Distorted Truths: TV Drama Peddling Fake Islamic History

Saturday 23 November 201901:22 pm
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"هاجس صناعة الأنبياء"... متى تتوقف الدراما عن تقديم الشخصيات التاريخية كأنها معصومة عن الخطأ؟

I admit that I am one of those who long believed that the companion of the prophet Amr ibn al-Aas never made erred and had no role in the great Fitna (the first major internal struggle in the Muslim community which resulted in both civil war and the eventual religious schism of Sunnites and Shi’ites). Actor Nour El Sherif played the role of the prophet’s companion ibn al-Aas in a popular television series, yet none of this part of the story was relayed to us.

With time, I read on the subject and was shocked, disturbed and even refused to believe that Amr ibn al-Aas did not save the life of Osman ibn Affan, the son in law of the Messenger of Allah, I was so troubled by this that I began to doubt the occurrence of the Fitna itself but faced reality and calmed down when I realized that it had really happened.

Ramadan’s Series

These series confuse me, when any major production depicting a historical figure is announced, I pay heed to my mind and head towards the books so I don’t fall into the trap of “sanctification and glorification” that often occurs in depictions of historical characters. I search for the personage’s positions and opinions. I try to watch prepared!

It seems like we are on the cusp of a new era of historical productions.  A few days ago the series "Kingdoms of Fire" began airing which depicts the character of Tuman Bay the last Mamluk Sultan who ruled Egypt before its conquest by the Ottoman empire. A series on the prophet’s companion Khalid ibn Al-Walid was also announced. It will screen next Ramadan, in addition to "The Pope of the Arabs" which tells the story of Pope Shenouda III.

 Since the series about Khalid ibn Al-Walid was announced I asked myself: What about Malik bin Nuwayra’s murder by the soldiers of Khalid ibn Al-Walid, who was quick to marry Malik’s wife on the same night. It was a controversial incident and Caliph Amr Ibn el Khattab believed that Khaled should be held accountable. I also wondered about the discharge of Khalid ibn Al-Walid from the army, the first discharge in Muslim history, how will that be presented to the audience?

What we watch are “tailor made” distorted paternalistic TV productions, whose only purpose is to confirm that we were once great, exactly as religious groups do, conferring no importance to the present and the damage from longing to live in the past.
Think Khaled Ibn Al-Walid is an honourable military hero as portrayed in all these paternalistic TV productions? Think again, Ibn Al-Walid ordered the killing of Malik to marry his wife on the same night, he was dishonourably discharged from the Caliphate’s army.

 Before answering this I have to ask first myself, will the manual for producing works about historical figures change? Can we see productions about historical or religious figures that don’t turn them into prophets? Or will we adhere to the rules of the manual that begins with choosing the character to be depicted and of course it must be a character congenial to the state, you would never find a series depicting rebels unless they come into power, and that character must be popular to ensure the project’s success.

Flawless Characters

The most significant and catastrophic issue in these series is the historical narrative of the character, for all works of this genre decide early on to shed light on the positive side of the character and to stay away from "disturbing” elements, even if it means fabrication and denial of the facts. The most important thing is that image of the inspiring hero remains unblemished. With these principles, the series about Amr ibn al-Aas highlights his piety and devotion but without discussing even in one scene, his role in causing fighting among the companions of the prophet and how he became governor of Egypt, which is the most important of Ibn al-Aas’s political roles. Omar ibn El Aziz was also depicted in a similar way as the devout and just ruler without mentioning some of the dictatorial decisions of the "Fifth Rashidin Caliph".

Obsession With Sanctification

This phenomemon isn’t limited to religious figures so we can’t say this stems from piety and fear of tarnishing religious icons but it also extends to historical figures. In the series “The Giant” about the life of Abbas El Akkad, he is the writer that never erred and was never defeated, which is not true. El Akkad engaged in many losing battles, the series “The Days” about Taha Hussein makes no mention of his intellectual battles, the most documented was on Jahiliya poetry.

Distorting the Ottoman Narrative

"Kingdoms of Fire" is another series which adheres to this manual, but with a twist which only highlights this problem. The character of Tuman Bay has been depicted before in productions like “On Bab Zuweila” and there is nothing new about the story, other than a political foil to get back at Turkey which recently produced “The Resurrection of Ertugrul” which celebrates the founding of the Ottoman empire. This Turkish series also fell into the trap of “glorification”, depicting the leader as an angel, prompting a response from an Emirati production company which produced a series about the last of the Mamluk sultans before the Ottoman occupation, it’s very clear from the first few episodes that undermining the Ottomans is a pillar of the Emirati series.

Why do they do that? Why do they insist on an angelic image of any personality they depict? They buff away the flaws and reveal an angelic image. I think the answer is two fold: paternalism and fear of knowledge. There is no lack of information about any character that has been presented so we can’t suppose these omissions were unintentional. These works are subject to censorship and approval from several institutions, led by Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Culture. The creators of these productions fear that a citizen will learn that a noble companion of the prophet was power-hungry, that the great leader that they learned about in history books was bloodthirsty, they are afraid that TV viewers will know that this important author licked the boots of the authorities, they are afraid to tell us that they are human. In their eyes that is tarnishing their image and if that’s the case why produce anything at all? That’s how paternalism works.

With the series” Kingdoms of Fire” we can add another reason for this phenomenon. If there is hostility towards a specific country, that is sufficient reason to pull out a character and to declare them an angel. Which is what Turkey chauvinistically did when it reproduced the life of an occupier and received a response in kind. Which leads us to ask, if a conflict arose between Germany and Russia would we find ourselves seeing “The Resurrection of Hitler” or “The Revival of Stalin.’?

The Truth Shall Prevail

The truth can’t be hidden forever, one day viewers who have had to endure this restrictive paternalism will search through other media and find the truth. 

More importantly, the day will come when viewers will ask: What is the harm in predicting historical figures as they really are? With their flaws and their strengths, beauty and ugliness, selfishness and generosity? What’s the harm in telling the viewer: What you see is a man of flesh and blood who rejoices, grieves, is tormented by internal demons and is saved by his dreams? Won’t this realistic image save him from the obsession with sanctification and restore worth to a person?

Despite my certainty that the viewer that has had this guardianship imposed on him will one day know the truth, that the next generations will know the truth. Still, there is a danger in these dramatic productions that erect walls around the minds of citizens that take years to break. Some live in a state of denial between what they were raised to believe and the truth, these productions are very far from a complete art.

What we watch are “tailor made” distorted paternalistic TV productions, whose only purpose is to confirm that we were once great, exactly as religious groups do, conferring no importance to the present and the damage from longing to live in the past. But the truth is, we will be in a better place when we stop this obsession with repackaging our history.

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