What Indian Muslims Can Learn From Fatwa On AR Rahman

As a child in rural Bihar, I often came across some Maulana Saheb or the other who refused to perform Nikah (the ritual of marriage) so long as the video camera was on, as both filming or watching the act on film was haraam or forbidden, according to clerics. In those times of the new found craze of making wedding videos, we would consequently have no shot of the actual marriage or Nikah.

Fatwa, literally meaning opinion – albeit Islamic injunction – is once again in news after the Mumbai-based Raza Academy demanded a ban on famous Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’ ambitious biopic, Muhammad: The Messenger of God, first of a trilogy project, and also issued a fatwa not only against the film, but the entire filmmaking crew, including music composer AR Rahman, who has given music for the film. Office bearers of Raza Academy want everyone associated with the film to recite the Kailma or confession of faith again. The purported custodians of Islam have concluded that those associated with the film have turned apostate and hence commanded them to recite Kalima again, reiterating their faith in oneness of God and his Prophet.

Every time I read, such declaration of one group or individual as infidel, apostate or Kafir, by another group, I am reminded an Urdu couplet, Janay Kab Kon Kise Maar Day Kafir Keh Kar//Shehar Ka Shehar Musalman Hua Phirta Hai. Surely, these self-serving Ulamas are fixated to a world at least two centuries old when clerics had the official position of Qadi as well and doubled as a judge in Islamic emirates. Fatwa today serves only as an advisory and has no legal sanction, at least in democratic countries like India as a landmark Supreme Court judgement upheld last year. Fatwa and Shariat courts or Dar-ul-Qazas have “no legal sanction and cannot be enforced by any legal process,” a two-judge bench concluded, while acknowledging their advisory role.

To be fair, Raza Academy is not the only organisation protesting against Majidi’s film; the grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia as well as the prestigious Al-Azhar University has also expressed their reservations about the portrayal of the Prophet by another human. Most Sunnis in particular are very strict about depiction of the Prophet, his wives and the four rightly guided Caliphs.

Depiction of Prophet

This does not, however, mean that the Prophet’s images have never been painted; although rare, some of the paintings date back to the 13th century. Miniature artists from Mongol to Ottoman empires painted the Prophet; although, in many such depictions, his face was not clearly visible. In Iran, till recently, several incidents of Prophet’s life were designed on post-cards and carpets. In fact, the Prophet and his life have always been a popular subject for scholars, poets, et al, who have authored extensive Seerah (Biographies) and Naat (poetry praising the Prophet).

Majidi’s biopic on Prophet is also not the first. Syria-born filmmaker Moustapha Akkad was the first to attempt to make a movie on the life of Prophet Mohammad. The 1976 film The Message, did not have the characters of the Prophet or the four Caliphs, but their stories were told by a third person in an otherwise brilliant film, as it brought to life the realities of the time of the Prophet.

Majidi, however, feels that the movie focused too much on wars and that complete justice was not done to the subject. He has hence taken up the task of making a trilogy. Some TV series in Arabic as well as docudrama have also been made on the lives of Prophet and the rightly guided Caliphs, but most have avoided their characterisation, except the 2012 Arab serial titled Omar, based on the lives of second Caliph, that has all the leading characters, except the Prophet, his wives and children.

Majidi’s Muhammad, which is based on the first 20 years of the Prophet’s life, no doubt goes a step ahead and has an infant, a small boy and a young lad playing the character; but the portrayal avoids showing the face and focuses more on hands, or shots taken from behind or the sides. It should also be pointed here that Majidi’s film has been made with good intentions of portraying the Prophet in an attempt to counter Islamophobic films like Fitna or the Innocence of Islam.

A musician’s response:

AR Rahman, it must be noted, was born Dillip Kumar, and unlike most of us, accepted the faith of Islam out of his own free will or as a popular Hadith goes, “If Allah desires good for a person, He gives him understanding of the religion.”

He must be lauded for his outstanding response; like a true believer, in a written statement, he said, “I follow the middle path and am part traditionalist and part rationalist. I live in the Western and Eastern worlds and try to love all people for what they are, without judging them,” further explaining why he chose to compose music to this film.

“My decision to compose the music for this film was made in good faith and with no intention of causing offence…A film whose intention is to unite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message that life is about kindness, about uplifting the poor, and living in the service of humanity and not mercilessly killing innocents.”

An avoidable controversy:

Certainly Ullemas are not in agreement on the subject and their main reservation is the wrongful portrayal by, or association of the Prophet with, any other person or character. However, instead of stirring unnecessary controversy, scholars should come together and form guidelines in a balanced manner. It’s high time they understood that banning films or books is archaic in today’s hyperactive world of internet and Kindle and, hence, instead of periodically getting scandalised and issuing fatwas against them, they should engage with the public in a more creative and scholarly manner even if there are disagreements.

Meanwhile, the Ullemas in villages have since softened their stand on video recording, at least as long as it is confined to men. The initial opposition has now given way to a spate of televangelists, with even prayers and Haj pilgrimage being broadcast live now.Dailyo

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