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Controversial Ramadan series wows audiences

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The show takes the bold step of having actors depicting Omar and other sahabah (friends and companions of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad), which several clerics deem forbidden. As a result, it is banned in many Arab countries, including all Egyptian television channels.

Big-budget Ramadan TV series Omar

The big-budget drama Omar, jointly produced by MBC and Qatar TV, depicts the life of the titular Omar ibn Al-Khattab, the second and most powerful of the Rushidun caliphs and one of the most important figures in early Islamic history. It is written by Palestinian poet and scriptwriter Waleed Seif and directed by Syrian director Hatem Ali. Both men are known for making historical dramas and movies, but this one takes the cake.

Normally I tend to avoid Ramadan television dramas (mosalsalat). Overused themes, bad acting and weak plots are not my cup of tea and I am not a big television buff in general. Yet I find myself obsessively refreshing Saudi-owned TV channel MBC’s webpage every day so I may catch the latest episode of Omar.

The show takes the bold step of having actors depicting Omar and other sahabah (friends and companions of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad), which several clerics deem forbidden. As a result, it is banned in many Arab countries, including all Egyptian television channels.

The acting is superb, with the cast being composed of mainly Syrians, some Egyptians and other Arab actors, all relatively unknown or at least not high profile. Maher Ismail, who plays Omar, does a great job in the first seven episodes of balancing the character’s noble qualities with the fact that he is an enemy of Prophet Muhammad and bent on destroying Islam.

The show’s big budget is apparent from the offset as the Game of Thrones-esque opening credits start, showing a graphically rendered map of the Middle East before zooming in on scenes of very well made sets of Mecca and Egypt.

In the show, the Ka’aba is depicted exactly the way it is described in hadiths from the time, complete with a black sheet that does not fully cover it. The idols surrounding it correspond well with their descriptions in sources on pre-Islamic religion and Arab mythology. The chief god, Hubal, in particular is done very well and comes with his reported fitted gold arm.

It is too early in the series to properly judge, but from what I have seen in the opening credits, the battle scenes promise to be a thing unmatched by any Arab production so far.

There are two things that for me make the script this show’s best asset, though. First, the dialogue is impeccable. The Arabic the actors are using is beyond modern day fus’ha and is the closest thing to Classical Arabic I have heard, almost Qur’anic.

The attention to the minutest of historical details is the second. It is reported that Omar was left-handed, or at least ambidextrous, and while the show makes no mention of this, Ismail is always holding his staff with his left hand, unlike the remainder of the cast.

The show includes all the clans and sub-clans of the Quraysh tribe that most of the main characters belong to, introduced in a casual, non didactic method that still manages to be informative.

The script was reviewed by dozens of Islamic scholars and historians as the opening credits are sure to remind viewers by listing them, ensuring the most accurate retelling of Omar’s story possible.

It deals with depicting Prophet Muhammad in a much more realistic way than the traditional bright orb of light in the Islamic movies of yesteryear. Instead, the director relies on a mix of off-camera encounters and camera angles from either Prophet Muhammad’s perspective or situated in a way where he is not in the frame. You can tell what the Prophet has been saying through other character’s responses, rather than the traditional and awkwardly placed narrator.

Seeing as it deals with a story most of its viewers will already be familiar with, the series is more focused on details and the plot moves in a slower pace. Omar converts to Islam in the seventh episode and by the ninth the Muslims are yet to emigrate to Yathrib (later Al-Medina) even though the show is meant to depict Omar’s entire life, including his life under Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr’s rule, as well as his own time as caliph.

It is refreshing to see an Arab-produced historical (for I feel it is more historical than religious) work of such high quality. It combines good acting, a high-end production (tens of millions of dollars were reportedly spent on it) and brilliant writing. The controversy surrounding it is also sure to boost its viewership, be it on TV or online for those in countries where the series has been banned.

About the author

Ahmed Aboulenein

News Reporter

Ahmed Aboul Enein is an Egyptian journalist who hates writing about himself in the third person. Follow him on Twitter @aaboulenein

  • Oubai Elkerdi

    I haven’t watched the show not because it is forbidden to depict the Companions or anything of that, but simply because: a) I don’t have time. b) I have an image of saydna Umar in mind that I’d like to keep intact.

