the faults of others. For those in our communities who gossip, backbite, rehash irrelevant mistakes from the past, and assassinate the character of others, know that each time you do that, the fragile veil that protects you becomes more and more tenuous. It’s just a matter of time before we ourselves are exposed, in this life or the Hereafter. The more Prophetic practice is to protect the dignity of others: “Whoever conceals [the faults of] a Muslim, Allah will conceal [his faults] in this life and the Hereafter.” (Muslim)

The Uncertainty of Life…and Guidance

By all accounts, Adnan Syed was your typical American Muslim teenager. Many aspects of his life, from searching for a balance between seemingly disparate cultural identities, to struggling with the temptations of adolescence, are shared by many young Muslims. What happened to him could have happened to any one of us. We never know what life has in store for us; the fact that we have been protected from such tribulations is an act of perpetual grace from Allah and deserves our gratitude to Him.

Every moment in Islam is a precious gift, made possible by the ongoing guidance from Allah. This guidance could be taken away from us at any time, just as swiftly as the material comfort and stability of our lives could be taken away.

I once had a close friend who had the same upbringing as I did, just like many American Muslims, just like Adnan. He was kind and dedicated to Islam; he helped keep me in the fold of Islam during those confusing and challenging days as a teenager. After college, we drifted apart, and he later went down a path littered with disillusionment with Islam, drugs, psychosis and eventually, murder. He now sits in jail, his life in ruin. And yet, here I am, still Muslim, in part, because of his own support back when we were younger, keeping me in the religion that he later rejected. Here I am, now, with the blessings of faith, freedom, family, wealth and health. I could have been easily him, just as he could have been easily me. We all could have been Adnan.

We don’t know where life takes us, we don’t know if the blessings of Islam will be preserved in our hearts, we don’t know if we will be protected from tribulation. We can only be grateful for God’s guidance. Every state of obedience to God we find ourselves in should be a source of humility, not arrogance, because we don’t know what the future holds.

Perfect Justice is with God

If there is one thing we’ve learned about our judicial system from Serial, it is that it is imperfect, like we are. We can be idealistic and have the best intentions to be just, but as human beings, we will have failures. The failures in the Adnan Syed case are representative of the very human failings we have in our own institutions. Judicial systems, regardless of country or ideology, will have their share of inequity (granted, some more than others) because they are driven by human beings. Judges, investigators, policemen, lawyers, and reporters will make mistakes. True, perfect justice is only through God.

I don’t know the truth of what happened with Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee. I personally believe he should not have been convicted, but that doesn’t really matter. Even if he is proven innocent, and even if “justice” is served and he is exonerated, it doesn’t change the facts. A young woman was brutally murdered and her family and friends were dealt an unimaginable tragedy to carry their entire life. A young man has languished in jail for 15 years, the prime years of his life gone, as his loved ones mourn the loss of what could have been. Even if he is freed, his reputation has been tarnished, and the difficulties he and his family have endured can never be wiped away or forgotten. That is an injustice that can never be corrected, that’s a worldly equation that we can never solve. Only in the Hereafter can true justice and mercy be achieved, where the imbalances and tragedies in the lives of Hae, Adnan and their families can be rectified, and even reconstituted into eternal happiness, by God’s Grace.

The Divine equation solves all the problems with this case. Knowing that fact is the only way this sad story makes any sense.


Activism Related Articles