Following pickets by Muslim groups, leading British cinema chain Cineworld has canceled all screenings of the blockbuster film The Lady of Heaven. The historical epic in Britain tells the story of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad.
Protesters called the film “blasphemous” and “sectarian filth”. The governments of Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Morocco have all condemned it. The Muslim Council of Britain has ruled it “divisive” and more than 130,000 people have signed a petition to ban it.
For some, this is the “moment of Islam’s“ Brian’s life, ”alluding to the Christian protest against the 1979 parody film Monty Python about the life of Jesus. But Heaven is not a parody of Islam. It does not intend to expire or ridicule the Islamic faith. Written by a Shiite Islamic scholar, Yasser al-Habib, he actually wants to tell the “untold story” of one of the most revered figures in Islam, using a contemporary storyline that includes the Islamic State (IS) as an introductory tool.
However, scholarship shows that the narrative on which the film relies represents a very specific interpretation of Islamic history. Not only would this exclude the majority (Sunni) consensus, but many Shiite Muslim interpretations would also find it extreme.
Although Islam includes many different denominations, tensions have erupted throughout history between the two largest sects, Sunni and Shiite. To understand why this film was called “sectarian,” it is important to understand the differences between Sunni and Shiite theology.
The initial rift between the Sunnis and the Shiites was the result of a succession dispute following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. Sunni Muslims (the majority) believe that Mohamed’s companion, Abu Bakr, was elected caliph. Shiite Muslims living in the minority believe that the prophet directly appointed his cousin and son-in-law, Alit, as the husband of his daughter, Fatima. This debate eventually led to the crystallization of two separate Islamic sects.
Fatima is thus a central figure in Shiite Islamic thinking. He had a direct bloodline to the Prophet. And she was the mother of Hussain, whose death in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD is considered one of the shaping moments of Shiite Islamic faith and practice.
Fatima herself is said to have died shortly after the Prophet. The way he died is another controversial issue between Sunnis and Shiites.
Some Shiite scholars believe that the Prophet’s two companions, Abu Bakr and Umar, wounded Fatima behind a door while forcing them into Ali’s house. It is believed that this caused his injuries, which eventually led to his death. In contrast, many Sunnis find this assumption deeply offensive that their two most revered figures contributed to the death of the Prophet’s daughter.
Some critics of the film have suggested that one of the opening scenes in The Lady of Heaven contains a hidden reference to this interpretation of Fatima’s death. In the scene, Islamic State fighters forcibly break into the house of a young Iraqi Shiite boy. The boy’s mother (also called Fatima) is pushed behind the door and eventually executed.
The film’s website describes Fatima as “the first victim of terrorism”. Contemporary depictions of Fatima and other early Islamic figures as revolutionary warriors point to what my research says is a very specific narrative about the arc of Islamic history.
Fatima has long been revered as an “example of purity and religiosity”. However, as Ruth Roded wrote in her 1994 book, Women in Islamic Biographical Collections, until recently, she was a “marginal and even passive” figure in the events of early Islam.
It was not until the 1950s that Shiite thinkers, including Ayatollah Khomeini, a former Iranian supreme leader, Khohiniini, reconsidered the role of Fatima. According to Rachel Kantz Feder, a specialist in Iranian studies, “she changed from a weak victim to a brave revolutionary heroine”.
This shift was part of a rethinking of Shiite history, from the silent dissident to the emancipatory struggle that took place during the 20th century. In his 2011 book Shi’ism: The Religion of Protest, Iranian-American scholar Hamid Dabashi claims that this shift helped inspire the Shiite Islamic Revolution in Iran.
The Lady of Heaven extends this revolutionary narrative, drawing a distinct parallel between some of the Prophet’s companions (mostly Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman) and IS living in Iraq today. Malik Shlibak, one of the film’s producers, recently commented to BBC Newsnight that “they [Abu Bakr and Umar] they were barbaric, ISIS-like figures ”.
This is an extreme and marginal point of view, even within Shiism. Ayatollah of Sistan, the current highest scholar of Shiite Islam, has issued a fatwa condemning the curse of the companions of the prophet in this way. The man behind the film, Yasser al-Habib, a Kuwaiti-born Shiite priest exiled in the UK, has long been a divisive figure between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Al-Habib became known for his view that the Prophet had been murdered by Abu Bakr, Umar, and his third wife, Aisha, who were revered by Sunni Islam.
Some commentators have expressed concern that the film could exacerbate Sunni misconceptions about Shiite beliefs. In particular, it may reinforce the historical tendency to call Shiites “kafr” (unbelievers) in extreme Sunni discourse, a trend that has become increasingly apparent in recent years, especially since the rise of IS.
As sectarian tensions flare up in the Middle East, this film is a potential point of contact in the long history of Sunni / shi’a hostility.
Enlighted Kingdom, the production company behind The Lady of Heaven, was hired to comment on this article, but did not respond before it was published.
Why the Lady of Heaven film shares Muslim opinion – SABC News
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