Controversial Omar TV drama a big hit across the Arabian Gulf
A Ramadan television drama that has stirred fierce debate for depicting a companion of the Prophet Mohammed is among the most-viewed shows during the Holy Month.
The US$50million (Dh183.6m) production, Omar, portrays the life of Omar Ibn Al Khattab, the second Caliph and one of the 10 who were promised the heavens.
It tells how he expanded the Islamic empire from Afghanistan to Libya in the east, and Syria and Iraq to Yemen in the south.
Despite campaigns for the show to be boycotted, and fatwas advising Muslims not to watch it because of its depiction of the Caliph for the first time on screen, the programme has become a major hit for MBC, making it in the top 10 most viewed shows this Ramadan in Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf.
An MBC source reiterated his appeal to watch the show before judging it. "It is the show that got most debate," he said. "We proved the fact that people should not have prejudged it."
If anything, the controversy had helped ratings, he said.
While many clerics were against the show being aired or even made, others, including Sheikh Salman Al Odah from Saudi Arabia and Qatar-based Yusuf Al Qaradawi, approved.
In the UAE, a specialised mufti at the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment has said it would be best to avoid such shows and to "dedicate the time to prayer and worship".
It may be that some viewers' curiosity over what was considered to be taboo got the better of them.
"The fatwas that have come out were not convincing to people," said Dr Aisha Al Nuaimi, the chairman of the mass communication department at UAE University.
"Although he [Omar] was personified, he was a strong character, and the show pulled big efforts for the production. This all has given the show credibility. Personifying the Prophet's companions is something new, but it is important to know the history and know people who had an influence on Islam's history.
"The high number of people watching it shows there is a thirst to know about this period, especially when a lot of audience don't read much themselves."
But Dr Ahmad Alomosh, the dean of the department of sociology at Sharjah University, put the show's success down to a more basic qualities. The acting was great, he said, as were the action scenes, and the show was entertaining.
Many Sunnis believe Omar is the most influential person after the Prophet. His rule established the basis of the a judicial system, and made great advances in administration, education, and politics.
Sheikh Salman said that many feared the show would cause tension between Sunnis and Shia, who do not view Omar as a legitimate leader.
To accompany the drama, MBC has been running two daily strands intended to provide further historical context.
The first, Al Farouq, by Nabil Al Awadhi, focuses on the Caliph's background and his role in governance. It is followed each day by Omar Sani Al Haya, by Amr Khaled, which looks at the values of the Calpih and how he built the Muslim empire.
Before the start of the first episode, MBC showed a five-minute segment that argued it should not be left to others to depict Muslim history.
Sheikh Salman has called for more drama shows like Omar, particularly from Egypt which released many dramas and is now under Islamists rule.
Updated: August 2, 2012 04:00 AM