The Muslim caliphates

Omar, the TV series

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Omar al Farouk is a TV series in 30 episodes, directed by the Syrian actor/director Hatem Ali and co-produced by the Dubai-based TV station MBC1 and Qatar TV. The plot tells the story of the founding of the first caliphate and is based on the life of Umar, the second caliph, who viewers get to follow from the time he was 18 until his death. Umar is revered by all Muslims, but in particular by the Sunnis to whom he is the very model of the perfect caliph – modest, strong and fair-minded. The TV series Omar was shot over an entire year, with several battle-scenes involving up to 500 actors, and it was touted by MBC as the biggest TV production ever in the Arab world, to rival historical Hollywood dramas such as Braveheart. The total cost of production was 200 Saudi riyals (50 million US dollars), which paid for computer graphics, trained elephants and horses from Eastern Europe. One of the challenges was how to build a replica of Mecca, but Hatem Ali, the director, eventually found an appropriate site in Morocco. Among the all-star cast, Omar was played by Syrian actor Samer Ismail and Abu Bakr by Ghassan Massoud, while Tamer Al-Arbeed played Uthman and Ghanem Zrelli played Ali. There was considerable speculation in the Arab press regarding Samer Ismail’s religious affiliation, but in interviews he refused to discuss his personal beliefs, regarding them as irrelevant to his job as an actor. Omar aired during Ramadan in the summer of 2012, and was shown all over the Middle East and North Africa and has been dubbed into Turkish and Bahasa Indonesia. The entire series, with English subtitles, is available on YouTube and the Internet Archive.

Already before it was shown, the series attracted criticism from conservative Muslims, including scholars at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, who believe such close companions of the prophet as Omar, Ali Bakr, Uthman and Ali, should not be depicted on television. According to one influential interpretation of the Quran, it is not permissible to make representations of human beings, and this is particularly the case for such highly revered persons as these. Hundreds of people joined a Facebook campaign demanding the show not be broadcast and the campaign trended for a month on Twitter. A rich Saudi businessman volunteered to buy the whole TV series so as to stop it from airing, and in Riyad, the Saudi capital, demonstrators threatened to burn down the MBC building. Other Muslims, including some scholars, strongly disagreed and praised the series for its historical accuracy and for making the Rashidun caliphate relevant to contemporary TV viewers. The actors’ use of classical Arabic was often also praised. “Those who slam the series and its team are inciting hatred and creating an atmosphere of hostility and conflict,” said Khaled al-Musleh, a professor of Islamic Law at al-Qassim University in Saudi Arabia. Clearly the controversy was good PR. The first episode was watched by an audience of 6 million.