By Mahmoud Habboush
DUBAI (Reuters) - A television drama about the life of a seventh century Muslim ruler, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, is polarizing opinion across the Arab world by challenging a widespread belief that actors should not depict Islam's central figures.
Conservative clerics denounce the series, which is running during the region's busiest drama season, the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Scholars see an undesirable trend in television programming; the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates has publicly refused to watch it.
But at dinner tables and on social media around the region, "Omar" is winning praise among many Muslim viewers, who admire it for tackling an important period in Islam's history. Some think it carries lessons for the Arab world, which is grappling with political change unleashed by last year's uprisings.
Salam Sarhan, a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Diyar, said the show was part of a gradual trend for the Islamic world to re-examine its heritage more critically, and would open the door for more television and cinema productions depicting central figures in Islam.
"If anyone dared to depict these figures 20 years ago, he would have been accused of blasphemy," he wrote. "Simply put, depicting these revered figures with their mistakes, limitations, rivalries, anger, hunger and thirst will thrust Islamic societies into a new phase."
Mostly filmed in Morocco, the show was funded by the Dubai-based but Saudi-owned MBC Group, a private media conglomerate, and state-owned Qatar TV. The 30-episode series, which an MBC spokesman said cost "tens of millions of dollars" to make, is being watched on satellite television across the Arab world.
It has been praised for its elaborate sets and costumes, visual effects and battle scenes which involve elephants and hundreds of extras.
But for many viewers, the production values have been outweighed by the fact that actors in the series play Omar and three other close companions of the Prophet Mohammad who were the first rulers of an empire that expanded out of the Arabian Peninsula.
Historically, Muslim scholars have discouraged the depiction of revered figures in art, and some argue it is expressly forbidden, on the grounds it could be misleading or encourage idolatry. This is why mosques are adorned with elaborate plant and geometric patterns instead of human and animal images.
Though some close companions of Mohammad have been portrayed on screen in the past, the productions have mostly been by Shi'ite Muslims. The Omas series is believed to be the first time that a drama depicting all four caliphs has been made by Sunni Muslims, who form the majority across the Gulf and North Africa and have historically taken a strict line against depiction of such figures.
"Depicting the closest companions of the Prophet was a shock to the (Arab) societies," said Suaad al-Oraimi, professor of sociology at UAE University.
Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, the highest religious authority in the country, harshly criticized the series in a sermon, while Cairo's prestigious seat of Sunni learning, al-Azhar University, also came out against it.
"The Guided Caliphs were promised the heavens ... Their lives cannot be depicted by some actor," Ahmed al-Haddad, Dubai's grand mufti, wrote in an emailed statement to Reuters.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed became one of the show's most prominent opponents by tweeting: "I will not watch the Omar Ibn al-Khattab series." His comment was retweeted thousands of times within a few days.
Sheikh Hamad Wael al Hanbari, a prominent Muslim scholar based in Istanbul, said he was concerned that the reputations of the caliphs could become contaminated.
"It's completely unacceptable," he said. "These actors would go on to play other roles - in action movies, for example - and would forever be associated with the Rightly Guided Caliphs. This is very dangerous. Their image has to be protected."
The show does not lack defenders, however. Saif al-Sahabani, a columnist at Saudi Arabia's Okaz newspaper, dismissed the idea that portraying prominent companions of the prophet was forbidden under Islam's sharia law.
"The show has revealed a gap in the Arab and Islamic collective consciousness, especially among those who rely on tradition rather than their own minds," he wrote.
Sahabani cited endorsements of the show by a number of senior Islamic scholars, including Qatar-based Egyptian cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi, well-known in the Arab world for his weekly program on Al Jazeera television. Qaradawi was on a committee of religious scholars that reviewed the script of the series.
Some viewers rejected criticism of the show because they saw it as an attack on their personal freedom.
"Fed up with the extremists' point of view ... Who are you to judge us because we watch the Omar series?" tweeted Yasmine Medhat, identified by her Twitter profile as an Egyptian Muslim.
Hatem Ali, the director of the series, said his team braced for controversy before the first episode was aired.
"We were prepared for this," he said by telephone from his native Syria. "Omar is the first television series that delivers such important figures. So people will be divided over this, and that's understandable."
Known for directing several historical television dramas, including a trilogy about Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula, Ali said the Omar series was not linked to the past year's rise to power of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, and should not be seen as advocating how a Muslim state should be governed.
But he added that the series touched on issues that remained relevant today, such as the role of women in Islam, good governance and the application of sharia law.
"I am not advocating the establishment of Islamic rule," he said. "But Omar is an example of someone who took into account changes and new tests that societies face."
Asked about the controversy, the MBC spokesman said his company aimed to bring history to life. "This is a major goal that can only be achieved through honesty and commitment to historical events."
Michael Stephens, a political and social affairs analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in Doha, compared the series to Saudi Arabia's decision to let its female athletes compete in an Olympics this year for the first time.
"It's not changing the world but it's one step, and once you've taken that step, then you can't go back," he said.
"Even though it's annoying to people, they're still watching it - that's the weird thing about it."
(Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Additional reporting by Regan Doherty; Editing by Andrew Torchia and Giles Elgood)