Lady of Heaven: Why has controversial film been banned in certain UK cinemas?

·3-min read

A new film has been pulled from cinemas after being accused of “blasphemy”.

The Lady of Heaven, directed by Eli King, tells the story of Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad. It’s billed as the first ever film to do so.

Cineworld has now decided to pull the film’s release after it was met with protests. Executive producer Malik Shlibak claimed that he has received death threats.

Why is The Lady of Heaven so controversial?

The depiction of Islamic prophets in film has long been a controversial topic. While the Quran doesn’t outright forbid images of Muhammad, some teachings believe visual depictions of Muslims to be blasphemous.

However, due to a split in the use of different schools of the religion, this has become an extremely divisive subject. Most Sunni Muslims believe these depictions should be prohibited, while Shia Islam typically accepts such depictions if they are done with respect.

The Lady of Heaven received much criticism ahead of its release, with Fars News Agency reporting that “a number of renowned Islamic scholars have criticised the film for “poor background research and inflammatory content”.

Criticism of the film is largely focused on the depictions of several supporting characters, including the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, Abu Bakr As-Sadiq, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab and Uthman Ibn Affan.

UK Islamic Media organisation 5Pillars condemened these depictions as “shocking and disgusting” after it is suggested there are similarities between their actions and the actions of those of the Islamic State group in Iraq.

Poster for controversial new film ‘The Lady of Heaven’ (Enlightened Kingdom)
Poster for controversial new film ‘The Lady of Heaven’ (Enlightened Kingdom)

The Iranian government banned The Lady of Heaven from being released, stating it was aimed at dividing Muslims. Ahead of the UK protests, eight Shia scholars in the country criticised the film, saying that it would heighten sectarian tensions between Muslims.

Protesters outside Cineworld claimed freedom of expression should not extend to the discussion of religion, with one saying: “You have no right to tell us our history. We will not let this film go on further.”

Last weekend, hundreds of people turned out to protest the film’s release in Bradford, Bolton, Birmingham and Sheffield.

Those who have seen the film report that it begins with Isis’s invasion of Iraq and features a graphic jihadist murder, before charting the life of Fatima during the seventh century. In the film, Fatima’s face is never seen; instead, she is covered by a black veil.

Following the protests, a Cineworld spokesperson said: “Due to recent incidents related to screenings of The Lady of Heaven, we have made the decision to cancel upcoming screenings of the film nationwide to ensure the safety of our staff and customers.”

On the website of the film’s production company Enlightened Kingdom, a note reads: “In accordance with Islamic tradition, during the making of this film, no individual represented a Holy Personality.

Cineworld has cancelled screenings of ‘The Lady of Heaven’ after protests (Shutterstock / Chaz Bharj)
Cineworld has cancelled screenings of ‘The Lady of Heaven’ after protests (Shutterstock / Chaz Bharj)

“The performances of the Holy Personalities were achieved through a unique synthesis of actors, in-camera effects, lighting and visual effects.”

In a statement on Sunday (5 June), the Muslim Council of Britain called the film "divisive", stating: "[We] support those scholars and leaders who are advocating for greater unity and for the common good. There are some – including many of this film's supporters or those engaging in sectarianism in their response – whose primary goal is to fuel hatred.”

As of writing, the film is available to watch in Vue cinemas, with a representative stating: “Vue takes seriously the responsibilities that come with providing a platform for a wide variety of content and believes in showcasing films of interest to diverse communities across the UK.

“Decisions about how long a film remains on show are taken on a site-by-site basis and based on a variety of commercial and operational factors.”

Its statement came after a rep was forced to deny cancelling screenings of found footage horror film Dashcam for being “too offensive”.

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