Aug 19, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard
(Reuters) – A television drama about the life of a seventh century Muslim ruler, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, is polarizing opinion across the Arab world by challenging a widespread belief that actors should not depict Islam’s central figures.
Conservative clerics denounce the series, which is running during the region’s busiest drama season, the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Scholars see an undesirable trend in television programming; the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates has publicly refused to watch it.
But at dinner tables and on social media around the region, “Omar” is winning praise among many Muslim viewers, who admire it for tackling an important period in Islam’s history. Some think it carries lessons for the Arab world, which is grappling with political change unleashed by last year’s uprisings.
Salam Sarhan, a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Diyar, said the show was part of a gradual trend for the Islamic world to re-examine its heritage more critically, and would open the door for more television and cinema productions depicting central figures in Islam.
“If anyone dared to depict these figures 20 years ago, he would have been accused of blasphemy,” he wrote. “Simply put, depicting these revered figures with their mistakes, limitations, rivalries, anger, hunger and thirst will thrust Islamic societies into a new phase.”
Mostly filmed in Morocco, the show was funded by the Dubai-based but Saudi-owned MBC Group, a private media conglomerate, and state-owned Qatar TV. The 30-episode series, which an MBC spokesman said cost “tens of millions of dollars” to make, is being watched on satellite television across the Arab world.
It has been praised for its elaborate sets and costumes, visual effects and battle scenes which involve elephants and hundreds of extras.
But for many viewers, the production values have been outweighed by the fact that actors in the series play Omar and three other close companions of the Prophet Mohammad who were the first rulers of an empire that expanded out of the Arabian Peninsula.
Historically, Muslim scholars have discouraged the depiction of revered figures in art, and some argue it is expressly forbidden, on the grounds it could be misleading or encourage idolatry. This is why mosques are adorned with elaborate plant and geometric patterns instead of human and animal images.
Though some close companions of Mohammad have been portrayed on screen in the past, the productions have mostly been by Shi’ite Muslims. The Omas series is believed to be the first time that a drama depicting all four caliphs has been made by Sunni Muslims, who form the majority across the Gulf and North Africa and have historically taken a strict line against depiction of such figures.
“Depicting the closest companions of the Prophet was a shock to the (Arab) societies,” said Suaad al-Oraimi, professor of sociology at UAE University.
Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, the highest religious authority in the country, harshly criticized the series in a sermon, while Cairo’s prestigious seat of Sunni learning, al-Azhar University, also came out against it.
“The Guided Caliphs were promised the heavens … Their lives cannot be depicted by some actor,” Ahmed al-Haddad, Dubai’s grand mufti, wrote in an emailed statement to Reuters.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed became one of the show’s most prominent opponents by tweeting: “I will not watch the Omar Ibn al-Khattab series.” His comment was retweeted thousands of times within a few days.
Sheikh Hamad Wael al Hanbari, a prominent Muslim scholar based in Istanbul, said he was concerned that the reputations of the caliphs could become contaminated.
“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “These actors would go on to play other roles – in action movies, for example – and would forever be associated with the Rightly Guided Caliphs. This is very dangerous. Their image has to be protected.”