Ramadan TV show stirs argument across Arab world

Tue Aug 14, 2012 10:37am EDT
 
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By Mahmoud Habboush

DUBAI (Reuters) - A television drama about the life of a seventh century Muslim ruler, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, is polarizing opinion across the Arab world by challenging a widespread belief that actors should not depict Islam's central figures.

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."

FOUR CALIPHS

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 Arab world.

It has been praised for its elaborate sets and costumes, visual effects and battle scenes which involve elephants and hundreds of extras.   Continued...

 
An undated graphic illustration for the Islamic historical television drama "Omar" is seen in this handout image released to Reuters on August 14, 2012. REUTERS/MBC/Handout