Controversy Over Omar

Written by  Osama al-Sharif

What happens when Omar Ibn al-Khatab is the center character in one of the biggest TV series in the Arab world?

By the time you read this, one of two things would have happened. Either the most costly Arabic TV series in history, Omar, has been banned from the screen after airing a few episodes due to popular religious pressure, or MBC was able to withstand objections, and millions of Arabs and Muslims are following the thirty-one episode drama series during the holy month of Ramadan.

The series’ namesake, Omar Ibn al-Khatab, is the second Muslim Caliph and one of the most influential characters in Islamic history. The series had created so much controversy weeks before its airing. Omar Ibn al-Khatab is a sahabi (a close companion of the Prophet) and for decades religious fatwas, primarily in the Sunni world, prohibited the visual depictions of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), his family, and his close companions.

The TV series was written by Walid Saif, a writer who created many well known historical drama series in the past. MBC and Qatar TV, the two co-producers of the series, have approved the script and the historical details by having renowned Muslim clerics, including Yousef al-Qaradawi, verify the narrative.

The SR 200 million project (JD 40 million) was directed by Hatem Ali, who said the series will alter incorrect concepts about Muslims and Islam. But other clerics, including the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, attacked the project and described those involved in it as sinners. One Saudi prince vowed to take legal action to prevent the show from airing. Likewise, an Egyptian lawyer filed a law suit in Cairo, while another law suit was filed in Kuwait to stop the screening of the series.

The main controversy involves the depiction of Omar Ibn al-Khatab by Syrian actor Thamer Ismail, which is his first drama appearance. Ali stated that the committee of clerics had requested that the lead actor, playing the role of Omar Ibn al-Khatab, to be a novice who commits himself to not playing any future roles for some years. The director argues that there are no direct prohibitions in the Quran or hadeeth (Prophet’s sayings) against the depiction of close companions. However, other important characters will be played by actors, including a cousin of the prophet and his uncles.

Critics of the project, which took two years to film, include religious clerics and laymen. The clerics say the series will distort history by presenting a controversial interpretation of historical events. Others say the actor who portrays Omar Ibn al-Khatab will be associated with this unique character and cannot take another role in the future. After the showing of the first episode, social networks were abuzz with comments and reactions. But people were divided between those who praised the production (Omar was filmed in Morocco and relied on 30,000 actors and extras), and those who condemned it and called for an immediate boycott. Such divisions will continue, but it is possible that fundamentalists might have the upper hand in the end. The director admitted that the writer, the actor, and the producer were all taking a big risk.

 

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MBC Chairman Sheikh Walid Ibn Ibrahim defended the project as the biggest drama event to date, adding that it attempts to focus attention on one of the most interesting periods in Islamic history. It is noteworthy that such a bold move was taken by a Saudi TV channel. Previous drama projects portraying Islamic figures, such as Al-Hassan wa al-Hussein, had also created controversy. That TV series was banned in Iraq by Shiite clerics, and was rejected by Al Azhar in Cairo.

It is worth mentioning that senior Shia clerics have allowed the depiction of renowned religious figures in dramatic works, including the portrayal of prophets Yousef, Ibrahim, and Yacoub. One Sunni cleric has warned that Iranian producers were working on a drama series portraying Prophet Mohammad.

Meanwhile, Omar will be seen by Muslim audiences outside the Arab world. MBC has announced that it had sold the rights to Turkey’s leading network ATV. An Indonesian network has also bought broadcasting rights for its territory. The series will be dubbed in many languages including English, French, Spanish, Persian and Urdu.

On the technical side, the drama series features extensive battle scenes, using real elephants, and computer graphics to recreate towns, cities, and historical backgrounds. Proponents have praised the authentic portrayal of costumes and the detailed historical research.

If the series is not banned, then it will mark an important milestone in Arabic TV production. For years the feature film Al-Resalah (the message), which was produced in 1977, had to deal with similar objections, mainly from Al Azhar. It was only shown on Egyptian TV a few years ago. The late director, Mustafa al-Akkad, was the target of much criticism for showing an uncle of the Prophet, Hamza, played in the English version by Anthony Quinn. But Al-Resalah opened the way for tens of drama productions that dealt with the dawn of Islam. Omar could have the same effect on future historical productions that portray close companions of the Prophet.

But the series will not escape critical evaluations, especially by conservative religious figures who will dissect the production and raise objections to historical interpretations. On the other hand, the director and producers of the series hope that the portrayal of  Omar Ibn al-Khatab’s life and deeds will have a positive effect worldwide, by focusing on his great personal traits: justice, modesty, tolerance, and vision.

Osama al-Sharif

Osama al-Sharif

You can contact Osama at osama@mediaarabia.com

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