When late [Syrian] film director Moustapha Akkad produced his unrivalled film “The Message” [about the life of the Prophet Muhammad] many came out to oppose and insult him, labelling him an infidel or an atheist. However this film continues to draw in and dazzle anybody who watches it, whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims. This film was also reportedly successful in convincing 70 members of the film’s crew to convert to Islam, not to mention the unspecified number of others who watched the film and either converted to Islam, or at least obtained a better understanding of this religion. Although more than 30 years have passed since this film was first released, the film continues to be bought and watched. The most prominent accusation levelled at director Moustapha Akkad was that he had [illegally] depicted a number of the Prophet’s companions, such as Hamza Ibn Abd al-Muttalib, Khalid Ibn Walid, Ammar Ibn Yasir, Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas, Bilal, and others.
This film possesses great artistic and indeed historical value, for it managed to portray details [of the Prophet’s life] in a dazzling manner, and can truly be classified as a masterpiece. “The Message” was not the first film to touch upon early Islamic history, and the Arabic film industry has produced a number of important motion pictures such as “Al-Shaima ukht al-Rasool” [Shaima, the Prophet’s Sister], “Wa Islamaho” [And Islam came], and “Bilal, Muezzin al-Rasool” [Bilal, the Prophet’s Muezzin]. However “The Message” undoubtedly remains the best, most important, and most successful of these films.
There have been a number of attempts to produce television series that deal with early Islamic history as well, in addition to biographies of specific historical figures, and we have seen television series such as “Salahuddin Ayyyubi”, “Malouk al-Tawaif” [series about the Umayyad Caliphate], and “Omar Bin Abdul-Aziz”, amongst others. However the television series “Abu Al Qaqaa Al Tamimi” [about a renowned Muslim military leader and companion of the Prophet] which was first screened two years ago has elicited sharp controversy for several historic slips and lapses, something that badly affected the credibility of the series as an objective work that introduces Islamic history to Arab viewers.
Today, Arab viewers are preparing for the holy month of Ramadan, which is traditionally the time of year that the best produced television series and dramas are broadcast in the Arab world. This year, two major television series are being eagerly anticipated, and we can expect them to draw heavy criticism and objection from certain quarters. The first television drama is “Al-Farouk”, which is being produced and screened by MBC TV. This television series will be a biography of the rightly-guided Caliph and companion of the Prophet Umar Ibn al-Khattab. We hear that the production crew of this television series met with a number of prominent sheikhs and scholars, including the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar; allowing the script to be checked and reviewed, particularly with regards to the depiction of the character of Umar Ibn al-Khattab – and other prominent companions of the Prophet – in an attempt to obtain approval and endorsement for this television series, particularly as fierce controversy still rages over whether it is religiously permissible or not to depict the companions of the Prophet. There is general consensus [within Islam] that it is not permissible to depict any of the Prophets, however as for Prophet Muhammad’s companions, this issue remains controversial and open to religious interpretation. Some Islamic scholars believe that is permissible to depict all of the Prophet’s companions, whilst others allow this with the exception of the ten companions promised paradise, which includes Umar Ibn al-Khattab, whilst some others believe that it is haram to depict any of the Prophet’s companions at all. Of course there is an even more hard-line and ultra-extremist faction that considers any and all pictures to be haram!
The other television drama which “Rotana Khalijia” satellite channel has produced and is intending to broadcast during Ramadan is entitled “Al-Hassan, Al-Hussein and Muawiyah.” This series will look at an extremely sad period of Islamic history that was later dubbed the “the great upheaval” and the repercussions of this historic period continue to affect the Muslim world today. The production crew of this television series also sought to consult with senior Muslim scholars, in order to gain approval for this dramatic work, despite the risky and sensitive nature of this subject, particularly as Islamic scholars and historians are divided are still to this day strongly divided on the events of the great upheaval.
The producers who have taken such courageous steps should be thanked for introducing Islamic history in an up-to-date manner that utilizes modern technology, bringing this story out of the history books and into our living rooms. Today, film and television serve as history books, allowing us to see an important period of a bygone era with our own eyes. Examples of this are the film “The Ten Commandments” with regards to Judaism, and “Gandhi” with regards to Indian history, amongst others. Yet such films must rise to the great challenge and ensure that what is shown is balanced, accurate, and objective, in addition to not viewing the action through any particularly ideological or political lens, presenting an honest and sincere television series that will be popular today, tomorrow, and in the days to come.
Working to create films and television series such as this reflects the state of awareness that has developed in the minds of some religious scholars. This shows us that they know that they are in dire need of new tools for Islamic discourse; this would allow them to address the general public with respect, rather than scorning them by utilizing objectionable and unacceptable rhetoric that only serves to alienate people from Islam.
Some people have already begun to sharpen their knives in anticipation of these two major television series scheduled for Ramadan, unleashing a torrent of condemnation and criticism, even before anybody has seen the television series in question. However the final judgment will, as usual, be made by the general public. We are hopeful that nobody will start any campaigns to have either television series banned or taken off the air, because the time of censorship has come and gone once and for all, and we are enjoying greater freedoms now than ever before.