Coming soon to a screen near you: not one but two biopics about the life of Muhammad. One from Iran, one from Qatar. In other words: one Shia, one Sunni.
And double oy. Because how do you make a movie about someone you can’t show on the screen? Images of Muhammad are a no-no in Islam. Though a few medieval Persian miniatures do show his cloaked figure, his face is blanked out — a white oval in the otherwise vividly colored painting.
No surprise, then, that there hasn’t been a feature movie about Muhammad since 1976, when Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi — yes, that Qaddafi — funded “The Message,” starring Anthony Quinn (shown here at left) as Muhammad’s uncle Hamza.
Who played Muhammad? Nobody. The solution was not to show him at all. Instead, the camera acted as his eyes. When the camera panned, you were supposed to think that this was what Muhammad was seeing. The result was… less than convincing.
What was all too convincing was the violence surrounding the movie’s planned US debut in 1977. Twelve Nation of Islam extremists not given to fact-checking heard a rumor that Quinn had played not Hamza, but Muhammad himself. They laid siege to three buildings in Washington DC, where they held 149 hostages and killed a journalist and a police officer until they were persuaded by the combined efforts of the Egyptian, Pakistani, and Iranian ambassadors to surrender. (The whole miserable story is here.)
Of course the hostage-takers hadn’t seen the movie. If they had, they might have been amazed by its stereotypical blandness. And they’d never be aware of their ironic role in ensuring that the director, Moustapha Akkad, gave up on religious-themed movies after “The Message,” made a small fortune directing Jamie Lee Curtis in the famed “Halloween” sequels, and then in 2005 went to a wedding in Jordan and got blown up by a suicide bomber.
If it seems way past time that a better film about Muhammad be made, the question remains how it can be done without violence. And the problem remains of how to do it without showing him.
The highly regarded Iranian director Majid Majidi (“Children of Heaven,” “Color of Paradise”) began work on his $30-million movie last October, and reportedly intends to show Muhammad’s cloaked figure, but not his face. In short order, an outraged denunciation came from Cairo’s al-Azhar University, followed by the announcement of plans for a rival movie from Sunni-majority Qatar, with the blessing of a top Muslim Brotherhood theologian and a budget ranging, in various reports, from $200 million to $1 billion.
So how will the two movies differ, aside from the obvious lavishness of production moola and the issue of cloaked figure or no figure? If you’ve read After the Prophet, you’ll know that the Iranian movie will likely give a far greater role to Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, whom Shia believe Muhammad designated as his successor — his first khalifa, or caliph. The Qatari movie will just as likely give a heftier role to Muhammad’s father-in-law abu-Bakr, who in fact became the first caliph of Sunni Islam. In other words, the two movies are likely to act out the Sunni-Shia split.
I guess acting it out with cameras is far preferable to doing so with guns, but the risk of course is that angry denunciations such as that of al-Azhar will only encourage the latter.
Meanwhile, Hollywood seems determined not to be left out of the prophets (and, of course, the profits). Two biopics of Moses are reportedly in the works, with names like Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Ang Lee being bandied around with Hollywood abandon and zero confirmation. And gird your loins for a biopic of Noah due for release next year, with the ark-builder being played by the star of “The Gladiator,” Russell Crowe.
Somehow I can’t quite imagine Russell Crowe with an olive branch…