Protests have erupted around the country about a film described by its critics as “blasphemous” and “racist”, and more than 120,000 people have signed a petition against it – leading to some cinemas pulling screenings from their schedules.

But the makers of The Lady Of Heaven and free speech campaigners say this sets a “dangerous” precedent.

The film, which was released in the UK on 3 June, depicts the story of Lady Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and is billed as the first ever film to do so. This story is intertwined with the tale of a young Iraqi child in modern times some 1,400 years later.

It was written by Shia Muslim cleric Sheikh Yasser al-Habib and portrays Lady Fatimah’s death, describing her as “the first victim of terrorism” in its synopsis.

The different schools of the religion have differing views on this, and it is mainly Sunni Muslims who have strongly criticised the film, saying the plot does not accurately portray historical events.

It was due to be shown at Vue, Showcase and Cineworld cinemas – with the latter pulling all screenings citing concerns for staff and customer safety.

Why is the film so controversial?

The depiction of Islamic prophets on screen and in art has long been contentious.

In accordance with Islamic tradition, The Lady Of Heaven filmmakers say they went to great lengths to not show a holy person represented by a human, with no actress actually playing the role of Lady Fatimah. Instead, the performance was generated through a mixture of CGI, lighting and visual effects.

But criticism of the film is largely focused on the portrayals of several other characters, including the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, Abu Bakr and Umar ibn al-Khattab, the first caliphs of Islam.

What is The Lady Of Heaven about?

Malik Shlibak, The Lady Of Heaven’s executive producer, told Sky News that the film tells the story of Lady Fatimah’s “life, her struggles, the journey she went through”.

He continued: “We believe she is the best figure in history for us today to learn from, to know how to tackle things such as extremism, radicalism and corruption. And we felt it’s important to share this story with the world.”

He said the issue of the subject matter being provocative “depends on who you ask”, and added: “Any religious topic you tackle is going to have disagreements amongst different groups…

“We’re not presenting an over-romanticised version of history. We spent a year in pre-production making sure the history is accurate.”

However, Shahid Ali, a cleric who organised a protest against the film in Bradford, said the film presents a “false narrative of the early caliphs of Islam… of them being terrorists”.

He told Sky News: “These figures are revered throughout the whole Muslim world by the vast majority of 2 billion Muslims across the globe.

“If they are portrayed in this divisive and inflammatory and inciting movie, as terrorists, then Muslims who naturally love and revere these figures, who are founding figures of our religion, this creates an impression in the viewer – especially those who have little or very minimal knowledge of Islam – that the central figures of Islam are indeed terrorists, and all Muslims who revere them and honour them are similar.

“So this is an extremely dangerous and a sectarian narrative, which is very extreme.”

What have critics of the film said?

In a letter sent to Cineworld and shared on its social media sites, the Bolton Council Of Mosques described the film as “blasphemous” and said it had caused “much distress to Muslims across the globe”.

The letter continued: “It is underpinned with a sectarian ideology and is blasphemous in nature to the Muslim community.

“It grossly disrespects the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in many ways and is deeply disturbing to every Muslim.”

The “Remove The Lady Of Heaven from UK cinemas” petition, set up by a user named Muslims UK and now signed by more than 126,000 people, says the film has caused “heartache” and “spread false information on Islam”, and “directly disrespects” the Prophet Muhammad.

Roshan M Salih, editor of the British Muslim news site 5Pillars, wrote on Twitter: “Let me put this simply – Lady of Heaven should be banned because it might lead to communal violence. Muslims love the Prophet and Sahaba [companions of the Prophet] so much that provocations like this might lead to criminal reactions from some misguided individuals.”

He said the film could “lead to a reaction even if that reaction itself is wrong”.

Freedom of speech and cancel culture

Mr Shlibak said people are free to criticise the film and have their own opinions, but says the protests have “over-stepped boundaries” and are an attempt to “censor other people with different views”.

In response, protest organiser Mr Ali said: “When someone openly expresses their views against, let’s say, gay people, then it’s homophobia, or someone openly expresses their views of negativity against Jewish people or their religion, it’s antisemitism. When it’s against Black people, it is racism. But when it comes to Muslims, it’s freedom of speech. And Muslims are really fed up.”

In a tweet, Baroness Claire Fox said the decision to remove the film from cinemas was “disastrous for the arts, dangerous for free speech, a lesson to those who argue identity politics are no threat to democracy”.

And some 3,700 people have signed an online counter-petition calling for the film to be supported by UK cinemas, arguing that “taking it down due to online mobs and bullies is not befitting of a free and progressive country such as the UK”.

The BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) said The Lady Of Heaven had been classified as a 15 for “strong bloody violence, gory images, and threat” but that there is nothing in the film that exceeds guidelines or deems it unsuitable for classification.

“Filmmakers are free to explore historical or controversial themes and events within their films,” the organisation said in a statement. “The BBFC’s role is to ensure the content is classified appropriately based on our guidelines, in order to protect children and other vulnerable groups from potential harm and to empower consumers to make informed viewing decisions.”

Where have protests taken place?

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The Lady Of Heaven debate

Protests have been staged outside cinemas in Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Bolton, Blackburn, Birmingham and Stratford.

Footage of some has circulated online, with one reportedly showing a member of staff outside a cinema in Sheffield telling a crowd that the film had been pulled.

The latest demonstration took place outside the Vue cinema in Stratford, east London, on Wednesday.

Asked about Cineworld’s comment on staff safety, Mr Ali, who organised the Bradford protest, said there had been no arrests and no one had been hurt.

“Everyone has a right to go to work freely and safely,” he said. “Of course, that’s undeniable. But we went to these protests. There were no arrests, nobody got hurt, there was no property damage or anything of that sort.

“In many [other] protests, we have seen far worse happening. But why is it that when [it is] a group of bearded men, of Muslims, they are immediately demonised and portrayed very negatively?”

What have the cinemas said?

Following its UK launch, The Lady Of Heaven was due to be screened at Cineworld, Vue and Showcase cinemas in Blackburn, Bradford, Bristol, Birmingham, Bolton, Cardiff, Coventry, Derby, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Paisley, Peterborough, Reading, Sheffield, Stockton Upon Tees, Wolverhampton, and various locations in London.

Cineworld confirmed it had pulled the film from all its venues following protests, saying: “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.”

Vue did not respond directly when asked if it had pulled some screenings, although the film is now only listed at some venues in London.

A spokesperson for the chain said: “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.

“Vue will only show a film once the BBFC (the independent British Board of Film Classification) has assessed and rated a film. The Lady of Heaven has been BBFC accredited and is on show in a number of our cinemas.

“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.”

Screenings for the film at Showcase cinemas do not appear to be available. Showcase has not responded to Sky News’ requests for comment.