Islam is a faith embraced by over 1.2 billion people around the world, from Alaska to Adelaide. And it is flourishing by the numbers across all continents with people drawn to the reverence of total submission to the will of Almighty God. Yet quite often the practices of Muslims outside Saudi Arabia are often drawn to question by some of the religious edicts that flow from our scholars.
In this context, some years back a Saudi businessman financed the production of a movie that was released in selected theatres across America. The movie Muhammad, the Last Prophet portrays the early days of Islam through the eyes of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and was accomplished using cartoon caricatures to deliver the story line. With a budget in excess of $12 million (Dh44 million), this was one Saudi's attempt to educate those of other faiths on the simplicity and oneness of this faith.
To ensure theological accuracy, the financier brought on board four Islamic scholars who were to ensure that there were no distortions or misrepresentations of religious or historical facts during the making of this film. Great pains were taken to ensure the accuracy of content. Additionally, the famed Jamaat Al Azhar Al Sharif in Cairo provided critical input during the production phase, adding to the accuracy of content.
From early reviews the film had generated a lot of interest among theatregoers in the US. Buoyed by the initial response, the producers planned their strategy to enhance the distribution of this historical piece through mainstream theatre operators in the US, as well as to foreign markets outside the US.
The Saudi financier also turned towards our own authorities to discuss the possibility of getting approval to release the film on DVD, since we have no movie theatres here. But he was turned down. While approval was given by the Ministry of Information, there was a flat rejection by the Supreme Ulema Council of this country.
No valid reason was provided by these clerics, except a vague reference to a similar precedent handed out 30 years ago banning the distribution of The Message for reasons known only to them. The businessman even offered to tailor the movie to Saudi standards, provided he knew what the guidelines were, but he was given nothing except a firm and flat rejection!
And herein lies a nagging issue. Why would a movie acceptable to the Muslims in the West and to scholars from reputable Islamic institutions find resistance from our own clerics? Granted, Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam, but we Saudis should have no exclusivity on this faith. It belongs to the entire world, and when decisions such as the refusal by our Ulema to allow this film into the country are taken, they do all of us a great disservice.
Or are we a higher standard of Muslims than others? Judging from some of the edicts handed out in recent years applying the badge of sin on some issues, maybe we are on an altogether different track than the rest of the world. Pokemon and Mickey Mouse were decreed sinful and a tool to deviate us from Islam, and so were camera-equipped mobile phones, as was the application of physical education for girls in schools. And God forbid, the dreaded concept of ‘mingling', that activity which brought individuals of different sexes in close proximity to each other! So it was not surprising that the movie Muhammad, the Last Prophet was another casualty.
Islamic madhabs or methods, the interpretation of religious material in the three major areas of belief, religious practice and law fall under four schools of religious thinking which are the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali schools of thought, and none seem to have the restrictive qualities that are often associated with fatwas or religious edicts announced by some of our clerics. Islam flourished and spread 1,400 years ago because of its message and tolerance. It spread quickly then from Europe to the far corners of Asia, at a time when the fastest means of transport was on horseback. Those who accepted the faith did so because of their acceptance and submission to Almighty God. They were not coerced nor bribed into following this faith. And it has continued flourishing ever since.
Therefore, when we in this country are quick to reject any new idea by adopting a holier than thou attitude, and with no authentic religious precedence, we are either telling the world that we are better Muslims than them and that their brand of faith is misguided, or we are simply fooling ourselves.
Today, the media is the best means of carrying out the message, and an attempt from some quarters to stifle new and creative means in the pursuit of our faith is a cause of alarm. It only leads to intolerance and subsequent rejection of all others who do not see eye to eye with us. And in today's world that should be unacceptable.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.