Film Review: The Lady of Heaven

Alert: there are tons of spoilers in the post.

Got an opportunity to watch the recently released film The Lady of Heaven. Given the $15 million spent on it, I was hoping for something far better and meaningful in terms of storytelling. Unfortunately, this film didn’t really live up to the – relatively low – expectations I had – knowing who was behind the making of this film.

Most of the film is not actually a portrayal of the life of Lady Fatima (s), rather she appears to be a side character, who tends to make ad-hoc appearances whenever convenient. The film primarily focuses on the role of Imam ‘Ali (a) in bringing Fatima (s) from Makkah to Medina, his subsequent marriage to her (a), the Imam’s role in the battle of Uhud, and a number of other events related to the Prophet (p) and the Imam (a). Lady Fatima (s) herself is not depicted in these events as playing any significant role.

Coincidently, I would say the film and the portrayal of Lady Fatima (s) in it, is reflective of the Islamic textual tradition, in which her appearance – quantitatively speaking – is scarce and cannot be compared to the dominant role of men around her life, even her own children. Some Shi’i mystics will even use this scarcity to drive home their point regarding the sacredness and mysterious nature of the lady whose own perfection is tied to remaining hidden, and such a movie will come across to them as a profane rendition of an otherwise sacred personality, reducing her to a cheap entertainment film to be watched by people in theatres over popcorn.

Overall, the film struggles to really introduce who Fatima (s) is and more so what relevance she has with the continuous contrast of events happening with ISIS in Iraq. Someone not familiar with the Islamic tradition is most likely going to find it difficult to understand why she is theologically important for the Shi’a after watching this film. The closest the film got to introducing her as theologically important was perhaps the scene regarding the event of the cloak (al-Kisa’) in which she is mentioned as one of five people of the household who are purified.

Though there are numerous historical inaccuracies, like Fatima (s) looking much older than she was at the time (if we go with the narrative that she died at 18), such inaccuracies are expected from films constructing a visual story out of historical events, given the lack of sources. However, there were some events depicted which are clearly points of contention or highly questionable, such as the concept of a secret pact between some companions to take over leadership many years before the death of the Prophet (p), a story which originates in a very dubious work, the companions who are depicted as participants in the ‘Aqabah conspiracy to kill the Prophet (p) and even its dating to post-Ghadeer, or even the alluded poisoning of the Prophet (p) by some of his wives (a baseless story). All these matters can still be overlooked, but what can’t be overlooked is the missed opportunity of telling the story of the Lady of Heaven.

I was hoping the film would be a focus on her life: her birth in Makkah, her relationship with her mother Khadija (s), her time in Makkah under persecution by the polytheists, her time during the boycott of Bani Hashim, her care and treatment for her father (p) after his return from Taif. Even her role in treating the wounds of the Prophet (p) after the battle of Uhud was not clear. There was nothing about the incident of Mubahala in the film which is another key event in her life, and the event of Kisa’ – which was one of the better scenes of the film – could perhaps have shown her significance in a more prominent light. There is nothing about her relationship with her children, or how her and the Imam distributed their work load in and outside of home. Even some excerpts from the sermon of Fadak attributed to her could have been very powerful in shedding light on her own contributions to the teachings of the message of Islam.

There was hardly anything in the film that showcased her own narrations or words of wisdom. She was shown as someone who was overshadowed by the Prophet (p) and her husband Imam ‘Ali (a), and constantly caught between incidents related to these two men. They had a great opportunity to utilize some of her narrations to construct certain incidents or events, to make her role much more significant. Even a very simple tradition like “al-jaar, thumma al-daar” [pray for your neighbour first, then for members of the household] could have been turned into a short scene to at least impart some ethical values and teachings that your average Muslim could benefit from and relate to. Unfortunately, there was nothing of that sort, until the very last moments of the film when a couple of scenes depicting her vocal protests against the caliph are shown.

Most of the script is horrible and the acting is also very bad at times. There are scenes in the film which literally felt like this was a parody at times, but you had to knock yourself back into your senses to realize that this is indeed a $15 million movie.

