The Imam brings the eventful life of the influential Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal to the screen and is set in the streets and palaces of religiously and politically tumultuous 9th century Baghdad. The series was produced by Qatar TV which also co-produced the popular historical drama series Omar about the life of Omar ibn al-Khattab.
One of the most venerated Islamic historical figures, and the founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, Ibn Hanbal (780 – 855 CE) has had a profound influence on the practice of Sunni Islam and the fields of fiqh and hadith studies – an influence which continues to be felt to this day.
The historical drama series The Imam tells the story of Ibn Hanbal’s life against the backdrop of 9th century Abbasid Baghdad. The lives of the poorest in society and the most powerful alike are dramatized with a colourful cast of characters, from petty thieves to important historical figures who were active during his lifetime, such as the influential Barmakid family of viziers at the caliphal court, and the caliphs of the Abbasid empire, with whom he clashes.
Ibn Hanbal grew up in the cosmopolitan metropolis of Baghdad under the reign of Harun al-Rashid, living through the succession struggles of Harun al-Rashid’s sons, al-Amin and al-Ma’mun, and suffering religious persecution under al-Ma’mun – when he was imprisoned and tortured for not supporting the officially adopted Mu’tazalizm and their doctrine of the created nature of the Quran.
Syrian actor Mehyar Khaddour, who played Khalid Ibn Al-Waleed in the Omar TV series, convincingly plays the title role in The Imam. The series starts in his youth as a student of knowledge, and shows his struggle to pursue his studies while also trying to earn a living. His mother is very supportive of his studies, and does not want him to be distracted by having to work, but equally they have very little income, and his early years of studying are a constantly difficult balancing act between trying to earn a living and having enough time to attend lessons. Ibn Hanbal later travels to Kufa, Basra and the Hijaz to meet scholars, learn from them and collect hadith, and in his later years stands up to the Mihna (inquisition) of al-Ma’mun, which concerns the Mutazilite position on the createdness of the Quran, and is imprisoned and persecuted for his opposition.
The series gives viewers a window into Ibn Hanbal’s life, showing his character and moral qualities as a man of great integrity, his intellectual brilliance, and the personal circumstances of his life. The episodes explore the events of his time, his family and close friends, those he influenced and was influenced by, the views and intellectual positions he held and stood by, and the dramatic story of his imprisonment and release.
The Imam was originally aired in Ramadan 2017 by Qatar TV, which also co-produced the popular historical drama series Omar based on the life of Omar ibn al-Khattab. The Imam was scheduled to be filmed in seven different countries, but experienced some production delays due to the complexity of the project, and was eventually filmed in Lebanon and Turkey. Historical facts and events portrayed in the series were supervised and reviewed by religious specialists and scholars, and the script by Mohammed Al-Yousari was rewritten several times. Like many drama series The Imam may take a few episodes to get into as you get to know the characters, but by the end of the third episode you will likely be hooked.
Apart from covering a key figure, time and place in Islamic history, this series is also a fantastic resource for those learning Arabic. Spoken standard Arabic (fuṣḥa) can be difficult to learn as it is only spoken in formal settings in the modern world, with local dialects being used for normal everyday interactions. The Imam is filmed in standard Arabic, with English subtitles providing a close and accurate translation, making it a great resource for students of Arabic. Through Ibn Hanbal’s classes and doctrinal positions viewers also learn about the science of hadith and historical Islamic theological debates.
The Imam gives us a glimpse of Islamic history from the perspective of a key intellectual figure who lived at a pivotal time and place. The profound influence and legacy of the events portrayed in The Imam and of Ibn Hanbal’s lifework continue to be felt to this day.