Biopics: The pitfalls of filming Muhammad

A new “Message?”

I remember as an 8-year-old being taken to see the epic film The Message, an account of the life of the Prophet Muhammad produced by the late Moustapha Akkad in 1976 and going on (after some initial controversy) to be a film well-loved by Muslims throughout the world. The film respected Muslim sensibilities regarding portrayal of the prophet (his likeness was never seen on screen) and showed the emergence of Islam as having a positive impact on world history. As one of the only Muslims in my school, that film was a source of pride that helped reinforce my identity and portray vividly the stories I had until then only known from books at my mosque.

Now, as my own son turns 8, I may have the opportunity to return the favour. The Guardian reports that Barrie Osborne, one of the producers of Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, is planning to produce an English-language biopic of the Prophet Muhammad. This comes on the heels of news from last year of a similar movie by producer Oscar Zoghbi, a planned remake that hews close to Akkad’s seminal film.

As much as I might appreciate and encourage the interest in making films about Islam or Muslims, however, news of these films give me pause. Osborne apparently told reporters that the goal of the film is to be “an international epic production aimed at bridging cultures” that “will educate people about the true meaning of Islam”. But the world that The Message was released in was very different, both in terms of public perception of Islam as well as in the type of film that Hollywood tends to put out today, and such films may not have the positive effect (in the west, at least) that the producers intend.

The Islamic prohibition against portraying the prophet (or his voice or shadow) worked in the simpler days when The Message was made. With today’s audience and in today’s times, no amount of CGI could curb the frustration audiences would feel in pushing the boundaries of that more than 30-year-old film without a depiction of the main character driving it. The traditional approach to depicting the prophet, in part, pushed Islamic art towards the literal and geometric. We may have to accept that it also rendered a serious biopic with this subject matter nearly impossible.

But it’s not just about the filming techniques, it’s about the story as well. The expectations for such a film among western audiences today would be quite different from the era of The Message, when the movie-going public knew relatively little about Islam. Such a film in today’s environment would have to touch on controversial and complex topics that have been discussed even among non-Muslims such as Aisha’s age at marriage, the impending Sunni-Shia split, and the treatment of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in order to be considered anything other than a whitewashed history lesson. While such complex issues can be properly parsed in history books, it is hard to imagine their treatment in the short span of a movie contributing in any meaningful way to the current discourse. The average viewer, to pick one example, will likely not be able to reconcile the myriad battles that the prophet led for both survival and conquest with the current position by Muslim leaders that Islam poses no threat to the west.

There are many other rich stories in Islamic history that could easily make the transition to an epic, entertaining film. At the time of his untimely death in 2005 at the hands of a suicide bomber in Jordan, Moustapha Akkad was planning a movie about the life of Saladin and the Crusades. “Right now, Islam is portrayed as a terrorist religion,” he explained. “Because a few terrorists are Muslims, the whole religion has that image. If there ever was a religious war full of terror, it was the Crusades. But you can’t blame Christianity because a few adventurers did this.”

In addition to Saladin, there are scores of other untold tales from the Muslim world – the travels of explorer Ibn Battuta, the reflections of mystic Jalaluddin Rumi, the antics of 13th century jester Mulla Nasruddin – that have yet to be shared with western audiences through film. So why bother remaking a classic?

Filmmakers wanting to “educate people about the true meaning of Islam” would have a greater degree of success in following the late Akkad’s example and start telling stories about Islam and Muslims that come from more unexpected sources.

Shahed Amanullah is Editor-in-Chief of altmuslim.com. This article was previously published in the Guardian’s Comment is Free.


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