Maslaha: a Film Sanctioning Apparatus or a Covert Censorship?

By Heba Arafa Abdelfattah
Submitted to Session P4988 (Anxieties, Resistances, and the Clergy in Egyptian and Iranian Film, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
Islamic Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
At the turn of the twentieth century, the lawfulness of film posed a challenge for the Muslim ‘ulama,’ who tried to expand and adapt the law to meet changing social conditions and accommodate innovations, while remaining as close as possible to the Lawgiver’s will as expressed in the sources of law. The fact that the film camera was a foreign innovation made in colonialist Europe further complicated the challenge. Simultaneously, the ‘ulama’ were trying to carve a space for themselves in predominantly secularist efforts of modernization in Egypt. They strived to show how Islamic law is not an obstacle to social reform; rather it has a rational framework of reference that is compatible with modern reform projects and can accommodate modern inventions. By focusing on the formative years of Egyptian cinema (1898-1952), this paper compares Islamic public discourses and legal opinions on the lawfulness of the two primary components of the film, namely, photography (taswir) and acting (tamthil). I examine the legal opinions of Rashid Rida, Mahmud Shaltut, Mahmud Abu al-‘Uyun, Hasanayn Makhluf, ‘Abdullah al-Ghumari, and Ahmad al-Sharabasi. These figures represent different generations of scholars and diverse channels disseminating legal opinions on taswir and tamthil at the time. I argue that the legalization of taswir and tamthil urged the ‘ulama’ to take positions from a set of orthodox legal disputes that could threaten the Islamic doctrine of the unicity of God (tawhid), violate the proper conduct of Muslim women, and cause hadith forgery. These disputes included but were not limited to, the figural representation in general, the figural representation of Prophets and Companions, and the lawfulness of acting as a profession for Muslim women. The activation of the legal concept of maslaha helped Rashid Rida and Ahmad al-Sharabasi sanction taswir, thereby setting the stage for the permissibility of tamthil in theater and cinema. Yet, maslaha also sat many limitations on the content presented; maslaha often resulted in the filmmaker exercising self-censorship. Primarily because maslaha sanctioned taswir and tamthil through a utilitarian approach that deemed the new medium of communication an instrument of Islamic cultural hegemony and ignored film as a domain for freedom of creativity and freedom of expression. Maslaha could not solve the Orthodox dispute on the lawfulness of representing Prophets and the participation of women in theater and film. These issues continue to be subject to dispute until today.