They lived 1,300 years ago, but the story of Hassan and Hussein, two of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandsons, remains important enough to Muslims even today that a historical drama portraying their lives has provoked controversy across the Arab world.
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The Kuwaiti-produced television mini-series Hassan and Hussein – one of many specially produced for the Ramadan season now underway when TV viewing is at its peak – was banned by Iraq’s parliament this month. In Egypt, Al-Azhar, the country's leading religious institution, filed a lawsuit to block airing of the series. In Lebanon, politicians attacked it. Across the Arab world it was the subject of countless op-eds and talkbacks.
"Our nation must advance and progress, not be reminded by disputes that occurred hundreds of years ago," wrote Samaan Khalifah on the website of the popular Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera, urging the series be kept off the air. Hassan and Hussein
has been such a hot topic of discussion among Arabs that it has been gathering talkbacks on Al-Jazeera since August 9.
The producers say they spent $3 million and consulted scores of
religious scholars to get the historical facts right and ensure Hassan
did not violate Islamic orthodoxy. But with the traditional
divisions between Islam’s Sunni and Shi'ite sides growing wider and
taking on an increasingly political tinge, the series was destined to
That is because the brothers Hussein and Hassan were sons of the Caliph
Ali, the progenitors of Shi'ite Islam. Ali is regarded by Shi'ites as the
first in a chain of imams, divinely-inspired national leaders, and is
the most revered figurehead in Shiite doctrine. The killing of Hussein
and his family at the Battle of Karbala in the year 680 ushered in the
split into the Sunni and Shiite camps that exist to this day.Hassan and Hussein
focuses on the earlier events in the two figures’
lives, when they acted to prevent civil war between early Muslims. But
for Shi'ites, the circumstances of Hussein’s death are regarded as the
Great Sedition and many accuse the producers of slighting the true
events to give a pro-Sunni spin.
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Indeed, many talkbacks have accused the producers of being backed by
scholars of Wahabism, the conservative brand of Sunni Islam practiced in
Saudi Arabia, out to score propaganda points against Shi'ites. But many
Sunni Muslims proclaim the series to be an accurate counterbalance to
alleged Shi'ite distortions.
“Why do the Shi'ites fear the series so much? They're afraid of the
truth. Everyone knows the power of TV series in this day and age … We
have seen dozens of historic serials planted by the Shiites to distort
the image of the caliphs and the prophet's companions," wrote
commentator Nura on Al-Jazeera's website.
The sectarian split has manifested itself in the power play between
Shiite Iran and the largely Sunni Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia.
But Hassan and Hussein
hit home the most in countries where Sunnis and
Shi'ites live side by side. In Iraq, the majority Shiites rose to power
after the Sunni rule of Saddam Hussein was put to an end by the
American-led coalition in 2003. Sectarian violence and a deep distrust
between the two groups remains the key factor in Iraqi politics.
"The Iraqi parliament condemns the airing of the series Hassan and
because it deals with matters that arouse conflict in Islamic
society," announced Iraq's parliament speaker Osama Al-Nujayfi when
legislation banning Hassan and Hussein
was approved on August 13.
Only one channel, Baghdad TV, broadcast the show. But even though the
station is owned by a conservative Sunni party, it troubled to ensure
that each installment was preceded by a list of the Sunni and Shiite
Islamic institutions and religious scholars who have approved its
content. It ran a campaign asking the public to vote on whether to
continue broadcasting the program after it was pulled off the air.
"There is deep controversy in Iraq over the show," Bashar Mandalawi, an
independent Iraqi journalist, told The Media Line. "Some people say the
faces of the two should not be shown, while others argue that is
ridiculous since Shiites hang their portraits on the wall and use their
image as mobile phone screensavers."
Mandalawi describes himself as a secularist, but says the series
needlessly created religious animosity, contributing to the country's
sectarian strife. "If the producer wants to convey a message to Iraqi
society he should leave history alone," he says.
In Lebanon, which also contains a sizeable Shi'ite population, Hassan and
was harshly criticized by Shi'ite politicians. Speaking at the
eastern town of Nabi Sheet on August 16, Lebanese parliament member
Hussein Musawi said the series "distorted history" and offended Islamic
Even in countries free of Sunni-Shi'ite tensions, Hassan and Hussein
caused controversy by reenacting a piece of sacred history with actors
portraying revered religious figures. Although Egypt has virtually no
Shi'ites, Al-Azhar sought to bar the series anyhow.
The face of the Prophet Muhammad or his close companions is
traditionally not displayed in Islamic art and Al-Azhar extended the
bank in 1926 to films as well. The 1976 biographical film The Message by
director Mustapha Akkad, featured neither the prophet's image nor his
voice. Mohammad doesn’t appear in Hassan and Hussein
, but observers say
Al-Azhar feared that if the series garnered high ratings it might open
the floodgates for others that depict revered religious figures closer
to the Prophet.
And the scholars at Al-Azhar indeed may have legitimate concerns about
the spillover effect. Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic for the
Daily News Egypt, praised the production.
"Most of my friends who watched the series liked it a lot, even those
who aren't religious," he told The Media Line. "It's a big epic
spectacle, with top notch production and very well acted."
Al-Azhar recently warned that Iran may exploit warmer diplomatic ties
with Egypt since President Husni Mubarak was ousted last February to
conduct Shi'ite propaganda. But Fahim discounted concerns that Hassan and
would contribute to spreading Shi'ite doctrine in Egypt.
"Shi'ites are a negligible minority in Egypt," he said.
Indeed, for many religious Muslim – Sunnis and Shi'ites alike ¬ Hassan
is a welcome respite from the melodrama and (with the Arab
Spring) politicized programming that has been filling the Ramadan
"I support a religious TV series that aspires to educate us Muslims on
historic facts, which we don’t know," wrote Jalal Al-Maghrebi on
Al-Jazeera’s talkback section. "We’re tired of low-class Arab dramas.
Muslims should know that their history isn’t just sparkling white … but
that civil wars occurred, which almost eliminated Islam."
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