Fatwa Issued Against Saudi TV Drama

The series “Omar” depicts the life of one of the close companions of the Prophet Mohammed.

COLOGNE, Germany – A TV series depicting the life of one of Islam's most revered figures has stirred up controversy and protest in the Middle East. Thousands have condemmed Omar, a 31-part historic drama from Saudi channel the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), saying its portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions violate the principles of Islam.

The series tells the story of Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam and a close companion of the Prophet Mohammed who was also a key figure in the rapid expansion of the Islamic empire in the 7th century.

Omar is the largest-ever Arabic television production, boasting 30,000 extras and a production team hailing from 10 different countries who shot the 31-episode series over 300 production days. The series is currently airing during the holy month of Ramadan, the peak ratings season in the Middle East.

Egypt's Al-Azhar University, one of world's leading centers for Islamic learning, has issued a fatwa against the series, saying its depiction of the historic figures are sinful. Arabia's Dar al-Ifta, Saudi Arabia's Islamic legal research centre charged with issuing religious edicts, seconded that opinion.

Visual depictions of Mohammed and other Islamic religious figures are not explicitly banned in the Koran but most Islamic fundementalists argue such personifications must be outlawed  because they can lead to the sin of idolatry.

Thousands of viewers across the Middle East have denounced Omar on social networks, calling for MBC to pull it off the air.

The show's producers have defended their series, saying several leading Islamic clerics have voched for the historic accuracy of their depiction of  Omar Ibn al-Khattab and his exploits.

Egyptian television critic Tarek al-Shennawi told AFP the airing of the series marks a defeat for such official Islamic institutions such as Al-Azhar.

"Many of these institutions are stuck on their old positions, while other institutions have long ago approved such depictions," he said.

Indeed, MBC producers did not submit Omar to Al-Azhar for approval, as is often the case for Arabic shows touching on religious themes. MBC is marketing the series internationally and has sold broadcast rights to several channels, including Turkey's ATV network.