CAIRO – A television series depicting the life of second Muslim Caliph Omar ibn al-khattab is sparking a heightened debate in the Arab world with thousands opposing the depiction of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) or his companions.
"The symbols of the Ummah (nation) are a red line," a Facebook user wrote on a page called "No to airing Omar," Agence France Presse (AFP) reported on Monday, July 23.
The actors "will tarnish the image (of the prophets and companions) through their roles in other films and series and plays," another said.
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The controversy began with the beginning of Ramadan when Saudi producers, the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), started airing a TV series titled “Omar”.
It tells the story of Omar Ibn al-Khattab, a close companion of Prophet Muhammad and influential ruler who oversaw the expansion of the Muslim empire in the 7th century.
Omar Ibn al-Khattab was the second Caliph and one of the 10 close companions of Prophet Muhammad, who were promised paradise.
The series is said to be the largest ever Arabic production, with 30,000 actors and a technical team from 10 different countries who toiled 300 days to make the 31-part series.
Although visual depictions are not explicitly banned in the Qur’an, Sunni scholars have generally agreed that personifications of religious figures are banned because it can lead to idolatry, which is strictly forbidden.
Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, has issued a fatwa against the series, saying that portrayals of Prophet Muhammad and his companions are forbidden.
Saudi Arabia's Dar al-Ifta, the kingdom's Islamic legal research center that issues religious edicts, has also issued a fatwa against the series.
Thousands have taken to social networking sites to denounce the series and call for it to be pulled off the air.
One page showed the actors' faces with the text "Shame on Muslims!" underneath in a large red font.
But the show's producers say they received support from several leading scholars who also reviewed the historical accuracy of the series, including prominent Egyptian scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi.
But some professors argued that the personification of the prophet’s companions is not banned.
“The issue of impersonating the prophet’s companions has always been controversial with some scholars sanctioning it and others considering it prohibited,” Khaled al-Musleh, Professor of Islamic law at Saudi Arabia’s al-Qassim University, was quoted as saying by the Saudi newspaper al-Hayat.
“Those who slam the series and its team are inciting hatred and creating an atmosphere of hostility and conflict.”
Musleh argued that instead of attacking people who believe impersonating the prophet’s companions is not against Islam, it is better to set the criteria that determine how they are impersonated.
“Strict rules should be imposed on the way those figures are presented to the audience in order to avoid any possible mistakes that could provoke the other side.”
The Islamic law professor cited the example of prominent preacher Sheikh Abdul Rahman bin Saadi, who attended a reenactment of one of the prophet’s battles, namely the Battle of Badr, at the Scientific Institute of Riyadh.
“That was 50 years ago and he did not see a problem with that,” Musleh said.
Sanaa Hashem, associate professor at Cairo's cinema institute, agrees.
"In Islam, there is no sanctification, and presenting these figures (on-screen) is in line with that," she told AFP.“It promotes a discussion of these figures, their religious and historical roles... which works towards intellectual development.”