In July 2011, three Iranian filmmakers announced a plan to create a film trilogy about the life of the Prophet Muhammad – the first feature films depicting the Prophet ever to be made in the Muslim world. The announcement sparked controversy in Muslim countries, in light of fatwas that prohibit any portrayal of Muhammad, his family, his Companions and other prominent figures from early Islam in works of art.
The movies were supposed to be shot in Morocco, but were eventually shot in Iran after Morocco refused to be involved. The filmmakers recently announced that the filming of the first movie, about Muhammad's childhood, has been completed; this evoked a new wave of condemnation from clerics, especially in Egypt, and also in Saudi Arabia. Criticism was also voiced by columnists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, who attacked Iran and called on Muslims to prevent the film's distribution.
Arab and Iranian TV series featuring early Islamic figures have already generated controversy in the Muslim world, such as the Iranian series Yousuf Al-Siddiq, which was banned in Egypt by the country's chief mufti, and the Arabic series Hassan and Hussein. The latter series sparked a controversy between clerics (both Sunni and Shi'ite) who favored its airing and the Al-Azhar institute, which urged that it be banned. The Iranian media was likewise very critical of this series.
The director of the Muhammad trilogy, Majid Majidi, said that the first movie in the series attempts to show the nature of Arab society at the time of the Prophet's childhood, and the other circumstances that led to his emergence in that particular era. Explaining his motivations for making the trilogy, he mentioned that there are few films about Muhammad, compared to films about the prophets Jesus and Moses, and that Muslims are consequently ignorant about the Prophet and his life. He said that he also wanted to counterbalance various films and publications that harm Muhammad, the Koran and Islamic values, such as Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses and the insulting cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in 2005. He added that spiritual and moral values are foremost in his mind in making the movies, and that the trilogy presents Muhammad as the embodiment of these values. Responding to concerns that the films will stress the Shi'ite point of view, he promised to do all he could to keep them free of propaganda and politics.
Al-Azhar Institute, Saudi Cleric Call On Iranian Clerics To Prevent Distribution Of The Film
The announcement that the filming of the first part of the series had been completed triggered criticism from the Egyptian Al-Azhar institute, and also from a Saudi cleric. They stressed the ban on depicting Muhammad and early Islamic figures, compared the film to the cartoons of Muhammad published in Denmark, and called on Iranian clerics to prevent the distribution and screening of the film, so as to avoid distorting Muhammad's image and to preserve unity in the Muslim world.
Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb warned Iran against depicting the Prophet Muhammad in artwork, and compared this "irresponsible" behavior to the publishing of the offensive cartoons of the Prophet in the West. He explained that the prophets and messengers, as well as Muhammad's Companions, may not be depicted in artwork due to their special sanctity, and warned that such art would cause a rift in the Islamic nation. Al-Tayyeb called on Sunnis and on Iranian clerics to object to the movies and prevent their screening to Muslim audiences worldwide.
Addressing the Iranian authorities in charge of approving films, Al-Azhar's Academy of Islamic Studies likewise stressed that the Prophet and his Companions must not be depicted, so as to keep their image untainted in the Muslims' minds and preserve Muslim unity. According to press reports, Al-Azhar clerics demanded to prevent the film from being screened in movie theaters, and also hastened to file a lawsuit against the filmmakers, fearing that it would be shown online.
Al-Azhar Academy member Hamed Abu Taleb said that making such films is inappropriate for an Islamic country, and explained that since there is no direct knowledge of the prophets' personalities, any depiction of Muhammad will differ from reality and will therefore be a lie or a half-lie. The head of Koran Studies at Al-Azhar, Muhammad Hamouda, said that Iran continues to disrespect the status of the prophets and messengers, and called on religious institutions in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take a decisive stance vis-à-vis Iran and other countries that do not respect the status of the prophets.
The head of the Iranian Interest Section in Cairo, Mojtaba Amani, said in a meeting with the Al-Azhar Sheikh that Iranian clerics are also opposed to showing Muhammad in a film.
Hassan Safar, a member of the International Islamic Fiqh Academy in Saudi Arabia, reiterated that various academies of Muslim jurisprudence had banned the depiction of the image of the Prophet, and called on the Iranian leadership to intervene and halt work on the film.
Egyptian Columnist: Those Who Protested The Danish Cartoons Are Silent On The Iranian Film
In a column in the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, penned several weeks before Al-Azhar issued its statements against the film, Samir Farid condemned the clerics' silence on the matter. He wrote: "I [originally] feared that the film would spark protests at a time when we do not need more protests. However, the only response was silence, while work on the film continued..."
Farid pointed out that unlike the current film, previously produced films and series that did not even depict the Prophet had sparked harsh criticism. These included threats to end diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Morocco over a film shot in Morocco that featured the Prophet's uncle Hamza; the banning of a film inspired by the life of Yousuf; and the furor over television series depicting Companions of the Prophet. Farid also contrasted the silence over the Iranian film with the harsh responses to various Western publications and films, such as the Danish cartoons of Muhammad and the 2004 Dutch film, Submission, about the persecution of women in Islam, and wondered whether the Muslims' outcry against Europe in these cases hadn't been prompted by political considerations disguised as religious ones.
He wrote: "Why was there such a great crisis in Muslim-Denmark [relations] over the [Danish] cartoons, which portrayed the Prophet as preaching violence due to the reality of Osama bin Laden's statements and actions – a crisis so severe that it led to [a boycott] of Danish goods for while and to an attempt on the cartoonist's life? Why was the Dutch director [Theo] Van Gogh murdered over his film, which ties the persecution of women to Koranic verses, based on his interpretation of those verses?
