Iranian series about the prophet Joseph reignites visual depiction debate

The initial airing of the Iranian series "Yusuf al-Siddiq" more than two weeks ago on the Egyptian Melody Drama channel has sparked a dispute over the permissibility of visual depictions of the prophets. 

Through 45 episodes, the series presents a meticulous account of the prophet's life, revealing some previously unknown historical facts.

Completion of "Yusuf al-Siddiq" took four years, during which a team of 20 scriptwriters collaborated on making the series come to fruition.

Muslims consider physical depictions of the prophets, particularly the Prophet Muhamed–whether through movies, TV series, plays, paintings and sculptures–an “offense” in Islamic Law, even if they are represented in a respectful way.

A top official at Melody channel, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the series represents prophet Joseph in a very respectful way. The official further said there are no contrasts between the real events of the prophet’s life and the aired story.

Before broadcasting, the channel made sure the series did not include any religious offenses, according to the official. On the contrary, “the series conveys a good moral message to society especially the youth," she said.

“Until now, no legal complaints have been filed against the channel," she continued. "So, we will keep airing the series especially since it is attracting a big audience.”

Besides, “objections do not represent a big issue to us as long as we are sure of presenting a distinguished artistic work, which normally creates a division between proponents and opponents,” she added.

One of the main reasons behind the issue of visual representation of the prophets is the fear of worshipping them as idols, which used to happen before Islam.

Art critic Farouq Abdel Khaleq said that the Iranian series was presented by Shiite Muslims who generally tend to be more open to pictorial representation of the prophets, contrary to the hard-line view of Sunnis.

“Yusuf al-Saddiq” series has aired previously on two Lebanese channels. Nevertheless, it did not stir up great controversy as the Shiites represent the majority of Muslims in Lebanon. “Iranian censorship on artistic works permits this genre of art, while Muslim Egyptians hold the prevailing view of regarding pictorial description as taboo,” he added.   

Iranian drama is not commonly aired in Egypt, as opposed to other regional production, particularly Turkish and Syrian series.

Professor Abdel Moaty Bayoumi, scholar of al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy (IRA) said that although no versus in the Quran have been interpreted to ban representations of prophets, Sunni scholars have agreed on prohibiting it in order to preserve the idealized picture of these figures that are revered in Islam.

Through visual depiction, Bayoumi explained, the image of prophets in the minds of Muslims would be turned from absolute idealization to a relative one. “The image of the prophet will always become related, unconsciously, to the actor who performs the role in a series or a movie,” he said.

The head of Islamic Research Academy (IRA) issued a statement four months ago, arguing that no explicit ban on depicting prophets is mentioned in the Quran. However, the script of any series or film tackling religious topics must be supervised and monitored by the IRA due to its sensitive nature.

“Al-Azhar’s role is only consultative, not executive,” Bayoumi noted. Controversial issues related to Islam, he explained, are always submitted to al-Azhar’s scholars to seek their expert opinions or issue edicts (fatwas) if needed. Consequently, “We cannot take a direct action against the channel unless an official authority intervenes to stop airing the series,” Bayoumi added.

Abdel Khaleq pointed out that Egypt has produced only 13 religious films throughout its long cinematic history in a bid to avoid sacred and sensitive issues that usually provoke serious dispute.

Movies that tackled Muhammad’s life have always shown him as a flame or with veiled face.

In 1994, when late director Youssef Shahine released his film "The Emigrant", which allegedly depicted the prophet Joseph, religious radicals objected and called for a ban on the film.

"Youssef al-Sidiq" is not the first controversial, religious series aired on Melody Drama channel. Two months ago, another Iranian TV series about the life of Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, also ran. However, "it did not face a strong opposition due to its short period, which does not exceed 15 episodes," the station official said.

She added that these series satisfy the audience's desire to watch religious content–a result of the absence of this genre of art in Egypt. 

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