Sects on TV? Not in Iraq

Historical drama ‘Hassan and Hussein’ about two of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandsons angers Shi'ites and prompts calls for ban.

Saudis watching Ramadan television program 311 (R) (photo credit: Fahad Shadeed / Reuters)
Saudis watching Ramadan television program 311 (R)
(photo credit: Fahad Shadeed / Reuters)
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.
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.
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"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 and Hussein 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 cause controversy.
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.
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 Hussein 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 Hussein 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 sensibilities. 
Even in countries free of Sunni-Shi'ite tensions, Hassan and Hussein has 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 Hussein 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 and Hussein is a welcome respite from the melodrama and (with the Arab Spring) politicized programming that has been filling the Ramadan airwaves.   
"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."