"There are many other examples that show the contrast between the response to those films and the silence over the Iranian film that depicts the Prophet himself. [This time] it's not a Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu director, or even an Israeli one, who has come up with this idea, but an Iranian director, [whose film is] being made in the Islamic theocracy of Iran!
"Does this not indicate that the tumultuous crises and shameful crimes mentioned above were aimed at [achieving] political goals disguised as the religious goals of defending Islam and its Prophet? Do you think that Iranian influence in Egypt has reached such proportions level due to the large funds transferred [by Iran] to Egyptian [elements]?"
Saudi Columnist: We Need To Pass Laws Against Harming Prophets, Messengers and Religious Beliefs
'Abdo Khal, columnist for the Saudi daily 'Okaz, called on Muslims to not settle for mere condemnations, which he said have proven useless in the past, but to unite and take urgent steps to prevent the distribution of the film. He called on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which is a member of the UN and represents 57 countries with Muslim majorities, to pass an international law banning the harming of prophets, messengers and religious beliefs of Muslims, Jews and Christians.
He wrote: "There are Muslims who do great harm to Islam when they present it differently from how it was revealed and how Allah desired it to be... Now there is a new harm being done by Muslims, which will be carried out unless the Islamic world unites... and acts as one to halt the depiction of the Prophet in a film...
"I object to depicting the prophets, because this diminishes these paragons [of holiness] by reducing their unique state [of grace] into something that can be reproduced and copied... The depiction also prevents [us] from keeping the messengers in a state of imagination, as befitting a holy abstract [ideal]... The prophets and the messengers live in our imaginations as a brilliant light, which the imagination shapes according to their chosen status...
"[We must not merely] protest and condemn, while waiting for the film to be screened. [This behavior] accompanied [the making of a film] depicting the life of the prophet Yusouf, peace be upon him, and did not prevent the depiction of the prophets Yousuf and Ya'qoub, peace be upon them. Condemnation also did not prevent the depiction of Mary, peace be upon her. Warnings do no good, since whenever the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, issues warnings, they remain words that have no impact on those who are far from the influence of Al-Azhar...
"Depicting the prophets is not just about Muslims. This film can come from anywhere in the world. The Islamic World Organization [sic. Meaning the OIC] should have acted back when the offensive [Danish] cartoons [were published] by demanding that the UN pass an international law banning the harming of prophets, messengers and beliefs. Without this law, no one will abstain from offending the feelings of Muslims, Jews or Christians... If the OIC does not act, with the support of its Islamic member states, to stop the depicting of the Prophet... we will soon find this film everywhere... This [cannot] wait for meetings and correspondence, but requires [action] at top speed, a million times faster than the speed of our hesitation."
Iraqi Columnist: Iran Is Imposing An Iranian-Shi'ite Narrative On Arabs
Ayman Al-Hashemi, a Sunni Iraqi academic and columnist for the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, attacked the Iranians and the Shi'ite leadership in Iraq – which, he said, is under Iranian hegemony – for objecting to the Arab series Hassan and Hussein, but remaining silent in the face of a film on Muhammad, which, he said, harms Islam no less than the Danish cartoons. He claimed that the Iranians promote certain films and oppose others in order to prevent Muslims from hearing a historical narrative that differs from the Shi'ite-Iranian one. He also called on Muslim scholars to speak out against the Iranian "plot" embodied by the Muhammad film.
Al-Hashemi wrote: "The Safavid Iranian offense against Islam has reached the point of depicting the prophets in artworks. An Iranian director announced the production of a film depicting the noble Prophet Muhammad...
"We clearly remember how the Mullahs of Qom and Tehran, along with their followers in Iraq, were quick to issue fatwas against the series 'Hassan and Hussein,' accusing [the makers of the series] of heresy. Their purpose was not [to express] extreme zeal [in banning] the depiction and portrayal of Hassan and Hussein, but rather to deceive.
"The high Shi'ite source of authority in Iran, [Ayatollah] 'Ali Al-Sistani, announced that he opposed the airing the series Hassan, Hussein, and Moawia last Ramadan on several Arabic satellite channels, since it addresses highly sensitive events in Muslim history and would therefore widen the rift among Muslims...
"We [also] remember how, as part of sectarian deception and chicanery, the Iraqi parliament decided to prevent the airing of the series 'Hassan and Hussein' on Iraqi TV, on the grounds that it 'sparks sectarian fitna, distorts historical facts, and harms Ahl Al-Bayt [the family of the Prophet Muhammad, particularly the decedents of his cousin and son-in-law 'Ali ]'...
"Why weren't the Iraqi channels forbidden from airing [other] series and films that harm the prophets and [Muhammad's] Companions? Since Iraq is in a phase of Safavid hegemony, these positions are no longer surprising. This parliament attacked the Saudi Sheikh [Muhammad] Al-'Arifi a while ago because he spoke out against Al-Sistani, but did nothing when the insolent Yasser Al-Habib [a Kuwaiti Shi'ite intellectual] attacked [the Prophet's wife] A'isha, Mother of the Believers, even though the latter crime is more severe.
"To those who wonder why the Safavids attacked the series Hassan and Hussein, but see no wrong in depicting the Prophet [himself] – the only answer is that they want to prevent the public, both Sunni and Shi'ite, from knowing an approach that differs from the false Safavid historical approach. The Iranians encourage the screening of films and series about the prophets and Muhammad's relatives, and do not flinch at presenting an approach that sparks sectarianism and fills the public [with hate] towards some of the Companions and the mothers of believes...
"All Islamic sources of authority around the world should speak out against the new Safavid plot to depict the Prophet of the ummah in a film, which will cause no less harm to Islam and the messenger than was caused by the Danish cartoons and by other [publications] of that sort."