New Delhi: Thirty-five years after protests in the United Kingdom against Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, unleashed a wave of violence across the globe, Britain is once again in the eye of a storm. This time around, a controversy has erupted over the British film The Lady of Heaven, that its critics have called “blasphemous” and “racist”.
An attempt to narrate the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah al-Zahra, by casting her “as the first victim of terrorism”, the film released in theatres in the UK on 3 June. However, protests forced a number of cinema chains to cancel screenings of the film.
Malik Shlibak, the film’s executive producer told Sky News that people are free to criticise the film, but that the protests have “overstepped boundaries”.
Earlier this week, British cinema company Cineworld — the world’s second-largest cinema chain — cancelled all screenings of the film in the UK in reaction to protests against it in several cities, including Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Bolton, Blackburn and Birmingham.
Cineworld’s decision to cancel screenings of the film in the UK is believed to have been prompted by an online petition.
“The film directly disrespects Prophet Muhammad who is depicted by an actor, deeply shocking and disrespectful to the best of creation. It is also a deeply racist film with all the main negative characters being portrayed by black actors. Furthermore it also portrays the companions of our Prophet Muhammad in a bad manner,” the petition says.
Other cinema chains like Vue have reportedly decided to screen the film only at select venues in London.
Videos of a protest outside a Vue theatre in a mall in Stratford where The Lady of Heaven was being screened are also being circulated on social media. Shot Thursday, the video shows protesters shouting “Take it down! Take it down! This is a racist film!”
The visuals reminded some social media users of an incident in January 1988, when protesters had gathered in Bradford, UK, to burn a copy of Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses. That protest had triggered a larger controversy and eventually elicited a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who sentenced Rushdie to death.
Six years later, a mob in Istanbul burned down a hotel which they believed was hosting the Turkish translator of Rushdie’s novel. While the translator was able to escape, the fire claimed 35 lives.
Reacting to protests that have erupted over the premise of The Lady of Heaven, a number of British politicians like Claire Fox, a Member of the House of Lords, have termed the protests a product of “cancel culture”.
These protests erupted in the backdrop of a diplomatic crisis back home that forced the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to suspend its national spokesperson Nupur Sharma over remarks she made on the Prophet Muhammad, which India’s allies in the Gulf termed “blasphemous”.
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Why Muslims are opposing The Lady of Heaven
Directed by Eli King and written by Shia cleric Sheikh Yasser al-Habib, The Lady of Heaven tells the story of an Iraqi child who loses his mother in the midst of war. The film shows how the child, inspired by Lady Fatimah, learns important life lessons such as power and patience.
According to estimates, the film cost $15 million to make and has also been screened in the US and Canada.
The film, released last month, depicts the Prophet Muhammad and Lady Fathima albeit as CGI (computer-generated images) portrayals. This caused furor among Muslims who took offence to it since Islam prohibits the portrayal or depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in any form of art.
Chapter 42, verse 11 of the Quran says: “[He is] Creator of the heavens and the earth. He has made for you from yourselves, mates, and among the cattle, mates; He multiplies you thereby. There is nothing like unto Him, and He is the Hearing, the Seeing.”
The phrase “there is nothing like unto Him” is largely interpreted to mean that Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, or any of the other messengers of Islam, should not be portrayed or depicted in any way or form of art.
Meanwhile, one BBC report says that opposition to the The Lady of Heaven is based on the premise that the film draws comparisons between prominent figures of early Sunni Islam and fighters of the Islamic State in modern-day Iraq.
The Change.org petition for the film’s removal, signed by over 1.28 lakh people, called on various cinema chains in the UK to take down the film, which, it claims, has caused Muslims across the world “heartache” and spread false information about Islam.
Meanwhile, over 4,000 people have signed a counter-petition on Change.org, asking people to “Support The Lady of Heaven In UK Cinemas!”
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
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