The present generation has been weaned on multi-media. From video to graphics to animation or live TV, most of them have used this channel of communication as an oracle of learning and information source. This is the fodder for today’s generation that gets most of its knowledge and news from an instrument held in the palm. Even earlier generations have been swept away in this fast-paced and stimulating medium of information. Plain text books no longer hold the same appeal. It was perhaps with this intent that a Saudi-owned television network — MBC — released a TV series depicting the life of one of Islam’s most central and admired personalities, Omar Ibn Al Khattab, a close companion of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and the second caliph in Islam.
The series, a historical journey of the most powerful and influential caliphs of Islam, was timed for release with the advent of Ramadan this year, the peak ratings season for TV programmes in the Middle East. This television series has set records by virtue of being the largest-ever Arabic television production, with some 30,000 extras and a multi-national production team from ten different countries. It had taken them more than 300 production days to shoot and complete the 31-episode series.
Immediately after its airing, the show stirred up a storm of controversy and criticism as complaints began to pour in from some clerics and fundamentalists who did not appreciate the life-like portrayal of Islamic figures, claiming that such acts violate the principles of Islam. According to the network, thousands of calls jammed the phone lines as viewers across the Middle East called for MBC to cancel the broadcast. Many others also denounced the show and the network on social network sites.
Although there is no clear-cut ban on the visual depiction of Islamic figures, fundamentalists believe that such portrayals must not be allowed to be screened as it could lead to viewers idolising the actors. Their arguments also extend to drawn portraits or pictures that may depict such figures.
And it has not been simply people who were objecting to the series. Islamic institutions also got into the act. Egypt’s Al Azhar University in Cairo, one of the world’s leading centres for Islamic learning, was quick to issue a fatwa against the series, stating that MBC’s depiction of the historic figures is sinful. The Saudi Dar Al Ifta, the country’s Islamic legal research centre, responsible for issuing religious edicts, was not far behind. They joined Al Azhar in denouncing the show and seconding the opinion.
In their defence, the show’s producers have argued that several leading Islamic clerics have “vouched for the historic accuracy of their depiction of Omar Bin Al Khattab and his exploits”. Perhaps with intention, the MBC group had not submitted the show to Al Azhar for prior approval, as is usually the norm for shows depicting religious themes.
An Egyptian television critic said that the continued airing of the series, despite Al Azhar’s flat rejection and denouncement, marks a “defeat for such official Islamic institutions that refuse to understand and integrate technology. Many of these institutions are stuck on their old positions, while other institutions have long ago approved such depictions,’ he said.
Another professional who rose to the defence of the network hit back at critics of the TV series, accusing them of agitation. Khalid Al Musleh, a professor of Islamic law at Saudi Arabia’s Al Qasim University, stated that “the issue of impersonating the Prophet’s companions has always been controversial, with some scholars sanctioning it and others considering it prohibited”.
He defended the network’s right to choose one of two positions on the impersonation of revered Islamic figures and act accordingly. “They choose to go for the opinion that it is religiously permissible to impersonate them. That does not give those who adopt the opposite view the right to start slandering them. The war waged by critics of the series against those who took part in it is like promoting sedition. Those who slam the series and its team are inciting hatred and creating an atmosphere of hostility and conflict.”
Today, the media is the best means of carrying out the message and it is unfortunate that some fundamentalists continue to stifle endeavours that promote the message of Islam to a much larger populace than could have been imagined centuries ago. The media is also the most acceptable and appealing way of getting historical events across to a wide audience in all corners of the world.
How many among the audience are non-Muslims, who would like to know more about Islam and its notable figures? How many Muslims would like to see and hear what perhaps they had not understood from text books? It is regrettable that rather than promoting the authentic retelling of Islamic history through a new medium to viewers, some of our Islamic institutions have teamed up with fundamentalists in seeking to deny them that knowledge.
Rejecting a new medium with no authentic religious precedence is indeed of great disservice to Islam.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah.