Resalet Al-Imam is not the first television series that presents a biography of an Islamic ulema. These kinds of soap operas have been produced in the past with titles including Abou-Hanifa Al-Noaman (1997), Ibn Maga (2000), Imam Al-Doaah (The Imam of Preachers, 2003), Aemat Al-Hoda (The Imams of Guidance, 2005) and Al-Imam Al-Ghazali (2012).
They were broadcast during Ramadan and featured stars in leading roles who often performed in classical Arabic. Though each proved to be very successful, this kind of soap operas stopped being produced in the past decade partly due to the colossal budgets that they require. Production companies leaned more towards social dramas, targeting a wider audience.
This year, however, the Media Hub company decided to produce Resalet Al-Imam (The Imam's Message), a series about the theologian Abu-Abdallah Mohamad bin Idris Al-Shafei. Born in 767 in Gaza, Palestine, Al-Shafei was the founder of the Shafei school of jurisprudence.
The series follows the journey of Al-Shafei (played by actor Khaled Al-Nabawi) in Egypt, where he stayed for the last six years of his life and where he passed away in the year 820.
The screenplay is the result of a writing workshop, led by Mohamed Hisham Obaya, that brings together four Egyptian and three Syrian authors. The production is led by the Syrian Al-laith Hajjo.
Al-Shafei's biography was previously adapted into a soap opera in 2007. It was produced by Egyptian state television and starred actor and singer Iman Al-Bahr Darwish. The work, however, had a very minimal success, not to say that it passed almost unnoticed. Telling the story of the imam from his birth until his death, the series raised questions relating to theology and jurisprudence, while the events often unfolded in flashbacks.
Resalet Al-Imam, which comes 17 years later, tells a different story of Al-Shafei. This is a story of a theologian who had sought to renew Islam by amalgamating the theories of his predecessors. Thus, he combined the Islamic jurisprudence of Hejaz (Malikite) with that of Iraq (Hanafi), and founded his own school of Islamic jurisprudence.
Al-Shafei collected the various opinions in a reference work entitled Al-Huja (The Evidence), around the year 810. He was greatly influenced by Imam Al-laith bin Saad who settled in Egypt, but who died before Al-Shafei’s arrival in Fostat.
During his stay in Egypt, Al-Shafei became acquainted with different methods of hadith analysis and reasoning that led to many changes in the views that he had held during his stay in Iraq. His teaching became well received among Muslims and he had many disciples.
Al-Nabawi, a historical drama expert
The career of actor Khaled Al-Nabawi includes several historical works, three of which evoke eminent personalities of Arab heritage.
He acted in Al-Waad Al-Haq (The True Promise, 1993) which was based on the eponymous work by Taha Hussein and which tells the story of the Quraish tribe and the inhabitants of Mecca. Al-Nabawi, who had just graduated from the Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts, played the role of a Muslim from Ethiopia.
Later on, Al-Nabawi appeared in the Egyptian-Syrian co-production Sadaq Waadoh (He Kept His Promise, 2009). He played the role of Tayim, the lover of the beautiful slave Enaaq (Rim Ali) during the early days of the spread of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula.
In 2019, Al-Nabawi starred in Mamalek Al-Nar (Kingdoms of Fire). This series, which was a co-production between Egypt, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, was directed by British filmmaker Peter Webber. Al-Nabawi excelled in the role of Mamluk Sultan Toman Bay II.
By portraying the character of Al-Shafei, Al-Nabawi has taken on a new challenge. His pronunciation of classical Arabic is impeccable and he shows great eloquence while reciting the verses of the imam.
The winds of change
From the first episode, Al-Shafei finds himself face-to-face with Caliph Haroun Al-Rachid. This encounter subtly embodies the relationship between the ruler and the ruled.
Furthermore, he has to confront the new governor of Egypt who was instated during the time of the Abbasids. During his meetings at the mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Ass, he also encounters the disciples of Imam Malek. This encounter follows his call for the renewal of Maliki thought, thus opening the door to ijtihad (the right to religious interpretation).
The series depicts a changing country that is facing political difficulties. These difficulties include the ousting of the former wali, the arrival of a new one, Bedouin attacks, etc. There seems to be subtle references to the political turmoil that accompanied the events of 25 January 2011 in Egypt.
The travel scenes are beautifully shot in the desert. The director excels in highlighting the beauty of the landscape on the banks of the Nile, thus evoking images of Egypt during a bygone era.
In addition, the soap opera tells other secondary stories through the words of the imam. We witness, for instance, the love story between a young man and a young widow. Another story we see is that of the chemist who sells books and medicinal herbs… etc.
With each new episode, we are introduced to some of Al-Shafei’s poetry. The lines of verse are recited in voiceover by Khaled Al-Nabawi.
The series keeps attracting more viewers with each episode – 30 in total. It also sparks off intense debate around the ideas of the imam and his biography.
Resalet Al-Imam also stars Arwa Gouda, Nidal Al-Shafei, Hamza Al-Aili, and Khaled Anwar.