The world is entering a new era of international collaboration in media and entertainment. How do stakeholders and participants blend and interpret their respective cultures and points of view? What results–a piece of work that celebrates the beliefs and values of local people, or will misunderstanding and controversy flourish? The film, “The Lady of Heaven,” is one such multicultural endeavor. It was produced by the U.K.’s Enlightened Kingdom, directed by Eli King, an Australian born actor of Egyptian descent, and written by Sheikh Yasser Al-Habib, a Kuwaiti Shia Muslim cleric, and the head of the London-based Khoddam Al-Mahdi Organization. After watching the trailer, the film appears to be a vivid, multilayered story with significant religious overtones. “The Lady of Heaven” was due to be released Dec. 30 but has not. While no official reason has been given, dissent about the content’s veracity has already begun.
On Jan. 5, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) banned the film, deeming it “sacrilegious.” It ordered social media platforms to remove trailers and promotional material. In Egypt, concerned citizens, religious leaders, and scholars urged that screenings be halted. They called for fatwas (formal legal interpretation of Islamic law) forbidding the film’s viewing and demanded the U.K. cease worldwide distribution. The Council of Jabal Amel Scholars in Lebanon condemned the production, saying the material encourages hate and discord. A few years ago, while it was still in pre-production, Iran clerics blacklisted the film.
The film’s website synopsis reads, “A heart-wrenching journey of Lady Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Separated by 1400 years, an Iraqi child, in the midst of a war-torn country, learns the importance and power of patience. After losing his mother, the child finds himself in a new home, where a loving grandmother shares with him the historical story of The Lady and how her suffering as the first victim of terrorism spun out of control into the 21st century.” A disclaimer adds: “In accordance with Islamic tradition, during the making of this film no individual represented a Holy Personality. The performances of the Holy Personalities were achieved through a unique synthesis of actors, in-camera effects, lighting and visual effects.”
However, suspicions exist about Al-Habib’s intent with his film. He has been accused of creating conflict among Muslims, particularly the Shia and Sunni. Back in September 2010, he angered Sunni Muslims by calling Aisha “an enemy of God,” after which Kuwait revoked his citizenship.
Al-Habib maintains his message is one of love and peace. He states, “It is a call to a better mindset dealing with challenges. I am very proud of this very high-quality cinematic production, as well as the entire team whose highly skilled backgrounds and ideas have contributed to its making. Indeed, the love for this great lady and the belief in her noble message released them.”
For critics, in addition to the portrayal of Fatima, one of the film’s most problematic issues is that it features The Prophet’s voice as a narrator. In Islam, depictions of Muhammad, outside of accepted oral and written descriptions, are factious. While the Quran does not specifically prohibit images and other representations, some ancillary teachings do. “Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest religious authority, issued a press statement Dec. 27 through its adviser Mohammed Mehanna, confirming the steadfastness of Al-Azhar’s position regarding the prohibition of the embodiment of the Prophet Muhammad, all prophets and the family members of the prophet (wives, daughters and sons). The statement asserted that the release of this film consecrates the continued disrespect by the West and some Shiite extremists for the sanctities and beliefs of others.”
Others suggest that the film is an opportunity to inform people on differences within doctrines. Dr. Hamid Waqar states, “this film can be considered a source of motivation for mainstream Shia scholars and filmmakers. The possibility of making a Hollywood quality movie with religious content. Hence, if we approach this movie in the right way, we can use it to create growth within the community.”