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Biopic of Prophet Muhammad Divides Sunni and Shia Muslims

A Shi'ite cleric stands at the shrine of Hazrat-e Massoumeh, granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad, while attending a ritual mourning for Imam Hussein as he marks Arbain in Qom, about 120 km (75 miles) south of Tehran, February 16, 2009. MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/REUTERS

By Catherine Phillips
Monday, February 2, 2015

Amid global controversy over depictions of Muhammad, a multimillion-dollar biopic of the Prophet’s life is causing further controversy in the Muslim world. The Iranian film, premiering on Sunday, will be the most expensive production to be made in the country.

Mohammad, Messenger of God will be shown at the opening ceremony of the Tehran’s Fajr international film festival in Iran, an event that coincides with the 36th anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

Director Majid Majidi spent five years on the $30m (£20m) state-sponsored film, which is the first of a planned trilogy and will depict Muhammad from birth to the age of 12.

Western depictions of the Prophet have been at the centre of controversy in recent weeks after 12 people died when Islamist gunmen attacked the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, citing their publication of cartoons of Muhammad. The magazine published another cartoon of the Prophet on its cover in response the following week, sparking protests across the Muslim world.

However, the film will avoid causing offence by not including shots of the Prophet’s face, with Majidi hiring Oscar-winning Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro for visual techniques that were deemed religiously respectful.

Although the Koran does not explicitly ban depictions of the Prophet, Islamic tradition prohibits the use of his image. However, the way in which Sunni and Shia Muslims choose to depict the Prophet differs slightly, meaning that Majidi’s film, produced in Shia Iran, is likely to become a bone of contention in the Middle East and beyond.

Although Majidi consulted both Sunni and Shia scholars before making the film, he has not managed to appease everyone. Egypt’s al-Azhar University, regarded as the foremost institution for studying Sunni theology, has been vocal about the film since its announcement in 2012. “We demand that Iran refrain from releasing the movie, so that an undistorted image of the Prophet can be preserved in the minds of Muslims. We call upon all film-makers to respect religions and prophets,” scholars from the Islamic Research Academy said in a statement. They have since requested the film not be shown in Iran.

Although Sunni and Shia Muslims both view Muhammad as the final prophet, Shia Iranians are seen as being more relaxed on religious depictions than Sunnis.

However, the question of who depicts whom best has led to a possible second Muhammad film being made in Qatar, an area largely occupied by Sunni Muslims, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The rival film by production company Alnoor Holdings boasts a $1bn (£660m) budget and has the Lord of the Rings producer Barrie Osborne reportedly advising the project.

According to Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour, resident scholar at Islamic Centre of England, there’s no need for two films. “The depiction of Muhammad’s life in Sunni and Shia Islam is generally the same,” he says.

While Sunnis are very strict on the ban on religious images, Shia tradition is more relaxed, according to Bahmanpour. “Depicting Muhammad’s face is not allowed in either Sunni or Shia tradition, but images of any face is seen as wrong in Sunni Islam,” Bahmanpour said in reference to aniconism, the banning of imagery surrounding religious figures or living things.

For Shia tradition, not depicting Muhammad’s face in film may have more to do with how he appears on screen, according to Bahmanpour, who said that “depictions of Muhammad’s face are regarded as a disrespect if the movie doesn’t come out well”.


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