I read a news report recently stating that a number of television producers were intending to film a television series based on the lives of Hassan and Hussein, the two sons of the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph Ali Ibn Abi Talib. It is common knowledge that both Hassan and Hussein are held in high esteem by both the Shia and the Sunnis alike, and especially by the Shia. Nevertheless, this proposed television series will have to overcome some juristic and psychological obstacles to avoid the storms of religious protest from figures, especially Sunni figures, who object to the representation of semi-holy characters from our Islamic history. This is contrary to the Shia jurisprudence that has no objection to presenting such characters as part of the culture and ritual of Ashura, during which there are representations of the members of the Household of the Prophet. This could be attributed to the age-old position towards embodying the Shia jurist discourse in support of the symbols of the annual Ashura ceremony based on the idea that it addresses the sentimental side of the participants and there is nothing better than the arts for addressing the sentimental side of humans.
Ever since the introduction of dramatic and cinematic representation in the Arab world, the depiction of religious and historical figures has been a point of contention with its objectors and supporters. However, I must say that the Egyptian juristic position has been far more tolerant than other Sunni schools on the matter. I remember how actor Ezzat el Alayli played the great companion [of Prophet Mohammed] Abu Ubaidah Ibn al Jarrah, one of the ten companions who were promised Paradise. Moreover, the characters of companions such as Muawiyah Ibn Abi Sufyan, Amr Ibn al-As, Hamza Ibn Abd al-Muttalib and Bilal Ibn Ribah have also been depicted.
This issue has become more difficult and complex over the past few decades due to the prevalent hysteria and exaggeration in sanctifying the companions and the first generation of early Islam. This gives the false impression that the conflicts that took place during that era did not involve human beings with feelings of love and hate, oppression and ambition. Islamic historian Ibn Jarir al Tabari was not too embarrassed to say that these kinds of emotions existed among the companions in his written accounts and records.
A feature film such as Al Risala [The Message] by late Syrian producer and director Mustapha Akkad is a vivid example of the kind of oversensitivity that hampered the progress of art and tightened the margin of creativity for filmmakers and television producers. I heard Mustapha Akkad myself talk about the obstacles that hindered the making of his film about the Prophetic era. When the movie was released, most of those illusions and fears began to disappear, as the movie added to the beauty of Islam without harming the sanctified icons. Sometimes we impose restrictions on the movement of history because of groundless, sick illusions.
A Qatari body is currently funding a film about Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam but it was not able to proceed with the project without gaining a supportive religious position. Conferences and meetings are still being held in hotel halls, papers are still being printed and delegations are still being received in order to seek approval for the production of this movie. At the end of the day, we don’t know what a film like this could add in terms of dramatically representing the companions.
If some people can understand or support the oversensitivity regarding the on-screen representation of characters from the early Islamic era, others cannot understand it and extend this state of sanctity to contemporary characters, and to attempt to prevent the creative vision of art from portraying such characters in an expressive dramatic manner. Today, some leading figures from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are trying to block the production of a much anticipated television series created by the popular screen writer Wahid Hamed about the Muslim Brotherhood.
Freedom in our Arab world is a difficult issue as it is bogged down by history and taboo.