Explainer: Cineworld cancels The Lady of Heaven

Image credit: Enlightened Kingdom

Cineworld has cancelled all UK screenings of the film The Lady of Heaven, about the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, after loud protests by Muslim groups outside cinemas in Bradford, Sheffield and Bolton, where it was being screened. Protesters said the film was blasphemous but Cineworld’s decision has been condemned as dangerous for the freedom of speech

The film is about Lady Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. What is her significance?

Fatima, or Fatimah, was the youngest daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, born to his first wife Khadija. She is thought to have been born between 605 and 615 and died in 632. Known for her spirituality and devotion to Islam, Fatima was married as a young bride to Ali ibn Abi Talib,a cousin of the Prophet, in 624. She gave birth to sons Hasan and Husayn, the only surviving grandchildren of the Prophet. They are regarded as imams, spiritual leaders, by the Shia Muslim community. She is the essential link in the continuation of the family legacy of the Prophet. There is a theological difficulty in how the leadership of Islam was developed after the Prophet’s death. Sunnis believe leadership was passed on by merit through to his companions; Shias believe it remained within the household or family of the Prophet and followed his bloodline through Fatima, first to Ali and then his children. But Fatima is venerated by both Shia and Sunni Muslims, and is known as “the mother of imams” and one of the most important early Muslim leaders

What does the film say about Fatima?

The film is a narrative that reflects on the history of Islam in the early period, telling the story of Fatima linked to the current experience of a young Iraqi orphan, with scenes of the Islamic State group — also known as Isis and Daesh — in contemporary Iraq. The most animated and emotive response against it has been focused on the allegation in the films that some companions of the Prophet are linked to the actions and ideology of Islamic State. The indirect depiction of the Prophet (which although considered permissible by some Shias, is considered disrespectful by Sunnis) has also received criticism from protesters.

Which group is most vocal in opposition to the film?

Principally, the Sunnis object to the film because of its link to Islamic State and criticism of certain companions of the Prophet. But there are complaints from Shias, who see it as an attack on their history, an inflammatory or unrepresentative depiction of Shia identity and theology. Iran, a Shia majority country, has banned the film as divisive in the Muslim world. The film was written by a Shia cleric, Yasser Al-Habib, from Kuwait, who runs the Khoddam al-Mahdi organisation, based in Fulmer, Buckinghamshire, where it runs a mosque. Al-Habib is a controversial figure among Shias in Britain and abroad.

Muslim protesters say the film is blasphemous: what is the Muslim interpretation of the word?

Scholars say there is no strict word in Islam which literally translates as blasphemy. There are concepts such as shirk, associating partners with God or anything breaking the norms of monotheism as well as terms such as gustakh e rasool, an Urdu term meaning to insult the Prophet. The objection to the film is more about the implication that extremism and violence is laid against Sunni theology, with a contested historical reading of Islamic characters.

How do you explain the sudden and widespread protests outside cinemas?

The speed and traction of the protests has taken commentators by surprise. One suggested that it illustrates sectarian fault lines in the UK between Sunnis and Shias have not been resolved, where boundaries are not clear or understood. Another disagreed and said relations between Sunnis and Shias in the UK are quite unproblematic. Part of it can be explained as people defending their community from accusations of extremism or terrorism. There has not been a rich theological exchange to create a relationship that works in practice, some say.

How are protesters likely to react to criticism that their protest is dangerous to the freedom of expression in the UK?

This won’t carry much weight. There’s a strong feeling among Asian populations that this argument is mobilised only at certain times for certain people and subject to double standards, protecting the powerful but not minority groups

Further comment:

Professor Oliver Scharbrodt, Lund university, Sweden


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