During Ramadan, the Arab World is treated to an abundance of new television shows. Most filmmakers, actors, and even advertising agencies focus on television production, especially in recent years as Ramadan comes in the summer. But this year, one stands out, a great production and the most controversial television series in the Islamic world so far - "Omar".
Two weeks after its release on Saudi private channel MBC, "Omar" has the most viewers among Muslims around the world, the channel announced. By its third episode, viewership on MBC increased to 317,432, along with over 140,000 online viewers.
Today the viewership, according to channel officials, has increased to six million viewers per episode on average worldwide.
Furthermore, MBC says, that "Omar", directed by Syrian Hatem Ali, is the largest drama production in the history of Arab television, with over 300 actors, including Egyptians Abdel Aziz Makhyun as the Prophet's Uncle Abu Talib, and Mohamed Abdel Hafez as Hothayfa bin Otba, as well as ten thousand extras.
A replica of the old city of Mecca where the events take place has also been created from historical records, and according to MBC, 299 technicians from ten countries built the set that includes the city and its surrounding areas and covers over 12,000 square metres.
"Omar" is the autobiography of a major figure in early Islamic history, Omar bin Al-Khattab, who was one of the Prophet Mohamed's companions, characterised as just, wise and a great leader of the early Islamic Empire from 634-644 AD.
However, fans of the show consider the project to be a crucial educational piece to teach the masses about the rise of Islam as a religion, focusing on its true understanding and the peaceful message it brings.
"In our time, with all these attacks on Islam as a religion of violence, this project retells the history and the truth about Islam," said a statement signed by over 15,000 fans of the show through Facebook and Twitter.
Director Hatem Ali and historian Walid Seif have consulted six top Islamic scholars, including Youssef El-Qaradawi, Salman El-Auda, Abdel Wahab El-Tarreri, Ali El-Salabi, Saad El-Ateebi, and Akram Diaa El-Omri to get the necessary historical facts and to verify the content.
All characters were depicted in a way that matched the historical information available.
Yasma El-Hawary, an arts graduate from the American University in Cairo and a viewer of the show, told Ahram Online, "I can't think of anyone more suitable for Amr Bin El-Aas's character than the actor who plays him....He matches the description of El-Aas as being a shrewd, highly intelligent man who belonged to the nobility of the Quraysh."
In an MBC interview with Sheikh Salman El-Auda, the sheikh said: "I encourage the investment in such a project, at a time when we all seek freedom of expression to help create cultural awareness and educate the masses about Islam."
"The world is changing and we must improve our interpretation of Islam and bring back prosperity to our region; and drama and arts are major elements," he argued.
However, drama critic Tarek El-Shenawi believes that as a drama it is not as good as it should have been. "I cannot judge all characters but Omar, played by Samer Ismail, could have been better," he tells Ahram Online.
"I admire the works of Hatem Ali and I understand the conditions such a production went through searching for a new face for this drama, to depict a figure like Omar bin Al-Khattab, but I believe Ismail is not the most appropriate actor for the role," El-Shenawi commented.
Yet the majority of viewers disagree with El-Shenawi. Rehab Hany, a doctor, tells Ahram Online, "I’m impressed by every single detail in the show; the crew is brilliant whether acting, music, directing, decorations and production. The series is almost number one."
Prior to the release of "Omar", Ali and the production team announced that they had to look for a new face to fit the role and the actor, Samer Ismail, had to agree to the condition that he will not appear on television for some years after the show, so that viewers will not associate the character played on screen and the actual historical figure.
Following that statement, one viewer on the programme's Facebook page commented: "It is not an issue. Previously the film El-Resala depicted Hamza, the Prophet Mohamed's uncle, played by Egyptian actor Abdullah Gheith and in the international version, Anthony Quinn; and no one associated the character with the real figure."
Another fan praised the series saying: "'Omar' opened my eye to a world I knew a little about from school and history books."
Another commented: "Not only does 'Omar' provide a lot of Islamic history I didn't know about, but it has also made me admire the Arabic language, which I learned a lot more of thanks to 'Omar.'"
With the success of "Omar", the controversy of whether depicting companions of the Prophet on screen is forbidden by Islamic sharia has been raised once more. El-Auda says that: "Acting is not forbidden in Islam and depicting the Prophet's companions is acceptable in the case of 'Omar.'"
Prior to Ramadan, Al-Azhar released a statement condemning the depiction of Prophet Mohamed's companions, and forbidding Muslims from even watching the project, yet such statements haven't affected the programme's popularity.
With the attacks on Islam and the misunderstanding of the religion worldwide, El-Auda argues that: "Film and television are booming and there is a wide range for anyone to depict any character from our Islamic world; so why won't we proceed with something that will correct all the misunderstandings about our world and our religion?"
Mohamed Nasser, an engineering student at Ain Shams University agrees, with the scholar: "I am only watching 'Omar', as it is the only show that deserves to be watched in Ramadan. All the serials that are being shown this Ramadan aren’t suitable for this great month."
"I follow this series due to the portrayal of Omar Bin Al-Khattab, Abu Bakr El-Sedeek, and Ali Bin Abi Taleb, three of the Prophet Mohamed's righteous caliphs, in an interesting and respectful manner without distorting anyone. So, why do they say it is haram?" Nasser asks.
"'Omar' is not there to entertain, but to educate and inform," El-Auda states. In his interview with MBC, El-Auda also says that, following the first couple of episodes, he received great feedback from Egyptian Islamic scholars from Al-Azhar who first refuted the project and claimed it was religiously forbidden.
"Why do we ban the great Islamic figures but not the violent and obscene television series that are featured in the holy month of Ramadan, if we really care for Islam and its teachings, especially during the holy month?" said El-Auda.
Agreeing with the Islamic scholar, critic Tarek El-Shenawy believes that we still remain in the dark ages. "Despite my criticism of the project, I am for the production of 'Omar' and any other project of that sort," he told Ahram Online.
"I encourage Al-Azhar to modernise itself and stop attacking such great work, especially when it aims to bring about the development of the region and truth to the world about Islam. We should seek more freedom and in my opinion that is why I believe 'Omar' as a drama did not match my expectations. Had it been granted the freedom it deserved, it would have been one of the greatest productions ever in terms of drama," El-Shenawy told Ahram Online.
In spite of Al-Azhar's statements condemning television productions that feature any of Prophet Mohamed's household and his companions, viewership of such works increased and put those beliefs to rest.
Back in August 2011, Al-Azhar released statements condemning the television series Al-Hassan wel Hussein, the story of the Prophet's grandsons; yet the show was very well-received by audience and has paved the way for "Omar" to excel as the demand for such works increases.
"Omar", consisting of 31 episodes, is currently playing daily on MBC. The story of Omar bin Al-Khattab's life includes lengthy and complicated events which can't be summed up in 31 episodes only, but MBC is yet to confirm whether or not the series will be renewed for further seasons.
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