The film seems to have missed out on a very good opportunity, primarily due to the film-makers obsessive agenda against depicting certain companions in as evil of a light as possible. Some companions who would usurp the caliphate after the Prophet (p) are shown as evil and in a negative light from the onset. Individuals like Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Ayesha are played by black actors, with bright yellow or crooked teeth, meant to make them look ugly, as opposed to other noble figures who are all cast by fair-skinned white people. This was very deliberately done, and I am surprised how the filmmakers thought they would get away with something this blatantly racist. Did they confuse such an important film with some underground 9th Rabi‘ party? Please refer to my post regarding the Halo & Horn Effect when studying personalities from early Islamic history, for more information on this cognitive bias.

Another confusing part of the film is that even companions like Abu Bakr and ‘Umar are not introduced properly. For much of the movie, even their names are not known and as a Muslim viewer, I was only using my external knowledge of matters to identify these individuals. Many were concerned about how the film would depict the “burning of the door” scene and how that may be offensive for the Ahl al-Sunnah. That entire scene was a more elaborate and dramatized version of the many reenactments of the same event that take place in Husayniyyahs all over the Shi’i world, particularly during the days of Fatimiyyah, and I didn’t find it to be problematic given it is part of the mainstream Shi’i narrative.

Yet, another key problem I had with the film was how it juxtaposed ISIS with events that took place after the Prophet (p). Firstly, I found it comedic for a film to be positioning itself as anti-ISIS, yet the actress playing Fatima was dressed in clothing reminiscent of ISIS itself! This is not what women of Arabia wore at the time, and though I understand the sensitivity of showing her face (something they could have also extended to the faces of the Prophet and Imam Ali as well), they could have at least put on clothing appropriate for her day and age.

Secondly, the overall theme the film was trying to portray was that ISIS and its understanding of Islam is not a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the mainstream orthodox Sunni Islam, rather it is actually on the exact footsteps of what the early caliphs and companions committed against the daughter of the Prophet (p), Imam ‘Ali (a) and as well as other righteous companions. In other words, the terrorism of ISIS can be traced back to the ‘terrorism’ that occurred at the incident of the door with the usurping of the caliphate, and subsequently during the Wars of Apostasy.

This is an extremely superficial analysis of early Islamic history, ignoring societal conventions and political customs, and as well as complete deceit with respect to laws that exist in Shi’i books of jurisprudence themselves, which also emerged in a similar milieu. I don’t want to say anything beyond this on the latter point as it could make some readers uncomfortable, but needless to say, there are many similar rulings and verdicts when it comes to warfare, offensive war, treatment of slaves, rulings regarding the poll-tax etc. that both traditional Sunni and Shi’i jurisprudence share [albeit with the caveat that Shi’a jurists do not allow offensive war in the era of occultation] and what could be argued for as justifying “terrorism” by Islamophobes today. Many such issues can and have been resolved through contemporary discussions in legal theory – but that is a subject for another time. The film presents a very naïve explanation for the phenomenon of ISIS and tries to pinpoint such a complex political issue down to an event that occurred immediately after the Prophet (p).

Overall, despite some decent CGI (although at times even that is banal), high-quality cameras, and good sets being used, the story of the film was highly disappointing. If the intended audience of this film was a non-Muslim audience, then I’m not sure what education they received about Lady Fatima (s) from this 2-hour long film, and on the contrary, it seems they may even leave the film with a more negative impression of the religion of Islam and as well as the Prophet (p).

Many Shi’a were initially worried about reactions coming from the Ahl al-Sunnah when this film would be released and some even started a boycott campaign against it. In my opinion, though parts of the film were intended to offend the Ahl al-Sunnah and they most definitely will be offended, I do not think most Sunnis – at least those living in North America – will care or take this film seriously, due to its comedic and parodical nature.

As for the Shi’a themselves, I’m sure most will end up watching it out of curiosity and I’m not one to organize pointless boycott campaigns or misrepresent comments by jurists (that most people in the West do not do taqlid of) to stop people from watching the film. Many may not be comfortable with who the film makers are, but it probably is better for the communities – in particular students and scholars – to be aware of what the film contains and know what is being presented as the Shi’i narrative to the world (whether you like it or not). Perhaps it may even spark an intellectual and critical curiosity amongst some regarding some of the events and whether they even transpired the way the movie depicts them, or perhaps there could be alternative readings of certain events after the demise of the Prophet (p).