By Tim Marshall
A film depicting the Prophet Mohamed has been released without sparking the protests, rioting and murders which sometimes follow similar events. There has been muted criticism of ‘Mohamed – Messenger of God’ but not the sort of violence we have seen in the past when Islam’s prophet has been portrayed.
The reasons for the choice of restraint, so far, are complicated but probably lie in both the films origins and the manner of the depiction of Mohamed.
The $40 million ‘Messenger of God ‘was made mostly in Shia dominated Iran with government money. It is being shown in 140 cinemas around the country and received its international premiere at the Montreal Film Festival late last week. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, visited the set while it was being made which has been taken as a mark of approval. The religious authorities in Iran regard the Supreme Leader as being the head not only of all Shia, but leader of all Muslims everywhere.
The Oscar-nominated director, Majid Majidi, took great care not to show the face of Mohamed. He is only seen as an adult from behind, shrouded in white, or as a child or a baby, however we
do hear his voice. He is treated with great respect. You can see a trailer for the film on the W&Y home page on the right hand side.
Nevertheless, most Sunni Islamic scholars are clear that the prophet should never be depicted even if some Shia take a more relaxed view. The Koran does not ban visual recordings of Mohamed, but a hadith (the sayings of the prophet) can be considered to so do.
So far, the only meaningful criticism of the film has come from Sunni Islam’s greatest university, the Al Azhar in Cairo. The dean of Islamic theology there, Professor Abdel Fattah Alawar, said “”This matter is already settled. Sharia prohibits embodying the prophets….It is not permissible in Islam that someone (an actor) has contradictory and conflicting roles; sometimes we see him as a blind drunk, sometimes as a womanizer … and then he embodies a prophet … this is not permissible.” The University has called on the film to be banned.
That is a religious/political challenge to Iran because the Ayatollahs believe they lead the Islamic world and so a call for a ban is a criticism of them and undermines the legitimacy they perceive themselves to hold. This in turn undermines their authority over the (mostly minority) Shia populations throughout the Middle East.
Mr Majidi says he made the film to “fight against the new wave of Islamophobia in the West. The Western interpretation of Islam is full of violence and terrorism.” However, it is thought that he consulted mostly Ayatollahs about the content of the film. The clerics included the Ayatollahs – Sistani, Khoarasani, and Khamenei. If the muted criticism grows it is likely to quickly begin to accuse the film of following the narrative of Shia Islam.
The Iranians are aware of the potential dangers ahead for what is the first in a planned trilogy. The identity of the boy playing Mohamed has not been made public and some scenes which were planned to be filmed in India had to be moved when the government there refused permission fearing a backlash from the minority Muslim population.
So far there has been no word from the birth place of Muhamed, Saudi Arabia, a Sunni dominated country, which also claims to lead the world’s Muslims and which has an intense rivalry with Iran.
The more vocal sections of Muslims who in the past have raged against Western cartoons, or damage to a Koran, have yet to make themselves heard. This may be because of the delicate politics of the film as set out above, and also because, other than showing the Prophet, the film cannot be construed as insulting Islam. If ‘outrage’ does emerge it will be carefully planned and deeply political.