DUBAI Aug 13 A television drama about the life
of a seventh century Muslim ruler, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, is
polarising opinion across the Arab world by challenging a
widespread belief that actors should not depict Islam's central
Conservative clerics denounce the series, which is running
during the region's busiest drama season, the Muslim fasting
month of Ramadan. Scholars see an undesirable trend in
television programming; the foreign minister of the United Arab
Emirates has publicly refused to watch it.
But at dinner tables and on social media around the region,
"Omar" is winning praise among many Muslim viewers, who admire
it for tackling an important period in Islam's history. Some
think it carries lessons for the Arab world, which is grappling
with political change unleashed by last year's uprisings.
Salam Sarhan, a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Diyar,
said the show was part of a gradual trend for the Islamic world
to re-examine its heritage more critically, and would open the
door for more television and cinema productions depicting
central figures in Islam.
"If anyone dared to depict these figures 20 years ago, he
would have been accused of blasphemy," he wrote. "Simply put,
depicting these revered figures with their mistakes,
limitations, rivalries, anger, hunger and thirst will thrust
Islamic societies into a new phase."
Mostly filmed in Morocco, the show was funded by the
Dubai-based but Saudi-owned MBC Group, a private media
conglomerate, and state-owned Qatar TV. The 30-episode series,
which an MBC spokesman said cost "tens of millions of dollars"
to make, is being watched on satellite television across the
It has been praised for its elaborate sets and costumes,
visual effects and battle scenes which involve elephants and
hundreds of extras.
But for many viewers, the production values have been
outweighed by the fact that actors in the series play Omar and
three other close companions of the Prophet Mohammad who were
the first rulers of an empire that expanded out of the Arabian
Historically, Muslim scholars have discouraged the depiction
of revered figures in art, and some argue it is expressly
forbidden, on the grounds it could be misleading or encourage
idolatry. This is why mosques are adorned with elaborate plant
and geometric patterns instead of human and animal images.
Though some close companions of Mohammad have been portrayed
on screen in the past, the productions have mostly been by
Shi'ite Muslims. The Omas series is believed to be the first
time that a drama depicting all four caliphs has been made by
Sunni Muslims, who form the majority across the Gulf and North
Africa and have historically taken a strict line against
depiction of such figures.
"Depicting the closest companions of the Prophet was a shock
to the (Arab) societies," said Suaad al-Oraimi, professor of
sociology at UAE University.
Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, the highest religious authority
in the country, harshly criticised the series in a sermon, while
Cairo's prestigious seat of Sunni learning, al-Azhar University,
also came out against it.
"The Guided Caliphs were promised the heavens ... Their
lives cannot be depicted by some actor," Ahmed al-Haddad,
Dubai's grand mufti, wrote in an emailed statement to Reuters.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed became one of
the show's most prominent opponents by tweeting: "I will not
watch the Omar Ibn al-Khattab series." His comment was retweeted
thousands of times within a few days.
Sheikh Hamad Wael al Hanbari, a prominent Muslim scholar
based in Istanbul, said he was concerned that the reputations of
the caliphs could become contaminated.
"It's completely unacceptable," he said. "These actors would
go on to play other roles - in action movies, for example - and
would forever be associated with the Rightly Guided Caliphs.
This is very dangerous. Their image has to be protected."
The show does not lack defenders, however. Saif al-Sahabani,
a columnist at Saudi Arabia's Okaz newspaper, dismissed the idea
that portraying prominent companions of the prophet was
forbidden under Islam's sharia law.
"The show has revealed a gap in the Arab and Islamic
collective consciousness, especially among those who rely on
tradition rather than their own minds," he wrote.
Sahabani cited endorsements of the show by a number of
senior Islamic scholars, including Qatar-based Egyptian cleric
Yousef al-Qaradawi, well-known in the Arab world for his weekly
programme on Al Jazeera television. Qaradawi was on a committee
of religious scholars that reviewed the script of the series.
Some viewers rejected criticism of the show because they saw
it as an attack on their personal freedom.
"Fed up with the extremists' point of view ... Who are you
to judge us because we watch the Omar series?" tweeted Yasmine
Medhat, identified by her Twitter profile as an Egyptian Muslim.
Hatem Ali, the director of the series, said his team braced
for controversy before the first episode was aired.
"We were prepared for this," he said by telephone from his
native Syria. "Omar is the first television series that delivers
such important figures. So people will be divided over this, and
Known for directing several historical television dramas,
including a trilogy about Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula,
Ali said the Omar series was not linked to the past year's rise
to power of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, and should not be
seen as advocating how a Muslim state should be governed.
But he added that the series touched on issues that remained
relevant today, such as the role of women in Islam, good
governance and the application of sharia law.
"I am not advocating the establishment of Islamic rule," he
said. "But Omar is an example of someone who took into account
changes and new tests that societies face."
Asked about the controversy, the MBC spokesman said his
company aimed to bring history to life. "This is a major goal
that can only be achieved through honesty and commitment to
Michael Stephens, a political and social affairs analyst at
the Royal United Services Institute in Doha, compared the series
to Saudi Arabia's decision to let its female athletes compete in
an Olympics this year for the first time.
"It's not changing the world but it's one step, and once
you've taken that step, then you can't go back," he said.
"Even though it's annoying to people, they're still watching
it - that's the weird thing about it."
(Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Additional reporting by Regan
Doherty; Editing by Andrew Torchia and Giles Elgood)