“Al-Hassan wal Hussein” can be classified as yet another historical and religious TV series, but the increasingly popular TV series breaks a religious taboo, once thought untouchable in the Arab world: depicting the Prophet’s family.
It isn’t the first. Last year, TV channels aired the Iranian-produced “Yusuf El-Seddiq,” chronicling the life of Prophet Yusuf.
Biopics are a staple genre that has established its popularity among Arab audiences since the mid 1980s when viewers were kept on the edge of their seats for three Ramadan seasons, watching the life of Egyptian spy Refaat El Gamal.
The genre was particularly revived in the past couple of years due to the success of King Farouk, which attracted the attention of a dwindling audience to Egyptian serials which drove producers to make big-budget biographies of iconic Arab figures as well as lesser-known personalities whose lives were shrouded in mystery.
This year, the big-budget biopic “Al-Hassan wal Hussein” chronicles the thorny relationship of Prophet Mohamed’s grandchildren Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein with the Prophet’s Companions following the murder of Uthman ibn Affan, the fourth Caliph.
The series has stirred controversy as it is believed that depicting the Prophet’s family members on screen is forbidden.
“Al-Hassan wal Hussein” comes as the first Arabic production of a series depicting the Prophet’s Companions and members of his family.
The series which is directed by Abdel-Bary Abu Kheir is a joint production between Syria, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. It received the blessings of influential cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the Syrian Dar Al Ifta and a number of other scholars.
In Egypt, terrestrial television refused to air it, dodging the controversy. However private Egyptian satellite channels Al-Hayat Series, Al-Nahar and Al-Tahrir have started airing it, along with private Saudi channel Rotana and Lebanese satellite channel LBC as well Tunisian and Moroccan channels.
A lawsuit was filed against the Egyptian Satellite Company to stop airing the show.
“We are a moral authority we have announced our opinion prohibiting these shows as depicting these religious figures is sacrilegious in Islam,” explained Ibrahim Negm, official spokesperson of Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa.
“We don’t hold any executive authority, it’s in the hands of the law,” he told Daily News Egypt.
But despite the adamant position of the major religious entities, the shows quickly gained popularity among Egyptian viewers, who find it highly informative.
“It made me understand everything about how a messenger behaves and now when I read the chapter about Yusuf in the Quran I understand it perfectly,” explained Amina Sadek, who watches the series online.
On the other hand, Negm points out, “There are other means of learning about the lives of the messengers, prophets and other religious figures that do not include their depiction.”
“There are many Islamic scholars who prohibited these shows while a number of others do not,” said media expert Abdel Aziz, who is personally against prohibiting these biopics and hopes that in the future more figures are depicted but without any fabrication.
“The idea of banning or prohibiting something from the media is not feasible anymore due to the emergence of new media that does not abide by the law,” he said.
“In addition, the freedom culture which has been flourishing makes it very difficult for an authority to impose its views and oppress the people.
“The solution to this controversy is for Islamic scholars to provide guidance for these productions as well as place strict control over the content but not to prohibit them altogether.”
Al-Azhar scholar and televangelist Sheikh Khaled El-Guindy also gave the show his blessings.
El-Guindy explained that there are no restrictions on depicting the Prophet’s Companions, saying it is like “giving an example” to make it more relatable and that God gave many examples in the Quran.
The Iranian influence
Last year the Iranian production of “Yusuf Al-Seddiq” was also a subject of controversy.
Having the Islamic Republic of Iran behind these productions that are penetrating the Arab World raised a lot of questions, particularly regarding spreading their own brand of Islamist ideology.
“Any producer of a work of drama tries to portray his point of view through his work, therefore having Iran produce the show; they definitely hold their views and ideology which they try to promote through this artwork in the media,” explained media expert, Yasser Abdel Aziz.
“Drama production in Iran is under the control of the Islamist government hence these series have been approved and supported by the state and hold their vision and ideology which they want to promote,” he noted, pointing out that producers and artists who defy the state face a lot of difficulties in expressing themselves.
The series was first shown dubbed in Arabic on Iran’s Arabic satellite channel along with another biopics depicting the life of the Virgin Mary. Major Islamic institutions such as Al-Azhar, the Islamic Research Center and Dar Al-Ifta have issued fatwas prohibiting these television series.
“As Al-Azhar and Islamic Research Center, we have declared our stance on this topic, prohibiting any depiction of the prophets, messengers, the ten companions of Prophet Mohamed who were promised a place in paradise and Prophet Mohamed’s family,” explained Sheikh Mahmoud Ashour, from the Islamic Research Center.
“Who has seen the messenger or prophet or any of these figures to be able to write and depict them properly?” he said, “Furthermore, the actor’s personal lifestyle may be reflected on these honorable figures.”
Last year, Egyptian Melody Drama defied the fatwas and started broadcasting “Yusuf Al-Seddiq” to a very high viewership.