Written by the controversial Kuwaiti Shia preacher, Yasser Habib, the film’s plot pursues two threads: one from the Islamic past, the other from the present. The narratives meet when Islamic State seizes vast areas of Iraqi territory. By Shady Lewis Botros
Canceling “The Lady of Heaven”
The fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie in February 1989 saw a marked shift in the status of Islam throughout the western world, most particularly in the creative industries. While, in the case of “The Satanic Verses”, the threat was focused on one specific individual, the 2005 Muhammad cartoon crisis and its bloody repercussions had a domino effect. Spreading across borders from one European country to the next, they effectively transformed Islam into a taboo subject. When debating Islam and its symbols, varying degrees of self-censorship were imposed by cultural circles and those active within them to avoid being targeted.
Against this backdrop, the British cinema chain Cineworld recently decided to halt all scheduled screenings of the film “The Lady of Heaven” in the UK. The film, which portrays the life of Fatima al-Zahra, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, provoked outrage among several Islamic organizations in Britain, with more than 120,000 people signing a petition calling for the film to be withdrawn. Chairman of the Bolton Council of Mosques Asif Patel expressed the reason for the protest, saying the film was “underpinned with a sectarian ideology and is blasphemous in nature to the Muslim community”.
Despite the objections, including Patel’s careful choice of words, political and historical criticism took precedence over religious considerations. Moreover, although the vigil against the film drew only a few dozen people and was entirely peaceful, Cineworld executives promptly panicked. In justifying the decision to halt the screenings, the official statement featured no reference to the nature of the objections, neither refuting nor accepting them. Rather, the company merely emphasised its desire to ensure the safety of “its staff and the public”.
Although those demonstrating outside the Cineworld headquarters welcomed the decision with chants of “Allahu Akbar” (ed: God is great), the statement constituted more of an insult than a victory. A peaceful protest was automatically treated as a security threat and the protesters’ concerns were not even examined. At a political level, several MPs and government figures, including Sajid Javid, the UK’s health minister, criticized Cineworld’s decision as a threat to freedom of expression, commenting that the company had given in to blackmail and “cancel culture”.
Rival cinema operator Vue announced that it would go ahead with screenings of the film in cinemas in London and the southeast; these have since taken place without incident.
Islamic State versus the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF)
Two successive notifications flash up on the screen at the beginning of the film. The first states that the film supports peaceful coexistence and opposes violence, while the second emphasises its respect for “Islamic convention”, which forbids actors from playing religiously revered characters.
However, since both the Prophet Muhammad and Ali bin Abi Talib – Fatima’s husband and cousin to the Prophet – appear in the film, there is also a disclaimer stating that the on-screen portrayal of such characters was achieved using “special effects”, including audio-visuals, in-camera settings and lighting.
In fact, special effects don’t seem to have been used at all, except in the case of Fatima, who is only shown from the back, with her face covered, or in silhouette. The remaining characters appear with some additional facial lighting, while white diffusion filters are used to add what looks like a faint halo encircling their faces and bodies.
“The Prophet’s family have bright white faces, while the villains in the film, namely Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, Abu Bakr and his daughter Aisha, are all black”
Written by the controversial Kuwaiti Shia preacher, Yasser Habib, the film’s plot pursues two threads: one from the Islamic past, the other from the present. The narratives meet when Islamic State seizes vast areas of Iraqi territory. Fatima’s story is told as a bedtime story for a child who lost his mother when she was killed by IS militants. The boy’s adoptive grandmother does not tell Fatima’s story merely as an example of enduring suffering, but as a continuation of the history of injustice (ed: inflicted on the Prophet’s family), affirming the division of the world into absolute evil and absolute good.
In “Lady of Heaven”, Islamic State represents evil, whilst the PMF represent good. With this rendezvous in time, the similarities drawn between past and present go beyond mere continuity, reaching a point of almost literal correspondence – after all, the boy’s murdered mother is also called Fatima.
Director Eli King – an Australian actor of Egyptian descent – draws on a pronounced sense of the epic to frame the historical events. Unfortunately, the result is a somewhat dissonant blend of cinematic influences. The portrayal of the Prophet’s entry into Medina echoes Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The iconography familiar to cinema-goers from films about the life of Jesus is clearly visible, although the sound design is more original. For the battle scenes, the costumes, not to mention the actors’ performances, King borrows much from Bollywood films about divine Hindu legends and the associated radical dichotomy of light and dark.
Quite literally, and in a naive and cringe-worthy fashion, the film’s visuals also adhere to this duality. The family of the Prophet have bright white faces, while the villains in the film, namely Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, Abu Bakr and his daughter Aisha, are all black. This shocking lapse has added the charge of racism to the charge of sectarianism already levelled at the filmmakers.
Aside from the film’s woefully poor production standards, it was fascinating to watch a film about Islamic history with all the actors speaking English in the accents of UK immigrant neighborhoods. Indeed, the film’s soundtrack provoked some hilarity and much confusion.
Shady Lewis Botros
Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton