by Nadir Firat
Important figures of our past, not only with their achievements within their lifetime, but also with their stories of how they achieved them, have always been an influence in cultural development. In this sense their stories deliver a message rather than being mere mediums to celebrate the achievement. These stories themselves sometimes inspire us more than the achievements normalized within time. Film as a medium of storytelling, even in its infancy days, used historical events and figures as a narrative.
Lives of important figures of western religions like Moses or Jesus with their values in tradition, their own messages and myths surrounding their stories have also been very interesting subjects widely narrated in films. But for another western religion: Islam, it has been a different story. The depiction of the created, especially Prophet Muhammad, has always been a controversial issue in Islamic Tradition. It was accepted that the depiction of the created might lead to idolatry, and was also seen as challenging God’s right and ability of creating and therefore challenging God himself. Even though many movies were made about Islam in countries which had a Muslim majority and a cinema industry, it wasn’t until 1974 that a feature film solely based on the life of Muhammad was shot.
After the success of Jesus Christ Super Star (1973), Muslim filmmaker Moustapha Akkad decided to make such a film. Following the approval of his screenplay from both Sunni and Shi’ite scholars, and a controversial production phase he released his film “The Message” on 1976.
Another feature on the same topic is an animation directed by Richard Rich: Muhammad, The Last Prophet, released in 2002. It was a production brought to life with Christine Dodge’s effort, a Muslim convert American writer. An animation with a religious narrative wasn’t new at all. Mainly targeting a younger audience and allowing a wider range of creativity in depicting supernatural events and characters had made this medium a popular choice for delivering religious narratives several times, for example Prince of Egypt (1998). Almost thirty years after The Message, the same institutions gave their approvals to the accuracy of the animation.
In terms of plot, the two movies are quite similar. A quick review of the plot is necessary to understand the filmmaker’s views and their intentions.
The Message opens with three horsemen dressed in white galloping in the vastness of the desert before separating their own ways. They are the messengers of Muhammad, carrying his message of Islam to three kings of the neighbouring kingdoms. This unique image of horsemen wearing white against the yellow background of the desert is used as a symbol to represent the uniqueness of the message they are carrying.
Then we go back in the timeline to the days before Muhammad received the revelations and became the Messenger of God. This time our mise-en-scene is pre-Islamic Mecca, where Muhammad was born and raised. The city houses idols of three hundred and sixty gods, depicted in the movie –very closely to the Islamic traditions- as bustling with commercial activity related to its unique possession of idols and gender inequalities, social injustices, clan fights are common.
In this environment Muhammad receives the first revelation on a nearby mountain on one of his solititudes. In this scene the camera zooms into a cave on a mountain, and we hear the voice of Angel Gabriel ordering Muhammad to read. Meccans turn hostile against Muhammad and followers of his monotheistic views. Some of the tortured Muslims escape Mecca to the Kingdom of Abysinnia. The Christian King of Abysinnia, after a theological discussion with the Muslims, declares the difference between their beliefs as not thicker than a line, and offers them safety and protection in his kingdom.
The rest of the Muslims and Mohammad himself, after several years of suffering, accept the invitation to relocate from the people of the city Yatrib/Medinaand and they migrate. This concludes the third sequence of the movie.
The director uses the early years of life in Medina and the beginning of the fourth sequence to explain some teachings and practices of Islam followed by two wars between Meccans and Muslims and years of truce.
Finally Muslims win over Meccans, and in the final scenes we see Mohammad on his camel entering Mecca. He walks into the Kaba and destroys the idols.
In the animation, considering both films received their approval of accuracy from the same sources, the plot is quite similar. However, the animation has a higher level of historical content, the behaviours of the pre-Islamic society are exaggerated, the antagonists are exaggerated and some supernatural events and figures are depicted. Furthermore, the story is narrated by a protagonist whom we see in the beginning of the movie.
As both films respected the traditions of Islam, filmmakers chose not to represent Muhammad, his family, and some close friends. But as they were both films on the life of Muhammad, this decision critically limited the films and resulted in unintentional effects.
One of the techniques both films employ is seeing through the eyes of Muhammad. In many scenes Muhammad talks directly to the camera. This very common practice in cinema gets easily confused with another practice called “breaking the fourth wall”, in which the actor starts talking directly to the audience through the camera and breaks the invisible wall between the universes of audience and actor. This was a technique famously used by Bertolt Brecht in theatre to cause an alienating effect (Verfremdungeffekt) on the audience. In long scenes of actors talking to camera, especially in the scene Hamza(Anthoni Quinn) talks to Muhammad, the audience starts losing their connections with the universe of the movie. This alienation repeats itself in scenes where we see floating props such as the tip of a sword held from out of the angle of the camera to represent the not represented characters. Moreover, the role of Muhammad in his own life is pacified, and lacks individuality based on the way he was not represented. In Muhammad, The Last Prophet the problems caused with Muhammad not talking tried to be avoided by the narration. But when the narrator speaks for Muhammad it pacifies him even more.
For the Muslims who actually exist in the movie, representations are not more individual than the ones not represented, with all wearing white, having less dialogues then the antagonists and having many uncomfortable silences in their dialogues with the Prophet. To draw a strong line between the good versus evil Muslim characters turned into soulless caricatures.
It is also certain that both films were made for a modern audience in mind, some of the historical events in Muhammad’s life time which can be seen as unnecessarily violent, or issues that may seem irrelevant today are ignored. But unlike the film in the animation we see supernatural miracles, and the devil himself visits Mecca at some point. The acceptance of the audience from the medium of animation, and its distance from representing reality may have allowed the filmmakers to depict such events and characters freely without the fear of a rational backlash. The relationship between other religions, mainly Christianity, is represented in several scenes as positive as it can be. Take for example, the scene of dialogue between the King of Abysinnia and Muslims where the king decides there is almost no difference between both religions and the opening scene of The Message where Christian Kings positively respond to Muhammad’s message but the pagan King of Persia responds with an insult.
For me both these films are great examples of how traditions got stuck between the eroding nature of representation in the mass reproduction era and its beneficial ability to reach wider audiences. To overcome the dilemma, filmmakers had to come up with creative solutions which in these cases sadly caused further erosions in their narratives.
The Message. Dir. Moustapha Akkad. 1976.
Muhammad, the Last Prophet. Dir. Richard Rich. 2002
Bakker L. Freek, “The Image of Muhammad in The Message the First and Only Feature Film about the Prophet of Islam,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol. 17, No. 1, (January 2006): 77 – 92.
Meenakshi Gigi Durham, and Douglas M. Kellner, eds. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Blackwell Publishing, 2001.
Shafik, V. Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998.