A television series exploring the lives of some of the founding figures of Islam has been dealt with harshly by the Iraqi parliament, which banned the series from the country's television channels just weeks after its Ramadan debut.
The move to ban "Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein," which delves into the lives of the Prophet Muhammad's grandsons Hassan and Hussein, may have stopped many Iraqis from seeing the conclusion of the 30-episode series. But it has done little to contain the debate over how Islamic history can be portrayed.
The series was denounced by Shi'ite and Sunni clerics alike when it debuted across the Muslim world at the start of Ramadan. In Iraq it prompted calls that it be taken off the air, in keeping with a fatwa issued by Cairo's influential Al-Azhar University that forbids the personification of prophets, companions, and those who have been promised paradise.
The controversy grew as celebrations of the Islamic holy month continued, and within two weeks Iraq's parliament banned the program from Iraqi satellite channels.
"It's most regrettable that parliament decided on August 13, in what I believe is the fastest decision ever made by parliament. It took only 2:45 minutes to read the decision and to vote on it -- and the speaker said that it was unanimous," Ahmad Mahjub, executive director of the only Iraqi channel broadcasting the series, Baghdad, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq.
"But it was not unanimous. At 9 a.m. the following day, the Media and Communications Commission -- which claims that it's independent -- decided to stop screening the series. So when did it [have the time to] examine the series and its contents?"
Presenting Islamic History
The ban has not prevented all Iraqis from tuning into the high-cost production, however -- it is still available on a number of foreign Arabic channels that reach the country's television viewers by way of the ubiquitous satellite dish. And the issue of Islamic history and how it should be presented is not something that can simply be voted away.
Religious leaders have been outspoken in their criticism. "It appears that the episodes that have been aired to date contain a lot of forging and distortion of the life of Imam Hassan. It also contains many lies regarding that subject," said Najaf's Sheikh Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i.
One Karbala resident, who declined to provide his name, said he refused to watch the series because it insulted important religious figures. "I saw one scene and changed the channel. The series does not conform to the principles of Islam that have been agreed upon by all Muslims, as have all the Islamic sects," he said. "Secondly, it clearly and blatantly misrepresents historical Islamic events."
Is It So Different?
The creators of the series -- written by Muhammad al-Yasari and Syrian director Abd al-Bari Abu al-Khair and produced with a budget of $3 million -- took pains to ensure accuracy. Six writers and more than 30 fatwas and religious references were consulted in developing the final script. The series also features popular actors from a variety of countries, including Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and the Persian Gulf countries.
The approach has been welcomed by many viewers.
"There's nothing wrong with the screening of a historical series that tells us about our history, the events that took place, while depicting the leading figures," said one Baghdad woman. "Are there not pictures depicting Imam Hussein [and others]? So what is wrong with depicting them using human actors?"
Baghdad TV executive director Mahjub says the channel carefully studied the series and its contents before signing the contract with the production company. "A dramatic work consists of a coming together; it is not history as it was, but what we can say is that everything mentioned in the series is history as such," he says.
"It is just a dramatic representation, but the directing and writing treatment was so excellent that it succeeded immensely in depicting the differences that arose between the Companions and some of the Prophet's immediate successors as being political differences and not differences in their beliefs," he continues. "They all respected each other, and all that happened was a matter of political differences. This is normal everywhere and at all times."
Winning A 'Phantom Conflict'
Mahjub suggests that those behind the ban are simply trying to gain political capital. "When we signed the contract with the production company, we believed that the series embodies the spirit of fraternity and love among the Companions and the Family. We believe that the historical depiction adopted by the series is in line with the beliefs shared by the majority of Muslims throughout the world, with all due respect to our Shi'ite brethren's belief in a differing historical depiction," he says.
"When we began to broadcast the series, we found that some political voices were calling for a ban on the series, and we believe that those political voices aim to create a phantom conflict in order to subsequently claim a phantom victory for the masses that they have let down."
Some parliament deputies, however, argue that they are not creating conflict, but eliminating a source of controversy.
"We are going through a period in Iraq in which we have suffered at the hands of those who preach discord, who strived between 2005 and 2007 to spread strife in Iraq," lawmaker Ali al-Shalah said. "I believe that this series regrettably falls within that framework."
Artists and intellectuals have long risked provoking criticism when dealing with religious issues seen by some as taboo. And that historical face doesn't change with Iraq's newfound freedoms.
"Much historical and religious information relating to religion and to religious figures is seen as taboo, and dealing with these issues can cross lines," explains Iraqi stage actor Bassin al-Hajjar.
"In conjunction with the new freedoms in Iraq -- described as freedom of information, freedom of publishing and broadcasting, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press -- there are still taboos and lines that cannot be crossed."
RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondents Hayder Rashid in Baghdad and Mustafa Abdel Wahid in Karbala contributed to this report