In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jylland-Posten first published 12 offensive cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. These cartoons triggered protests, some violent, around the Muslim world. For many Muslims, the cartoons were not a matter of free speech, but were perceived to be hate speech against Muslims. Moreover, the lack of respect in these depictions was troubling. Islamic law opposes any representation of the Prophet, even positive, out of fear of idolatry. The controversy over the cartoons has dissipated considerably, but the discussion around a new book from Yale University Press on the topic The Cartoons that Shook the World illustrates that the issue of representing the Prophet Muhammad, especially negatively, continues to have ramifications. Now there are new efforts to use visual media, specifically film, to portray a positive image of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam that respects the edicts of the faith and aims to build bridges.
The most well known movie that traces the life of the Prophet Muhammad was the 1976 film “The Message” starring Anthony Quinn as Hamza the uncle of the Prophet. Oscar Zoghbi produced the film and the late Moustapha Akkad directed the biopic. The Prophet was never seen or heard in the film, nor were many of his close companions and family members. Despite protests around rumors that Anthony Quinn was cast as the Prophet himself, the film has become a classic in the Muslim community and is often shown to tell the story of the beginning of Islam. Zoghbi recently announced that he plans a new version that would be entitled “The Messenger of Peace.”
In addition, Barrie Osbourne, the producer of “The Matrix” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, announced that he plans to make a big screen movie about the Prophet in order to educate the public about Islam. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Islamic scholar, will oversee the filming and Alnoor Holdings, a Qatari production company, will back the film. Like “The Message,” the Prophet Muhammad will not be depicted. Osbourne said the film is “aimed at bridging cultures. The film will educate people about the true meaning of Islam.” The focus of the film according to Alnoor’s chairman is that “It will highlight the humanity of Prophet Muhammad”–a message that is too often overlooked.
Would you watch a film about the Prophet Muhammad? Why is there so much controversy around depictions of the Prophet Muhammad? What do you think is important to know about him as a religious and/or historical leader? Is it possible to build these kind of bridges and information sources within mass culture while still respecting the tenets of Islam? Please share your comments.