The Lady of Heaven protest cinema
Civil Liberties

‘The Lady of Heaven’ is Islam’s ‘Life of Brian’ moment

‘The Lady of Heaven’ is currently being pulled from cinema chains because it is considered ‘blasphemous’ by certain Muslims. They have a perfect right to protest, of course: this is a free country. But once again we see the assertion of a right not to be offended, which does not exist in law (despite the belief of one or two police forces). The fact that the film was written, produced and directed by certain other Muslims is neither here nor there: the mobs outside the cinemas are demanding meetings with cinema managers, and those managers are complying with the ‘robust’ mob demands to stop screening the film because it is ‘blasphemous’, and there is no discussion or debate to be had on the matter.

And without any discussion or debate to be had on the matter, the cinema chains are left with a single inference: stop screening ‘The Lady of Heaven’, or else…

And so they have pulled it, to “ensure the safety” of their staff.

‘The Lady of Heaven’ is not a secularist or profane assault on things that Islam holds sacred: it is a Shi’a perspective on Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed and Khadijah. “Fatimah has been compared to Mary, mother of Jesus, especially in Shia Islam. Muhammad is said to have regarded her as the outstanding woman of all time and the dearest person to him. Fatimah is often viewed as an ultimate archetype for Muslim women and an example of compassion, generosity, and enduring suffering.”

And rather like the way Mary is variously understood among Christian traditions, there are differences within the strands of Islam of how the ‘legend’ of Fatima is or should be understood.

And, of course, whether she should portrayed on screen at all (and on this it is worth noting that some Muslims are willing to debate the matter, not least because of the centuries-old Shi’a tradition of depicting Mohammed in art; and then there is the Sunni-Wahhabi-Islamic/ist divine vocation to wage jihad against minority Shi’ite heretics for the greater glory of Allah). But the portrayal of Mohammed (or Fatima) isn’t really the problem here: it is that the script writer, Sheikh Yasser al-Habib, portrays the first caliphs Abu Bakr and Omar rather unfavourably (in both disposition and appearance), and so they are defamed: “Most Muslims will find the invective against three of the most beloved companions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shocking and disgusting.”

‘The Lady of Heaven’ brouhaha is essentially a Sunni/Shi’a sectarian spat, and yet to call it that invites all manner of ‘correction’ and ‘rebuke’ from both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims alike, because scholars and religious leaders within both camps find fault with it (or with those who conceived it). Indeed, the film has been condemned by Shi’a ayatollahs and banned in Shi’a-majority Iran. And many who consider Sheikh Yasser al-Habib to be something of a ‘hard-line’ extremist, if not a sectarian preacher of ‘hate’, which is why he was imprisoned in Kuwait, stripped of his citizenship, and sought asylum here in the UK, where he now lives in leafy Buckinghamshire.

But all this is fantastic publicity for the Sheikh’s project of Shi’a enlightenment: The Madhi Servants Organisation and Enlightened Kingdom Production. And yesterday ‘The Lady of Heaven’ was trending on Twitter.

And so was Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’.

The comparison is interesting on a number of levels, not least because back in 1979 many Christians were incensed that Brian was a parody of Jesus, the filmed was also considered ‘blasphemous’ and many cinemas banned it (or gave it an X certificate, which considerably restricted the audience). But at least the issues were debated; the most famous being John Cleese and Michael Palin discussing the film with the Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood and Malcolm Muggeridge.

And here we are, 40 years on, when ‘The Lady of Heaven’ is ‘blasphemy’ and must be censored, and so The Judean People’s Front triumphs over The People’s Front of Judea.

And that, in Islamic terms, is what the censorious cinemas are enabling: one denominational understanding of Islam to triumph, or be propagated over another. Some may consider it to be a particular sectarian, divisive or ahistorical view of Islam, but it is not (or ought not to be) for cinema chains to make judgments on religious orthodoxy or historical accuracy. If ‘The Lady of Heaven’ should be banned because it ‘offends’, what would Cineworld or Showcase Cinemas do if a group of Roman Catholics made a film about Mary entitled ‘Queen of Heaven’, and a horde of Protestants outside the cinema were crying “Blasphemy!”? Would they censor it, out of ‘respect’ for the ‘offended’?

The answer, of course, is no — principally because protesting Christians tend not to say, “Stop screening ‘The Queen of Heaven’, or else…”

Or at least in England they don’t, where orthodoxy and religiosity may now be lampooned with impunity — except when it comes to the religion of Islam, whose new puritans insist on imposing their apprehension of ‘blasphemy’ upon us all; and where the Imam Lord Chamberlain has supplanted the British Board of Film Classification. There is a de facto, if not a de jure sharia blasphemy code now operating in the UK — even in Speaker’s Corner — and it is enforced with the ominous threat of mob violence.

Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ held a mirror up to the Church, and many Christians didn’t like what they saw reflected. For good or ill, it confronted the power and challenged perceptions of organised religion, which led ultimately in 2008 to the abolition of the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in relation to Christianity and the Church of England. But it is interesting that the religious enlightenment is not proceeding: instead, the vacuum of inviolable sanctity is being filled by Islam, with Muslims now shielded from any offence.

Perhaps Sheikh Yasser al-Habib and his co-creators might be invited to debate ‘The Lady of Heaven’ with a few of the film’s critics, just like John Cleese and Michael Palin debated their ‘Life of Brian’ with a bishop and a Christian journalist. Isn’t this an opportunity for mutual spiritual and artistic enlightenment, and a moment for reason and scholarship to supersede menace and the megaphone?

After all, an RE teacher is still hiding somewhere in Batley.