World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th – 24th 2010


Ulama and the representation of religion in Arab TV serials (367) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: THU 22, 2.30-4.30 pm

· NOT_DEFINED institution: University of Copenhagen (Denmark)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Donatella Della Ratta

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: Within the last 20 years, Arab TV-Dramas (musalsalat) have moved into the thematic field of religion. These serials have treated events and personalities from early Islamic history, as well as themes from the lives of the prophets. After the turn of the millennium a new sub-genre has emerged, portraying a contemporary Muslim scholar in his struggle to further Islam in a society where other lifestyles and norms have made deep inroads. Over a period of 7 years, the same duo, scriptwriter Behaa Ibrahim and lead actor Hassan Yusuf have produced three full-length (30 periods for the month of Ramadan) serials on three major scholarly figures in 20th century Egypt: Mustafa al-Maraghi, Abd al-Halim Mahmud and Muhammad Mitwalli ash-Sha`rawi. These three men have several things in common. Born in the countryside, they went through the Azhari system and remained attached to al-Azhar for the rest of their lives. They pursued their studies to the highest level and were admired for their scholarship, but they also went on to have a career in the administration, two of them reaching the post as Shaykh al-Azhar and one of them becoming the Minister of Religious Affairs. The first of its kind, this panel will discuss the representation of ''ulama'' in these and serials, focusing on issues such as their interactions with ordinary believers, how their religious sentiments and experiences are depicted, and their positions on the broader social and political issues of their day.

Chair: Walter Armbrust (University of Oxford)

Discussant: Chirsta Salamandra(Lehman College, City University of New York)

Paper presenter: Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen (University of Copenhagen) “Daawa in modern Egyptian serials: The serials on Shaykh Shaarawi and Shaykh al-Maraghi”.
Considering its importance as a dominant cultural expression in the Arab World, the Ramadan television serial has been remarkably reluctant to introduce religious themes and heroes. The two serials Imam al-du`a (2005, on the life of the preacher Shaykh Shaarawi (1911-1998) and al-Imam al-Maraghi (2006, on Shaykh al-Azhar Mustafa al-Maraghi (1881-1945), represent the most serious attempt at constructing a religious serial around an `alim hero. Both were produced by Hassan Yusuf, a well-known actor who “converted” to a conservative variety of Islamism and withdrew from acting but has now reappeared as a proponent of “Islamic cinema”. The paper analyses the serials focusing on several dimensions:
a. The depiction of personality and subjectivity, especially in terms of religious experience and emotion.
b. The implicit concepts of adolescence, manhood and maturity.
c. The use of village life and Azhari debates in defining contemporary ideals of Egyptian comportment and social action.
The paper argues that precisely the stretched-out format of the long biographical serial makes it inescapable for the two works to make statements about the intervention of God in contemporary life, and the interaction of personal psychology with the sacred, thus revealing a psychological thinking of the Islamic awakening that has been little studied. Furthermore, it argues that the serials also provide and popularize a reading of modern Egyptian history that mediates between the Islamist version and that of the official state.

Paper presenter: Naser Dumairieh (Università Gregoriana, Rome) “Ibn Taymiyya in Arab TV serials”
The paper will analyze the historical figure of Ibn Taymiyya as portrayed by Arab TV serials. The TV biopic about Ibn Taymiyya is included in a broader TV work named “A’mat al-Huda” (Imams of guidance) which deals with 6 important personalities in the history of Islam.
Ibn Taymiyyah is a very controversial figure in the history of Islam, as his thoughts represent the basis of the Wahabi trend in Islamic religion. Wahabism is widely known to have generated the majority of Islamic extremists movements which emerged at the end of the twentieth century.
In this paper I will try to analyze how Ibn Taymiyyah’s personality and thoughts are reproduced for mass consumption in a widely popular Egyptian TV serial. I will try to focus particularly on how his controversial thoughts have been adapted for the TV screen and how they have become acceptable to be consumed on a mass scale on an Egyptian TV channel.
I will therefore analyze the message which the Egyptian state is trying to convey through this TV serial and the “version of Islam” it is trying to promote through television vis-à-vis the internal dissent and opposition that the state itself is facing from domestic religious groups.

Paper presenter: Donatella Della Ratta (University of Copenhagen),“Romanticizing religion(s)”: portraits of Islam and Christianity in “Bab al hara” TV serial”
Since Ramadan 2006, Syrian TV drama “Bab al hara” (The Gate of the Neighborhood) has kept the Arab audiences glued to their TV screens by telling them the story of an imaginary “hara” (neighborhood) of Old Damascus where the local values of solidarity and mutual assistance win over social disintegration pushed by French colonialism.
The TV drama has become a blockbuster which will soon hit its fifth season of broadcasting (next Ramadan, August 2010) and its characters has turned into local resistance heroes for many Arabs.
Within the “receipt of old values” that “Bab al hara” sells as antidote against foreign invasion (whether dealing with the past French colonialism or the new threats of Israeli war on Gaza or US led occupation in Iraq, topics that officially entered the serial in its 3rd and 4th seasons), religion occupies a relevant position. “Making the hajj becomes, like wearing a fez or owning a donkey, a charmingly antiquated practice” (Salamandra, lecture at Copenhagen University, 14th April 2010).
The paper aims at analyzing this practice of “romanticizing religion” operated by “Bab al hara” all across its aired seasons and in the soon-to-be-aired 5th part which I had the opportunity to follow during shootings.
As much as the represented “hara” is virtual and lacks historical documentation for the actions that take place in the TV serial, religion too has been “sanitized” and its historical context and practices have been cleared.
The paper will analyze this process by elaborating on examples taken by the series and its characters, as Christian female heroine Umm Joseph (played by famous Syrian actress Mona Wassef) who was introduced during the 4th season and who plays a leading role in the 5th.
It will also consider the influence of local powers that shape this process: i.e., the dialectic and the negotiation between “Bab al hara”`s Syrian TV producers, its Gulf sponsors and broadcasters, and Syrian State whose political, social and economic interests do influence the making of the TV serial itself and the final message to be communicated to Syrian and Arab audiences.