The Question of Muslim Drama & Cinema
  • Sun, 12/01/2013
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When the television series entitled “Umar” came out, it was the start of a major controversy. Everyone was either a supporter or an objector. The debate raged on the television , in the news, and across the Internet.

Whether it is allowed to depict the Prophet’s Companions is a point of disagreement in Islamic Law. Most of the Islamic law councils have ruled against it. Then there is the controversy surrounding actresses, even when they are properly dressed and their roles are limited. Other common points of discussion are the accuracy of events depicted in historical dramas and the sometimes questionable lifestyles of the actors.

The Supervisory Committee – of which I was one of its members – read the screenplay in order to confirm to the director that its content was suitable. At the same time, the committee did not wish to involve itself in the controversy over the series as a work of art, because people have a right to disagree in matters wherein there are no clear and decisive Islamic legal rulings.

The committee’s chair was Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi. He was of the opinion that it was okay to depict the Companions dramatically. He used to prohibit it. Then he considered how the question could be viewed from different angles and how circumstances had changed. For instance, he considered the massive cinematic industry of Iran and how they employed drama to deliberately malign the Companions. He also considered how important drama had become to younger generations throughout the world.

Fatwas have never stopped the general Muslim public from watching romantic movies and television series, most of which were imported from Turkey, South America, and Korea. The Gulf States were the largest market for such films, with almost no oversight or monitoring.

At the same time, gifted Muslims with creative vision and a noble message to convey were being stifled. Investors were hesitant to support their projects because of the questions surrounding Muslim drama, and this potentially huge market was being left untapped.

If poetry had been the repository of Arab culture in the old days, then drama has become the repository of culture of most of the nations of the Earth today. It is in these movies and television series that people’s customs, lifestyles, and approaches to problem solving are depicted. It is where their fears, anxieties, and dreams are given expression.

It has an enormous potential to express ideas, effect change, and form public opinion. It engages multiple senses, not just hearing or sight in isolation, and it addresses all human interests. It entertains, educates, and persuades all at the same time.

There is a Chinese proverb that goes: “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I may remember. But involve me, and I’ll understand.”

The viewers are participants in the action, experiencing the events in real time, laughing, crying, and feeling the suspense as the story unfolds on the screen. They are moved to feelings of hatred, anger, approval, forgetting for the moment that they are viewing something staged and not real life.

Another way that spectators are actively involved is that they determine the ultimate success or failure of the film or television series. They choose whether or not to purchase the DVD or continue watching the series. They critique the work and discuss it with their peers. This has a profound effect on what the entertainment industry produces.

Young men and women find in the products of the film and television industry adventure, excitement, thrills, as well as romance. It is well known that in some countries the streets are almost empty at certain times with millions of viewers eyes glued to their television sets.

It is also well known that the production budget for the movie Inception was USD 160 million, and its earnings were more than USD 825 million. It was seen by people in every country of the world and it explores complex questions on the nature of dreams and reality.

Another movie, Avatar, which cost USD 237 million dollars to make and which earned more than USD 2.7 billon, became the first film in history to earn over $2 billion worldwide and won three Oscars.

The documentary film Kony, which dealt with the war in Uganda was expected to have a maximum audience of 500,000 when it was released in March 2012. However, by the end of the year, it had been seen by over 75 million people.

Hollywood film stars, like Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, and Tom Hanks, are more famous than world leaders. The commercial wealth of India’s Bollywood constitutes the nation’s greatest capital investment for the century.

The film industry does not have only a national or regional impact. The overwhelming majority of films watched by Middle Eastern viewers are made in the West. The region’s satellite channels compete for the rights to air those films and are willing to pay a premium to have exclusive first broadcasting rights.

I once chanced upon a Gulf-based web portal devoted to the cinema. I found that young men and women were engaged in a lively exchange of information at a startling scale. They were discussing what they had watched, critiquing movies, and giving each other viewing advice. The intense level of activity and commitment made it clear to me that the minds and personalities of the next generation are being shaped by the film industry. It gives them their role-models and provides them with values. Though it is not the only factor shaping their lives, it has an undeniably powerful influence. They have developed new habits because of it, some good and some bad. In most cases, the viewers are passive, uncritical recipients of these habits and values. They simply accept what is presented to them repeatedly and consistently.

The constant changes being made in this way to their social habits, dress styles, modes of speech, opinions, feelings, and outlooks cannot be resisted by conventional means.

There is now a global culture regarding dress, recreation, beauty, communication, and leisure. Likewise, the Arabs, Persians, Romans, Chinese had many comparable customs before the advent of Islam. Islam did not reject them all, only those which contradicted with its lofty ethical teachings. Humanity is a single family divided by geography, culture, and ideology. However their essential nature is one and the same. This is the nature they are born with and which inevitably makes everyone similar. Yet every nation needs to express this commonality in accordance with its own values and unique heritage.