July 26, 2012
The Holy TV Season
— Ahmed Arshi
Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar Islamic Calendar, has begun, lasting 29 or 30 days depending on the visual sightings of the crescent moon. In this month of fasting, Muslims hope for reward from God as they refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual relations from dawn until dusk. They also refrain from fighting and quarreling, and spend more time reciting the Qu'ran over longer stretches of time. Muslims fast in this month to demonstrate their submission to Allah and they offer more prayer than practiced in other months, as was the tradition of the prophet Mohammed.
In recent decades, a new aspect to Ramadan emerged: The start of the television series season which lasts only thirty days in the Middle East, unlike the American TV series season, which starts in September and ends in April the following year. One TV producer would produce over four TV series a year that would premiere during Ramadan. The competition for slots in the Ramadan season is high with over one hundred TV series to watch for the thirty days of Ramadan. This has become a Ramadan tradition, hand in hand with prayer, fasting and other devotional practices.
The topics of these TV series are the talk of the town in the daytime (while people are fasting) and it is common to discuss the plot, the acting, the script, and the directing during the day. "Is the show controversial? Is it violent? Is it Ramadani (exhibiting the spirit of Ramadan)?" Public opinion is now taken into consideration by network producers as these views are expressed on social networking sites, which has led to some difficult decisions like canceling a TV series mid-season. This occurred last Ramadan with TV series based on Islamic History.
Last year, a small production company from Kuwait produced a series that tells the story of the prophet Mohammed's grandsons Al-Hassan and Al-Hussain, and how they handled the civil unrest that took place in the era of the third Caliph Othman Bin Afan, ending with his assassination by rebels. These events form a big part of Islamic history and are widely known to Muslims. The producers consulted Shi'ite and Sunni Scholars in order to wave away suspicions regarding the accuracy of the plotline. They were granted permission by scholars from both sects who analyzed the scripts. The show went on air during Ramadan, but a huge number of viewers opposed the series and tweeted their demand that the network stop broadcasting it. The network acquiesced.
One of the series coming out this Ramadan is standing out already. It tells the story of one of Islam's most respected figures, the second Caliph to lead the Muslim Empire, Omar Bin Al-Khattab. The trailer of the series entitled Omar was released by the Middle East's leading broadcast network MBC weeks before Ramadan. Viewers started campaigning against the series immediately, hoping to shut it down even before seeing it, with the excuse that it is inappropriate to portray the companions of the prophet Mohammed. Again, the producers have full approval from legitimate scholars, but the question remains: Will MBC cancel the series because of public unrest, which is not backed up by any supported argument? Or will they resume with their plans on airing this series?
Ahmed Arshi is a novelist and scriptwriter based in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.