Notes on rumored Mohammed Movie

October 20th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

(originally posted on late last year)

Despite draconian responses from Islam in regard to Mohammed depiction, Barrie Osborne, the producer that helped bring us “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix,” has announced (Nov. 2009) a 150 million dollar production about the life of the Prophet Muhammed. The issue here is that since the 16th or 17th century aniconism has been strictly followed in Islam.  This means there can be no depiction or representation of the Prophet in any form.   Barrie may have found ways to take us to the summit of Mount Doom, but how will he create a biopic on the Prophet if he is unable to show his face or body?

Moustapha Akkad did it in 1977 with “Muhammad: Messenger of God.”  As did the animator and filmmaker Richard Rich with his animated film “Muhammad: The Last Prophet.”  They employed a style of filmmaking where the world was seen from Muhammad’s point of view and the actors addressed the camera.  However they forbid Muhammad’s voice to be used as well, so it is through either inaudible dialogue or through head nods that the camera responds back to the actors.

It is a pretty big obstacle to get around.  You are making a biopic about a man that you cannot show on screen and cannot speak. The method, however, is of small concern compared to the potential international backlash and political controversy such a film could cause.

In 1977 Khalifa Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, along with eleven armed accomplices, took 149 hostages in Washington, DC.  There was a standoff with several demands declared, one of which was that Khaalis wanted to prevent Akkad’s “Mohammad: Messenger of God” from being released anywhere in the world.  Two people died during the siege.

In September of 2005 Jyllands-Posten published a series of illustrations depicting the Prophet Muhammed.  These publications resulted in demonstrations and riots throughout the Muslim world; Jyllands-Posten even received death threats by people as prominent as the leaders of Hamas. People debated across the world on topics of self-censorship and freedom of speech.  From the ensuing riots over 100 deaths were reported.

Presumably, having Muslims almost exclusively involved in this production is supposed to help ease the concerns of Muslims all over the world. It will be cast with English speaking Muslims.  Prominent Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi will be supervising the production of the movie and has praised the efforts of the film to “serve Islam” and help remove stereotypes of Islam in the West.

But one stereotype of Islam is they react histrionically and violently against what other cultures see as minor offenses. If they would like to shed the stereotypes, they should allow a physical depiction of the Prophet without reprisal. The idea of aniconism is relatively new in Islam.  There are numerous graphic depictions of Muhammad, some of which you can find at this link: Here. The Qur’an does not mention any law forbidding graphic depiction of Muhammad. The avoidance of any images of the Prophet is a somewhat modern interpretation stemming from laws forbidding idolatry; idolatry is forbidden in Judiasm and Christianity as well.

A Muslim friend of mine believes that because images of Saints and Jesus are allowed in Christianity, they have fallen into idolatry. She cited her own experience seeing Catholics praying to statues of the Saints, the Virgin Mary and Jesus at numerous cathedrals.  A valid point.  It does seem at times Christians, and I am one of them, hold in higher esteem the iconography of religion instead of the teachings and core beliefs of religion.  On that point, it appears Muslims then also hold the depiction of Muhammad to be of greater importance than his teachings of peace and compassion.

If Muslims wish to enforce this law among themselves, then by all means, please enforce this among yourselves.  But I am not Muslim.  If I drew a large portrait of the Prophet and posted it behind this article, I should be allowed to do so without fear of reprisal. Punishing me for violating a law I do not adhere to would be like a US cop arresting a Dutch citizen for smoking pot in Amsterdam.

Further international backlash and criticism is inevitable because Muhammad himself is a very controversial historical figure.  Many opponents of Islam believe Muhammad was a misogynistic, wife abusing, pedophile. That is of course using very strong language to describe Muhammad. The Prophet did marry Aisha, her age to be around 6 or 7 and then consummated the marriage with her some years later when she left her parents’ home.  There are also verses that suggest that Muhammad beat her, or at least struck her in the chest.

Historical accuracies are going to be a big issue in this film and need to be handled delicately.  How will you address his marriage to Aisha without making him look like a wife-beating pedophile to a modern Westernized audience? Especially considering you are not allowed to show a physical depiction of his wives or children either? How do you present a Prophet that Muslims claim to be a Prophet of peace despite accusations that over 100 Qur’an verses advocate war against all non-believers?

Even greater still is the issue of freedom of speech. A film professor of mine once said, “if you’re saying we shouldn’t film it, you are saying we shouldn’t talk about it.”  And if we are not allowed to talk about specific issues ignorance will start to manifest and from ignorance we breed anger and violence. Only through open dialogue, through the freedom of speech, can we start to understand each other and bring about peaceful resolutions.

I hope Osborne does not puss out on this one, as he has already stated he will, but I can hope. Film has a long history of opening up dialogue, educating the masses, and creating controversy that spurs advances in thought. I hope Osborne works with Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who is also the chairman of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, to create a film that accurately and honestly depicts the Prophet.  More so, I want to see an actor portray Muhammad. Put it up on screen, and Muslims can extinguish the negative stereotypes that exist in the West by not responding with violent protests and death threats against the filmmakers.

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