CAIRO — Observers disagree about the reasoning behind Al-Azhar's objection to the Iranian movie “Muhammad: The Messenger of God,” which premiered in Iran in movie theaters Aug. 27. Some have noted that a ban or condemnation does not protect Islamic beliefs and values given access to the Internet. At some point in time, youths and others around the world will be able to watch the movie regardless of Al-Azhar’s objection. Some critics of the Islamic institution's position believe it reflects politics rather than religious concerns.
“Muhammad,” directed by the Iranian director Majid Majidi, focuses on the childhood of Prophet Muhammad. The controversy surrounding it has been stirred by its alleged physical representations of the prophet. On Aug. 25, Majidi indicated that the movie shows Muhammad in the form of a shadow and from behind, without any physical features. He hopes the movie will change the violent image of Islam that many people around the world now associate with the religion due to the acts of terror committed by extremists.
The three-hour film cost $40 million to produce and was funded in part by the Iranian state. It is the most expensive movie in the history of Iranian cinema. Neighborhoods similar to those in Mecca some 1,400 years ago were built in south Tehran.
In a Sept. 2 statement, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, mufti of Saudi Arabia, said, “The movie tarnishes and antagonizes Islam. It should not be shown if Sharia is to be respected.” That same day, the Muslim World League issued an announcement critical of the movie, citing the “prohibition of representing the prophet in artistic works.” The league called on Iranian officials to “stop showing the movie and ban it because it disrespects Prophet Muhammad.” It also instructed Muslims worldwide to “boycott the movie because it insults the position of prophecy.”
Al-Azhar was the first to attack the film, in February, while it was still in production. It issued a statement noting, “The honorable Al-Azhar reiterates its rejection of the representation of prophets in works of drama, due to their rank.” It said that such representations undermine the prophets' spiritual value and asserted its rejection in particular of representations of the Prophet Muhammad in the Iranian movie.
Al-Azhar added that its objection was not limited to depictions of prophets’ faces, but also to other representations including their voices. It also said that it is not the institution's place to ban such movies, but it has the right to voice its opinion. According to the statement, banning or allowing movies to be screened is the responsibility of other parties, that is, censors and other authorities.
Tarek al-Shanawi, a film critic and teacher at the Cinema Institute at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor that if artistic works contradict religious values, it does not mean they should be banned. In fact, he contends, bans increase the artistic credibility of such works. “These movies should be shown and then discussed to interpret or elucidate any erroneous concepts and point out what is right. In some instances, competing productions should be made to show opposing ideas,” he said. The film critic Nader Adly agreed with part of Shanawi's assessment, stating, “Banning the movie is not the solution. In a couple of months, it will go viral on the Internet, and everybody will be able to watch it without any restrictions.”
Movie critics are not the only ones against the prohibition. In Al Masry al-Youm on Aug. 29, the journalist Yasser Abdul Aziz wrote an article titled “Do not ban ‘Muhammad: The Messenger of God.’” The novelist Ibrahim Abdul Majid wrote in Youm7 on Aug. 28, “The movie eliminates the old image about prohibiting the representation of the prophet and fulfills what the prophet himself said: ‘I am but a human being, like yourselves.’” Abdul Majid considers this quote proof that it is permissible to represent the prophet and thinks Al-Azhar’s objection to the movie contradicts its stances in regard to biographies of the prophet that describe and represent him and his companions.
The journalist Salah Issa condemned Al-Azhar’s stance on Aug. 28, asserting that the institution had rejected the movie without even viewing it. A day later, former Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour called Al-Azhar’s stance radical and regressive, and Mahfouz Abdul Rahman, a scientist, suggested that the representation of prophets in theatrical productions should be a topic of discussion because it serves both religion and art.
Al-Azhar had previously criticized such movies as “Noah,” which represents Prophet Noah, and “Exodus,” with its representation of Moses. Al-Azhar and Saudi Arabia have both issued fatwas prohibiting representations of Prophet Muhammad. Of note, however, Al-Monitor could not find a statement from Al-Azhar opposing “Passion of the Christ,” the 2004 movie about the suffering of Jesus on the cross.
Shanawi sees this discrepancy as contradictory, observing, “Al-Azhar did not object to showing the ‘Passion of the Christ,’ although it represents a prophet. Al-Azhar was afraid of being accused of undermining Christianity, especially because the movie depicts a story and version of Christ’s crucifixion different from that in the Quran.” Shanawi further stated, “Al-Azhar’s opinions are not just religious, but political as well. This is what happened with the ‘Passion of the Christ.’ The rejection of ‘Muhammad: The Messenger of God’ is a political stance because the movie is an Iranian production.”
In an Aug. 29 article for Al-Bawaba News, the journalist Maher Fargali supported Shanawi’s position. He had been part of a delegation of 30 Egyptian journalists who traveled to Iran five months ago to see a preview of the movie arranged by the production company. There they saw that the film does not include a voice or physical representation for the prophet.
Egyptian-Iranian relations are currently experiencing tensions because of Iran’s support of Shiite groups, such as Hezbollah, and its rivalry with Sunni Saudi Arabia. Cairo, for its part, is an ally of the kingdom, a position made clear by Egypt's participation in the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm, the miltary campaign in Yemen against the Shiite Houthis, who are backed by Iran. Many Al-Azhar scholars and imams do not wish to see the spread of Shiism in Egypt, one element of the tensions in relations between Al-Azhar and Iran due to differing religious doctrines.
Another possible reason behind Al-Azhar's stance might be fear that some of the ideas it touches on will lead to debates and to criticism of Al-Azhar by extremist currents, like the Salafist Call, whose spokesman described the movie as “absurd.” Shanawi believes that regardless of Al-Azhar’s rationale, its campaign against “Muhammad” might end up harming the institution's image. “We really need this movie to rectify the image of Islam in the West’s eyes after it was tarnished by extremist groups,” he said.
Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly