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…
The story of Muhammed could make a compelling movie as long as they would play it straight. If you remember “The Last Temptation of Christ”, you will know that religious movies can be done that don’t turn the main character into a plaster saint. Unfortunately I don’t think anyone of Scorcese’s caliber is going to work on this movie. My own preference is for something on the order of “Lawrence of Arabia”. Stunning visuals and action scenes. I don’t think the backers have the guts to play the story straight.
You surely remember the protests over The Last Temptation of Christ, even though it was clearly fiction, based on Kazantzakis’ novel.
Yes, I do remember the protests. In fact when I saw the movie during an afternoon showing in New Jersey, I found out later that the evening showing was picketted. I was sorry I missed it.
Bit of an aside but was shocked about the mention of Nation Of Islam members in the siege, since the NOI generally have a less than orthodox stance towards the Prophet (SAW) and were at least officially antiviolence, but then the wiki article said they were part of a “Hanafi Muslim Movement” which i have never heard of (in the context of the NOI, aware of the Sunni madhab). Do you know if they were closer to conventional Hanafis or an offshoot of NOI teachings and theology? Sorry, have a weird interest in that whole area of things.
Looking forward to seeing both of these films if I can iA, it’s a fascinating story. Granted it will be slanted in whatever direction the directors’ affiliations lie, but that is to be expected. Feels like at this point he is as much a myth for us to project our desires onto as a historical figure. And will save a lot of the emotional and spiritual wrestling with the historical figure your last book provoked in me! Would be very difficult to watch the killings of the Banu Qurayza and the Medinan poets onscreen.
Wish I could tell you more re that 1977 incident, Ali, but I was still in Jerusalem at the time it happened. (It does sound from that wiki entry as though Islam was being used as a secondary rationale, but I really don’t know.) It did kill general release of the movie, which nonetheless went on to become very popular in mosques and Islamic centers.
I’m not sure whether to apologize or to be complimented that ‘The First Muslim’ provoked emotional and spiritual wrestling on your part. Maybe complimented, because it sounds as though you’ve come through it stronger. Re the movies now in the works, you’re right, of course. But I do hope they include at least some emotional and spiritual wrestling on the part of Muhammad, thus according him the depth and complexity of human reality.
You are so well read and have a deep insight into Islam and other religions plus the the high esteem the last Prophet (peace be upon him) is held in.. then why do you use his name so casually, disregarding all respect…
Hashmi – With all due respect, the Muslim habit of always including PBUH with the mention of the Prophet’s name is something that Muslims do. Non-Muslims don’t do this, nor do we consider it disrespectful not to. Please stop taking offense where none is intended – and the world will be a better and more peaceful place.
I think it would be hypocritical of me to refer to Muhammad in the traditional Muslim manner, since I am not Muslim.
Mustapha Akkad’s movie is not that bad…. also there are some manuscripts from the Mongol Period in Iran (especially the Ilkhanid period i am not too sure about the Timurid period) which have depictions of Prophet Mohammed without a veil a very famous one is The compendium of the World or Jami’h al-Tawarikh by Rashid ud-Din but there are other Miraj-Nameh (the story of the Isra wa al Miraj) for example which have copious amounts of depictions of the Prophet without any veil…
It was definitely a compliment. Loved the book even while struggling at times. I think all too often people want to strip away his humanity and just leave this semi-divine archetypal figure in his place. Which is obviously not cool, Islamically speaking. The Qur’an itself admonishes him for making mistakes. And he lived in a fundamentally different era in a different social context to the one we live in today. To me it is more about being inspired by who he was to the society he was in rather than imitating his actions literally. I think one does faith a disservice if not intellectually honest with it.
The Medina period does seem quite incongruous, but power is a tricky thing. I struggle to reconcile Medina with my own morality and reason, but there’s still Mecca, and Islam for me is about far more than the Prophet (SAW) himself.
I do think were the films to depict some of the more controversial events in Medina there might be a backlash, from islamophobes saying “See! I told you so!” and from some Muslims assuming they had invented them. Many of my friends aren’t really aware of that side of things. It’s a difficult topic that I don’t think I will ever have the answer to.
Oh and meant to say I loved After the Prophet too! Thank you for your books, your words here and your TED talks, apologies for the monster comment!
Thanks for confirming, Ali. Particularly appreciate your saying “I think one does faith a disservice if not intellectually honest with it,” and with your permission, intend to adopt it. — L.
I would be honoured if you did.
*monster-sized comment i mean
Understood! Here be no monsters.
Lesley – love your Ted talks and so happy to find your website. Excellent article and I look forward to making my way through the rest.
BTW – I am a Muslim and I do not feel the need to say ‘Peace be upon him’ every time the Prophet’s name is said. You speak about him with more respect that most Muslims do in their behaviour. Respect and honouring is about more than four words.
My feeling too — Thanks Saimma.