We are still witnessing the reverberations following the great television drama that focused on the life of Companion of the Prophet and Righteous Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab (may God be pleased with him) which graced our television screens last Ramadan. This television series has been the subject of heated discussion and indeed controversy, whilst the social spectra have utilized it – and its success – as a point in their favor and that of their orientation.
There is a camp that supports the arts and creativity and television’s ability to spread the message of Islam in a modern and civilized way, putting forward a vision of moderate Islam in an attractive manner. Whilst another camp is more interested in exploiting this in order to serve their political interests, citing historic Islamic figures, positions and events in a systematic manner.
This reminds me of what some revolutionary and suppressive regimes in the Arab world were doing in the 1960s. This was an era that witnessed a strong inclination and mobilization towards left-wing and socialist ideology, so it was only “natural” to see the publication of books and articles and the establishment of seminars glorifying and highlighting Companion of the Prophet Abu Dharr al-Ghifari (may God be pleased with him), calling him the “socialist” or “Red” Companion. Attention was drawn towards this Companion and his personal positions on asceticism and austerity, with it being said that al-Ghifari “offered the first model of socialism to the world.”
This is what the military revolutionary regimes of the time boasted of. They promoted and marketed socialism to their own people on the basis that this was in vogue at the time. However in order to ensure that the people accepted this, they had to make sure it possessed a religious cover and was therefore consecrated by one of the Companions of the Prophet. There was also a strong and concentrated promotion of Companion Abdel Rahman Bin Awf along the same lines, although perhaps less so. Awf was promoted and marketed by those who believe in capitalism and trade, and his character – as one who was concerned with economy and trade and developing this in a serious and successful manner – was cited as an example in this regard.
Within the realm of the Companions of the Prophet, may God be pleased with them, there are numerous opportunities to promote certain ideas, positions and characters. The Companions can be used to promote concepts and doctrines such as asceticism, leadership, trade, chivalry and generosity. This is the secret of the richness of the lives of the Companions of the Prophet and is something that proves Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) famous hadith “my Companions are like the stars, whomever among them you follow, you will be guided.”
The fear today is that the biographies of the Companions of the Prophet will be utilized to promote political Islam and its objectives, with the arts being used for this purpose. This will result in confrontation with the extremist voices that prohibit the arts, music and other forms of modern creativity and production. This is something that raises questions about the arts, and the concept of freedom and its barriers under the rule of Islam, which believes that the media and the arts are important but must only be harnessed for political discourse, rather than any other purpose.
This dialogue, which is very important and effective, is now taking place at the highest levels in Egypt and Tunisia, and it is being met with rejection, fear, suspicion, doubt and panic. However the issue of using the arts in the era of political Islam has now been raised, and there are parties jostling with one another to monopolize this.
As for the Omar Ibn al-Khattab television series, this raised a single issue; however there are numerous historical Islamic stories and figures that will not be as controversial and dangerous. This is something that could ultimately raise the ceiling on freedoms, regulations and laws to unprecedented levels, and may benefit everybody.