Copts, Muslims debate Arabic Jesus movie

Life-of-Jesus movies have been made in many languages — from the early French talkie Golgotha (1935) to Mel Gibson’s Aramaic- and-Latin The Passion of the Christ (2004) — but I don’t believe one has ever been made in Arabic before. That may change soon, though, now that a Coptic Orthodox Christian screenwriter and a Muslim movie producer have joined forces in Egypt.

Alas, the usual don’t-you-dare-depict-a-prophet protests have begun — thanks this time to “the highest authority in Sunni Islam, the Al Azhar institution in Cairo”, reports Agence France-Presse, via the Middle East Times — so the screenwriter, Fayez Ghali, and the producer, whose name is reported variously as Mohammed Uchub or Mohammed Ashub or Mohammed Ashoub, have not had much of a chance to spell out what they intend to actually do with their film. Instead, the various news items that I have seen quote them only to let them defend their movie against the fatwas.

Ghali rightly asks the AFP, “Christian dogma does not prohibit the depiction of Christ, so what gives Al Azhar the right to intervene?” And the film’s Muslim producer notes that several films about Jesus, including The Passion of the Christ, have played in Egyptian theatres without causing this sort of controversy. He adds, “Al Azhar does not have the right to intervene in something which concerns the Christians, otherwise it would have to tear down the icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary from churches.”

FWIW, Islam Online quotes its own “Shari’ah Section” researcher, Sheikh Massoud Sabri, to the effect that, while acting is allowed because it is a new form of art that post-dates Mohammed and was never prohibited by him, “contemporary scholars agree that depicting prophets is haram (prohibited by Allah) since it would not be real and accordingly negatively affects their image. The rule says preventing harm has a priority over achieving gains.”

And the Catholic News Agency quotes Al Azhar member Abdel Moti Bayumi to the effect that, “Muslims hate seeing Jesus represented in human form and especially if they show him in moments of weakness.” One wonders if this extends to depictions of Christ’s agony in Gethsemane, or for that matter to the crucifixion of Jesus, which Muslims do not believe took place.

In that same CNA story, Ghali says, “That the depiction of the prophets is forbidden is an issue for our Muslim brothers, not for me. . . . I am following my Orthodox Christian teaching. No human being ought to prohibit the movie, whether it’s Al Azhar, the church or even the state.” He adds that, if the making of the film were prevented, it “would be a historic catastrophe, as it would be understood as an imposition of their power on the Church.”

Ghali is reportedly open to letting a Muslim actor play the part of Christ — though he says the church will have a say in the casting of the film, and the producer apparently insists that a Christian take the role. Beyond that, there is also some talk of casting only first-time actors and “banning” them from future movie roles, though how this ban would be enforced is not spelled out.

Deferring to Muslim sensibilities and following their prohibition against depictions of the prophets makes sense when making a movie about Mohammed, of course. But when the character in question belongs to the older Judeo-Christian tradition, and the filmmakers themselves are Christian, it gets a bit ridiculous.

In fact, this all sounds very reminiscent of the fuss that was made some years ago over Youssef Chahine‘s al-Mohager (1994), AKA The Emigrant, which was basically an adaptation of the biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar. Chahine, a Coptic Catholic, changed the names of the characters out of deference to the Muslim prohibition against depictions of the prophets; but the film was banned anyway, and some Muslims reportedly even threatened to kill Chahine because he personally played the part of the Jacob figure.

Hence, Chahine’s next film, al-Massir (1997; my capsule review), AKA Destiny, was all about Muslim fundamentalists — medieval fundamentalists from the 12th century, true, but one of the points of Chahine’s film was that the decline of Muslim civilization and many of Islam’s current problems stem back to that era.

Thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for alerting me to this story.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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