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When I was a teenager, cassette tapes were still all the rage. I went through a deeply religious phase during that time, in middle school and during the run-up to college, which introduced me to the world of Islamic cassette tape preachers. Most of them (they were usually Salafist icons, many of whom are now “moderated” and “reformed” under the new regime in Saudi Arabia) sounded too angry all the time about various things that seemed innocuous, which I didn’t want to dispense with anyway, like music and TV shows, so I tended to ignore them. But one particular preacher captivated me. His name was Tariq al-Suwaidan.
A Kuwaiti who lived and studied in the U.S. for two decades, he had the sort of demeanor and cadence that would probably do quite well in today’s podcast industry, alternating between gentle and soothing storytelling, tonal changes when he was quoting someone, emotional expressiveness and talking directly to listeners. He was also a TV broadcasting figure (I don’t know much about his ideology or politics — he was reportedly fired by the Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal at one point because of alleged Muslim Brotherhood ties).
Suwaidan had several cassette tape series that I found fascinating to listen to and laid the foundation for much of my understanding of early Islamic history in my youth. He had a deeply engaging series on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, one on the history of Andalusia and another on that of Jerusalem, among other subjects, including forays into self-help and management. He remains a highly influential public intellectual, with nearly 10 million followers on Twitter.
But by far the most intriguing series I listened to by Suwaidan was one that covered the era of the first Muslim civil war, which laid the groundwork for the Sunni-Shiite schism, and is the subject of an intriguing, forthcoming television series set to air during the holy month of Ramadan (which, this year, will begin in late March). I found the story compelling because it was rife with drama and power struggles, illustrating that even the prophet’s companions fought pitched, murderous battles in pursuit of what ultimately amounted to political goals — seeking to shape the future Muslim society and their positions of power and influence within it.
The origins of the conflict can be traced back to the prophet’s death in 632, when leadership of the nascent Muslim society in the Arabian Peninsula was inherited by Abu Bakr, the first caliph, rather than Ali, the prophet’s cousin. Ali was passed over again when Abu Bakr died and was replaced by Omar ibn al-Khattab, who presided over the rapid expansion of the Islamic empire into the Levant, Egypt and Persia. After Omar’s death, he was replaced by Othman, a son-in-law of the prophet and one of the wealthiest Muslims from the Umayyad tribe in Mecca.
Othman’s reign witnessed important achievements, like the compiling of the definitive copy of the Quran, but was also mired by accusations of nepotism that saw relatives appointed to governorships in various provinces, alongside economic mismanagement and a decline in the empire’s revenues. Opposition to his rule culminated in rebels taking control of Medina and assassinating the elderly caliph. Ali’s ascension in the aftermath was contested by Othman’s supporters, leading to a civil war known as the First Fitna, which pitted the prophet’s companions against one another in battles that led to tens of thousands of deaths, the assassination of Ali, and the rise of the Caliph Muawiya, the first ruler of the Umayyad dynasty. While the latter was one of the most successful caliphs in terms of expanding the Muslim empire, he is also among the most hated figures in Shiism, whose son Yazid ordered the murder of Ali’s son, Hussein, in the iconic and tragic battle of Karbala in 680.
The historical points were all there in Suwaidan’s retelling but, like much of Islamic history education in my formative youth years, it took on a mythologized and apologetic tone. This was because these retellings tried to reconcile the portrayal of the prophet’s companions as, essentially, demigods with their earthly goals, by portraying their actions — even the wrongful ones — as merely their understanding of how to enact God’s will on Earth.
I was therefore intrigued to see that an Arabic series planned for release during the month of Ramadan would cover much of this period. Ramadan always brings numerous fresh TV shows that are often the subject of vigorous debate and controversy. This series, which is being filmed in Tunisia, is likely to create a stir, airing at the height of TV viewership in the fasting season. It will incorporate crucial events like Othman’s assassination, major battles during the conflict, Muawiya’s ascension, and the murder of Hussein in Karbala. The show’s interpretation of these crucial events leading to the Sunni-Shiite schism is likely to elicit both praise and condemnation from different corners of the Muslim world. The physical portrayal of key companions of the prophet is not unheard-of, but is still quite rare, and the fact that Ali is played by an actor is also likely to prove especially controversial.
TV series portraying important events in Islamic history or scripture are often mired in anachronistic tropes, even if they remain relatively popular. I remember one I watched as a child that retold the story of Moses and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their subsequent wandering in the desert, which managed to never once show Moses. Films based in early Islamic Mecca and Medina took pains to avoid portraying the key figures who shaped the story, tending instead to focus on depicting unbelievers fighting Muhammad’s message or less influential Muslims.
But, more importantly, I’m intrigued about this Ramadan series because retelling these events with high production values is, by necessity, an attempt at a somewhat historical portrayal of a crucial inflection point in Islamic history. The very act of showing a character on screen grounds them in reality and places their actions and motivations in a worldly context. A historical, rather than mythological, approach to Islamic history is crucial because it shows that even the people who lived with the prophet disagreed about his vision, and so the central tenet of fundamentalism — of returning to a “purer” faith that tends to be harsh, intolerant and exclusionist — is based on a complete fiction, a utopia that has as much chance of succeeding as communism.
Of course, I’m placing entirely too much hope on a TV series made for popular consumption. But it’s a start, and that’s all anyone can hope for right now.
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