The controversy around Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s new film Muhammad: The Messenger of God, with a fatwa issued against him and music composer AR Rahman, has a precedent of sorts, in more than one way.
Majidi believes his is only the second film on the Prophet, the first being The Message, released in the original Arabic in 1976 and in English in 1977. Directed by Moustapha Akkad and starring Anthony Quinn in the English version, it followed the rules of depiction: the Prophet is not shown or heard on screen.
Cut to September 14, 2012. In the Kupwara district of Jammu and Kashmir, a feature film about the Prophet was being screened by the Army to unite locals. But it had just the opposite effect.
At that time protests were raging against a film titled Innocence of Muslims, which depicted the Prophet in an entirely negative light. Subsequently, the maker of the film, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, aka Sam Bacile, was sentenced to jail in the US.
But as the film began, a person in the crowd protested that it was the same film, Innocence of Muslims, that was being screened. The police and security forces pointed out that, on the contrary, it was an internationally accepted film, dubbed in Urdu by Pakistan’s Geo TV and approved by Islamic universities from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Trouble erupted, however.
The movie in question was, of course, The Message. It was banned in several countries, and was also associated with violence: on March 9, 1977, the day of the film’s release in New York, a militant group of African-American gunmen, led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, took 149 hostages, killing a radio journalist and a police officer in a 39-hour standoff when they seized the District Building, the Islamic Center, and the B'na B'rith Headquarters in Washington.
Khaalis wanted the government to release some of his men who were convicted of murder, but he also wished for The Message to be withdrawn. "We want the picture out of the country," Khaalis said. "Because it's a fairy tale, it's a joke... I'm Muslim and I'll die for my faith. It's a joke. It's misrepresenting the Muslim faith.”
The Message had to fight many problems. Akkad had to seek funding outside the US for the project, and initially the governments of Kuwait, Libya and Morocco supported him, but funds dried up after Kuwait withdrew financial support. Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi stepped in to help.
Boxer Muhammad Ali wanted a part, but was turned down by the director because he was too famous. The media claimed that Charlton Heston would play Mohammed. Riots and protests erupted in Pakistan. Deaths were reported.
Five days before the London screening, Akkad received threatening phone calls and had to change the title from Mohammed, Messenger of God to The Message. Akkad was killed in a terrorist bombing attack of a hotel in Jordan in 2005.
Akkad also made Lion of The Desert in 1981, again starring Anthony Quinn – a film on the Libyan revolutionary icon Omar Mukhtar, which was released in India and became a source of controversy in Kashmir.
Not incidentally, The Message was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score. Will Rahman repeat history?