House of Gods review – ‘Succession in a mosque’ drama is disappointingly shallow

<span>Osamah Sami as Isa and Kamel El Basha as Sheikh Mohammad in House of Gods.</span><span>Photograph: ABC</span>
Osamah Sami as Isa and Kamel El Basha as Sheikh Mohammad in House of Gods.Photograph: ABC

As a Muslim invested in the politics of the Muslim community, it’s tempting to feel short-changed by the ABC’s new show House of Gods.

The six-part drama centres on the family of a sheikh leading a mosque in Sydney, and brings to it a heady mix of power, politics and faith. The co-creators, Osamah Sami and Shahin Shafaei, have described it as “Succession set in a mosque”. But despite its great concept and fantastic production, House of Gods unfortunately falls short in its attempt at an authentic depiction of Muslim life in Australia.

Set in the western Sydney suburb of Fairfield, House of Gods follows Sheikh Mohammad (Kamel El Basha) as he vies for the head cleric position at the Messenger mosque. His progressive positions, backed by his ambitious daughter Batul (Maia Abbas) and his earnest but shifty adopted son Isa (Sami), spark tensions in the conservative community. While he is eventually successful in seeing off his conservative rival, Sheikh Shaaker (Simon Elrahi), Sheikh Mohammad’s push to change Islam and adapt it to modern life in Australia becomes a recurring point of conflict in the show.

House of Gods is beautifully shot; suburban western Sydney looks gorgeous, as do the many spaces the Muslim diaspora inhabit. The camera lingers on intricate details such as washrooms at the mosque or on the ornate Islamic murals hanging in family homes, making it feel like a celebration of diaspora aesthetics and a painstaking attempt at authenticity.

Fadia Abboud’s direction is clearly shaped by her appreciation for the community, with scenes in mosques and western Sydney back yards framed delicately and beautifully. It’s particularly joyful seeing the depictions of Muslim family homes, which feel familiar and honoured. Depictions of Muslim rituals, such as prayers or the supplications read out loud at mosques, are spot on. Characters speak Arabic with an accurate tone and accent and conversations on Islam and the community feel ripped straight out of western Sydney.

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It must be said: the first two episodes, upon which this review is based, showcase a representation of Muslim Australia that is leaps and bounds ahead of anything else on our screens. But House of Gods is punctured by moments that feel jarringly unrealistic.

Viewers from Australian Muslim communities may wince at the caricatured depiction of community politics as extremely insular and aggressively conservative. In episode one, we see a divorced woman denied service at a butcher for “sinning”; it’s unclear if the divorce itself is the sin or if there is something else. Likewise, when a photo of Sheikh Mohammad being kissed on the cheek by a woman spreads on social media, the ensuing communal hysteria implies a hive mind mentality among Muslims that veers on disdainful. And when Sheikh Mohammad wins the vote to lead the congregation, his male supporters are seen dancing and clapping in the mosque – something that would be considered obscene in any mosque.

The show is peppered with similarly orientalist tropes. Some male characters are given oblique backstories that unnecessarily refer to a violent past in Iraq, and in one scene it is implied that a militia leader in Iraq picks the leader of a mosque in Fairfield.

The depiction of the debate between conservatism and progressive politics in Muslim communities is shallow and narrow, the conservatives often painted as cartoon villains. There are ways to criticise conservative Muslims while also honouring other facets of their cultures and beliefs – but the show doesn’t do that. Instead, it reduces what should be a nuanced debate to a narrow discussion of rules and rituals.

It’s disappointing because House of Gods has moments of beauty. It is an attempt at prestige television and it looks great. There’s an obvious understanding of the interconnectedness of Australia’s Muslim communities at the centre of the show. And it’s acted with gusto, with El Basha as Sheikh Mohammad and Majid Shokor as Uncle Samir stealing the show. Their scenes heave with meaning and history and they are a delight to watch.

But their performances are not enough to ultimately make this show worth watching. The script creaks under the weight of its ambitions. The dialogue verges on preachy – so much so that some scenes feel like a lecture. Generally, the whole show feels underdeveloped and confused as to who it is for.

I think it is important to acknowledge House of Gods as an overall step forward for Muslim representation in Australia. It’s a serious show about Muslims, which is refreshing. If only it took some of these details as seriously as it takes itself.

  • House of Gods premieres on ABC and ABC iview on 25 February