    If anything, this well-intended article made me even more reluctant about watching the show..

    Attention to detail and language fluency are a given in any production worth watching.

    It’s only natural when you depict a historic figure that you represent them as accurately as described in authentic narrations. Otherwise why bother?

    Nobody says, after watching Superman, “I am impressed by how well they depicted the superhero… They even kept the red cape!”

    Filming from the Prophet’s perspective (صلى الله عليه وسلم) has been done in the film الرسالة… So nothing new there. The only difference I noticed – based on a quick glimpse – is that the camera moves more organically, which is nice.

    “For I feel it is more historical than religious” – that’s just silly. We would have never heard of saydna Umar had he not become Muslim (for religious reasons), who himself said: نحن قوم أعزنا الله بالإسلام فإن إبتغينا العزة بغير الله أذلنا الله.

    People confuse “religious” with old-fashioned sit-down-and-listen-to-some-divine-speech. Religion is a way of life. To me, religion and science are inseparable, and the same goes for religion and art. To me, when I do art I am being religious. This secular-thinking of separating religion from everything else is precisely why Muslims have been lagging in all fields since the Islamic Golden age.

    Honestly i don’t see why there is so much controversy or excitement about the show. It’s just a show representing an important human being who transformed the world through religion and character.

    If people read more they’d discover far more jewels than a 30-episode series can share. But that’s exactly the Arab/Muslim problem isn’t it? We don’t read. We entertain and love to be entertained.

  • samer

    It is the 12 th day of Ramadan and watching this HIGHLY anticepated series
    And I will have to say that my family and I are beyond disappointed. Some of the facts are not consistant to prior “VERIFIED” productions and it lacks proper timeline sequence. And last but not least it lacks events and has become boring as hell. Don’t waste your time just tune to something else….maybe the olympics!

    • Ali

      What are you talking about brother? I enjoyed the series thoroughly! Yes, although there might be a little too much dialogue at times, if you pay attention, you will find yourself engaged in the drama and events of the prophet’s (pbuh) time.

  • http://sanisalihmustapha.com Mustapha Sani

    Naturally, the episode will be banned for Umar stood by the Qur’an and the Sunna. Imagine him saying today: Opinion is only after failing to know the judgment from the Qur’an and Sunna. One should revert his decision after knowing the Sunna. I have five books written on the life of Umar and I have not heard a statement that is abnoxious. Yes the Ulamas will never support establishing the caliphate.

  • Lisa

    Like it so much! We have the full episodes here in Indonesia. With subtitle, so it feels real! XD
    I have lived as muslim for more than 20 years but never heard that any characters besides of Prophet Muhammad SAW can not appear in another media. So please don’t be too sensitive or stritch. It’s a modern way to show people about Islam. And it hasn’t strayed yet from the right path. They have spent a lot of money and effort for making this. And the result can be compared to any Hollywood epic movies. Can you at least respect it?
    I would love to recommend this series to all my muslim friends! Great job, MBC! XD

  • Sarah

    this show is the best Arabs created

  • Sarah

    I have been trying to search the actors as they were beyound amazing but couldn’t find anyone. my favorite was Omar and Khaled ibn alwaleed.

  • Mala Ismail

    Just completed watching the 30episodes on youtube during a period of 3 days. Was in times many times. The best series in my 57yrs of living. Not a bookworm, so such series has opened up my eyes…now beginning to read ‘Hayatus Sahabah’ The lives of the Sahabah.
    Hope to see more of such series coz after watching I realise all our dunia problem is nothing compared to what the Prophet SAW n his sahabahs went through to spread Islam. Kudos to all involve in’OMAR’ production…ALLAH IS MOST FORGIVING to those who think that it is so wrong n a crime..to produce such a show, don’t be the judge…..judge yourself first..how can you be so sure who goes to hell n heaven.

    Now I understand why the Arabs are so clannish…just be good practising Muslims….all our blood are of the same colour not according to our skin color..W.A.

    From Singapore

  • Mala Ismail

    was in tears many times…


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