Omar could show us the future of history

It was the most popular and controversial Ramadan TV series last year and could, according to Omar's director Hatem Ali, lead to a revolution beyond the small screen.

The director Hatem Ali on the set of the historical television drama Omar. Reuters / MBC
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Ramadan TV series can cause arguments. Largely concerning which ones to watch, such arguments don't often spill out beyond the confines of the lounge. But last year, a Ramadan drama caused a stir not seen before, one that resulted in condemnation, online petitions and even a fatwa.

That show was Omar, a big-budget historical epic broadcast on MBC that was one of the most widely watched of the year, with an average of six million viewers per episode across the world, according to the channel. It was billed as the largest drama production in the history of Arab television, taking two years to make, costing US$50 million (Dh183.6m) and featuring more than 300 actors and 30,000 extras. A replica of the old city of Mecca was created, with 299 technicians from 10 countries building a set that covered more than 12,000 square metres.

While the series' historical accuracy was applauded, the controversy concerned its depiction of Omar Bin Al Khattab, one of the Prophet Mohammed's companions, along with the other Caliphs: Abu Bakr Al Siddiq, Uthman Bin Affan and Ali Bin Abu Taleb.

Historically, Muslim scholars have discouraged the depiction of such revered figures and many have said it is forbidden. Omar is believed to have been the first series made by Sunni Muslims which portrayed all four caliphs, and led to harsh criticism from muftis and scholars across the region. Egypt's Al Azhar University, a leading centre for Islamic learning, issued a fatwa against the drama for its depiction of the historical figures.

Despite such controversy, the show's director, the Syrian filmmaker Hatem Ali, believes that his drama has helped break down a wall and could become hugely influential in the process.

"I think it's going to be a revolution in drama and cinema," says Ali, speaking during last year's Doha Tribeca Film Festival. "We were able to do a personification of people who have been a taboo before, who had never been materialised in any kind of art, not even in drawings. It was forbidden."

And there's a belief that the visual depiction of such revered figures may eventually help change people's way of thinking. "It turned those people into normal humans, just like us," says Ali. "They can make mistakes, they can change their point of view. We used to have them as icons but they have been transformed into normal people."

Such a change in perception then opens up the door for further discussion, with humans able to become objects of scrutiny in a way that icons before them weren't.

"Their thoughts can now be subject to debates and discussion," says Ali. "They don't now give us facts and you only have to accept them and do them. Now they can be debated. Now you can negotiate them and see if they're right."

With millions tuning in to watch Omar, along with thousands who signed a statement on social media forums praising it for arriving at a time when there have been attacks on Islam and helping retell its history, the positive sentiments towards the series may have outweighed the criticism. Ali and his team also tried to appease the detractors, consulting Islamic scholars to verify the content. The actor playing Omar, Samer Ismail, agreed not to act for two years after the show so that viewers wouldn't associate any new character with that of the historical figure.

With this taboo now broken, Ali believes other filmmakers will follow in his footsteps. He points to the Oscar-nominated Iranian director Majid Majidi, who has been developing a feature about the Prophet's childhood. Early last year, Al Azhar University called on Iran to ban the film because of its visual depiction of the prophet.

Ali's next step is likely to cause less controversy. "I'm working on a film talking about what is going on in Syria. I won't be going back to a Ramadan series. I want to invest all my time in this film."