Seven days ago, few people knew anything about The Lady of Heaven, an obscure film about the life of Fatima, the beloved daughter of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and an important female figure for Muslims. Yet because of loud protests against it outside cinemas across the UK, many are now talking about it. Cineworld and Showcase cinema chains gave in to the protesters and pulled the film – but Vue is still standing its ground (but for how long?).
The movie begins with a very graphic scene that directly references the horrific murder of the Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, by followers of Islamic State. The narrative then moves to Arabia AD 622, the year of Hijrah; the date from which the Islamic calendar begins and the story of Fatima should begin in earnest. Only it doesn’t.
After an emotional reunion with her father the Prophet (PBUH) in what is now Medina, Fatima marries Ali and gives birth to two sons, Imam Hussain and Imam Hassan. This is where the controversy starts: their stories and sacrifices for Islam are largely ignored in The Lady of Heaven – which is a great shame as I, along with many Shia and Sunni Muslims, commemorate their deaths by wearing black during the holy month of Muharram, and fasting and revisiting the saga of Karbala every year. What follows next is a lengthy diatribe against the way the rights of succession were decided while the Prophet (PBUH) was still on his deathbed. Indeed, the negative portrayals of the Prophet’s (PBUH) wife Aisha, her father Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman (the first, second and third caliphs, respectively) are not only considered disrespectful to certain Muslims, but also only serve to highlight the ongoing painful gulf between Shia and Sunni sects. In addition, the face of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) is shown, which is something that goes strongly against a consensus among Muslims – that his grandeur is such that it cannot and should not be captured by visual depictions.
The film is, frankly, dire. But it’s important to note that its interpretations of some traditional Shia narratives concerning Aisha and Abu Bakr are nothing new. The only thing that has launched The Lady of Heaven into the news are the protesters congregating outside cinemas with placards and loudspeakers. Now people are clamouring to watch the film – either out of morbid curiosity – or to stick two fingers up at those who they feel are trying to shut down freedom of speech and expression in the UK.
It is ironic that a movie plagued by protests from mainly angry, shouty men is mainly about angry, shouty men. So, too, that the disregard for women’s agency, as per the protests, appears onscreen too: Aisha is reduced to an angry, jealous wife with a large hook nose – and her own contributions to the spread of Islam and her status as one of the first Muslim female scholars are ignored.
I wish Cineworld and Showcase had not pulled The Lady of Heaven, not because I am a great fan of the film – I’m certainly not – but because a dangerous precedent has been set. The men who bullied and intimidated cinema staff (who were merely doing their jobs) do not speak for me or many other British Muslims, some of whom have chosen to boycott the movie. Yet such protesters have now been given centre stage – and it doesn’t look like they’re going to move on any time soon.
[See also: The right decries cancel culture, but still it tries to cancel me]