Controversy Surrounds New Mohammed Movie, Being Produced by Iranian Muslim

By Patrick Goodenough | February 20, 2013 | 5:41 AM EST

Iranian film director Majid Majidi is working on a movie on the life of Mohammed, the Muslim prophet. (Photo: Director’s website)

( – An Iranian filmmaker’s plan to produce a movie on the life of Mohammed is stoking anger among some Muslims, but it also calls into question the often repeated assertion that all Muslims view all portrayals of Islam’s prophet as “blasphemous.”

Iranian director Majid Majidi is working on a three-part epic on the 7th century founder of Islam, focusing on his childhood and early life, his life after the “revelation” – when Muslims believe Allah revealed the Quran to him – and the spread of Islam.

Scholars at the Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL), a 50-year-old organization with close ties to the Saudi monarchy, this week condemned the plans and urged a halt in production.

“It is the responsibility of Tehran to stop such acts, which are contrary to the principles of the Islamic shari’a, occurring in its territory,” it said in a statement released through the official Saudi Press Agency.

The Sunni organization said depicting “prophets and messengers” would “undermine their characters, like exposing the character to defamation or insult.”

(The Qur’an describes many biblical figures as Muslim “prophets” and especially exalted prophets – including Mohammed, Jesus and Elijah – as “messengers.”)

During a visit to Istanbul last June, Majidi spoke about the $50-million project, which he said had been underway for four years.

Unlike previous movies, he said, his would show the prophet character, although his face would not be seen.

“Only his face is not visible,” Turkey’s Anatolia news agency quoted Majidi as saying. “He will appear physically but we will not see his face.”

Previous mainstream movies about Mohammed have shown neither his face nor any physical presence. In the best-known, the 1976 biopic “The Message,” organ music was heard whenever the prophet was present. Even his words were not heard, but instead repeated by other characters such as his uncle, Hamza, played by Anthony Quinn. (Despite this, “The Message” prompted protests, and triggered a deadly hostage-taking siege in Washington DC in March 1977.)

A promotional poster for the 1976 movie on Mohammed, “The Message.” Although the prophet was not depicted the film stoked protests, and a hostage-taking siege in Washington DC. (Image: Wikipedia)

Majidi said discussions about his movie had been held with “ulama” – Muslim scholars – in Iran and Turkey, and their response had been positive.

“The title of the film is not clear yet but we are thinking about ‘Mohammed,’” he said, adding that he expected the film to be in cinemas within two years.

“The world knows [associates] Islam with terror,” Majidi said. “Therefore I wanted to make a film to show the real face of Islam.”

Whatever his motivation, Majidi has upset some powerful religious bodies.

The MWL said that all councils affiliated with it “ban the depiction” of Mohammed. Those bodies include the World Supreme Council for Mosques and the Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) Council.

“This is the unanimous view adopted by the Islamic scholars, experts in jurisprudence and top bodies representing them,” it said in the statement. “ MWL had made authentic studies on the issue of making films on the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions about 40 years ago [in 1971] and came to the conclusion that this was not permissible.”

Scholars at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, considered the top seat of learning in Sunni Islam, have also condemned the movie, according to Kuwait’s official KUNA news agency.

The assertion that “images of Mohammed are prohibited in Islam” appears frequently in news reporting on controversies that have rocked Islam-West relations in recent years arising over allegations of blasphemy and “defamation” of Islam.

These episodes, such as the decision by a Danish paper in late 2005 to publish 12 artists’ cartoon depictions of Mohammed, were seen by Muslims as insulting the prophet, especially by associating him with terrorism.

The Danish cartoons included one showing a man wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, with its fuse lit. Another showed “Mohammed” with blacked-out eyes, armed with a dagger and flanked by burqa-clad women.

(Majidi himself withdrew one of his films from a Danish film festival in 2006, saying he was doing so in “protest against insulting any religious belief or icon.”)

But some news reporting on the subject says that “any” depictions of Mohammed are considered blasphemous.

In fact the Qur’an does not prohibit the depiction of prophets, although some hadiths – saying or traditions of Mohammed –  are seen to do so. Some rulings forbid pictures of any person or even animal, presumably to discourage idolatry.

Scholars point to a hadith by 9th century scholar Bukhari, who wrote that Mohammed returned from a journey to find that Aisha, the youngest of his dozen wives, had put up a curtain in the house with pictures on it.

He tells her that image-makers will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection, and declares that “Angels do not enter a house in which there are dogs or pictures.”

Still, the ban on any images is clearly ignored, even in the most devout Islamic societies.  Media across the Muslim world use photographs and live images, and candidates’ photos appear on posters during election campaigns.

Scholars differ

Images of Mohammed specifically appeared in art and literature over the centuries, and even today pictorial interpretations are available in the Islamic world, although more often in Shi’ite contexts.

Online research finds differing views among scholars.

On the website “Islam Q&A,” the Saudi-based scholar Sheikh Muhammed Saalih Al-Munajjid says none of the prophet’s companions “dared to make a picture or image of him, because they knew the ruling that doing so was haram [prohibited].”

But on the “Understanding Islam” site – a project of an Islamic institute in Pakistan – a scholar answers a similar question by noting that paintings of Mohammed have appeared over the centuries and adding, “There is nothing in the shari’a that directly prohibits paintings of the prophet.”

“Of course, none of these paintings are a true representation of the face of the prophet,” he adds.

Still the scholar, Abdullah Rahim, says it would probably be better not to make such images, because “human beings tend to give false attributes and values to things.”

Asked about scenes showing Mohammed, other prophets, imams or “luminaries” in film, television or theater, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shi’ite cleric in Iraq, replies, “If due deference and respect is observed, and the scene does not contain anything that would detract from their holy pictures in the minds [of the viewers], there is no problem.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow