Why the movie Lady of Heaven divides the opinions of Muslims

After picket actions by Muslim groups, leading British cinema chain Cineworld canceled all screenings of the blockbuster, The Lady of Heaven. Produced in Britain, this historical epic tells the story of Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Mohammed.

Protesters have labeled the film “blasphemous” and “sectarian filth”. Governments in Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Morocco have all denounced it. Britain’s Muslim Council has condemned it as “divisive” and more than 130,000 people have signed a petition calling for a ban.

To some, this is “Islam’s ‘Life of Brian’ moment,” a reference to the Christian protests against the 1979 Monty Python parody film about the life of Jesus. But The Lady of Heaven is not a parody of Islam. It is not intended to disparage or mock the Islamic faith. Written by a Shia Islamic scholar, Yasser al-Habib, it in fact claims to tell the “untold story” of one of Islam’s most revered figures, using a contemporary storyline featuring Islamic State (IS) as an introductory tool. .

However, science shows that the story the film revolves around represents a very specific interpretation of Islamic history. Not only does this place it outside the (Sunni) majority consensus, but is also an interpretation that many Shia Muslims would find extreme.

Sunnis and Shias apart

Although Islam is made up of many different denominations, tensions between its two largest sects, Sunni and Shia Islam, have flared throughout history. In order to understand why this film has been labeled “sectarian”, it is important to understand the differences between mainstream Sunni and Shia theology.

The initial split between Sunni and Shia occurred as a result of a succession dispute after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in AD 632. Sunni Muslims (the majority) believe that Muhammad’s companion, Abu Bakr, has been elected Caliph. The minority of Shia Muslims believe that the Prophet named his cousin and son-in-law Ali directly as husband of his daughter Fatima. It was this dispute that eventually led to the crystallization of two different Islamic sects.

Fatima is thus a central figure in Shia Islamic thought. She had a direct bloodline to the prophet. And she was the mother of Hussain, whose death at the Battle of Karbala in AD 680 is considered one of the formative moments of Shia Islamic belief and practice.

Fatima herself is said to have died not long after the prophet. The manner of her death is a further controversial issue between Sunnis and Shias.

Some Shia scholars believe that two of the Prophet’s companions, Abu Bakr and Umar, wounded Fatimah behind a door while forcing entrance to Ali’s house. They believe this caused her injuries, which ultimately led to her death. Conversely, many Sunnis find this suggestion that two of their most revered figures contributed to the death of the Prophet’s daughter very offensive.

Some critics of the film have suggested that an opening scene of The Lady of Heaven contains a veiled reference to this interpretation of Fatima’s demise. In the scene, Islamic State fighters force entry into the home of a young Iraqi Shia boy. They push the boy’s mother (also known as Fatima) behind the door and eventually execute her.

A close up shot of the mosaiqued wall of an Iraqi mosque.
The nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali, is revered among Shia Muslims.

Fatima reinvented in Shia thinking

The film’s website describes Fatima as “the first victim of terrorism”. Contemporary portraits of Fatima and other early Islamic figures as revolutionary fighters using what my research shows is a very specific story across the arc of Islamic history.

Fatima has long been revered as “an example of chastity and religiosity”. However, as Ruth Roded wrote in her 1994 book, Women in Islamic Biographical Collections, until recently she was considered a “marginal and even passive” figure in the events of early Islam.

It was not until the 1950s, with Shia thinkers including Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr (the founder of the Islamic Da’wa party in Iraq) and the former Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, that Fatima’s role was reconsidered. She was transformed, as Iranian studies specialist Rachel Kantz Feder put it, “from a weak victim to a courageous revolutionary heroine”.

This shift was part of a reinterpretation of Shia history, from quietist dissent to emancipatory struggle, that took place throughout the 20th century. In his 2011 book Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest, Iranian-American scholar Hamid Dabashi argues that this shift inspired the Shia Islamic revolution in Iran.

The Lady of Heaven expands on this revolutionary narrative, drawing explicit parallels between some of the Prophet’s companions (notably Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman) and IS in modern-day Iraq. Malik Shlibak, one of the film’s producers, recently commented on BBC Newsnight that they [Abu Bakr and Umar] were barbaric, ISIS-like figures.”

This is an extreme and marginal position, even within Shia Islam. Ayatollah Sistani, the current supreme scholar of Shia Islam, issued a fatwa denouncing the curse of the Prophet’s companions in this way. The man behind the film, Yasser al-Habib, a Kuwait-born, UK-exiled Shia cleric, has long been a divide among both Sunni and Shia Muslims. Al-Habib gained fame for his view that the Prophet was murdered by Abu Bakr, Umar and his third wife Aisha, all of whom are revered in Sunni Islam.

An overview of a large mosque complex during maghrib prayer time.
Al-Masjid an-Nabawi or the Prophet’s Mosque, in Medina.
Mohamed Reedi / Shutterstock

Some commentators have expressed concerns that the film could exacerbate Sunni misconceptions about Shia beliefs. In particular, it could reinforce the historical trend of labeling Shias “kafr” (infidels) in extreme Sunni discourse, a trend that has become increasingly visible in recent years, especially since the rise of IS.

As sectarian tensions flare in the Middle East, this film is a potential touchpoint in a long history of Sunni/Shia animosity.

Enlighted Kingdom, the production company behind The Lady of Heaven, was approached to comment on this article, but did not respond before it went to press.