The Iranian director Majid Majidi’s long-awaited latest movie “Muhammad: The Messenger of God” was released on October 28. The movie that had 10 years of pre and post-production process was at the heart of harsh discussions even before any details were released about it.
The discussions were centered in two areas. First was the opinion that finds it inappropriate to depict Prophet Muhammad even in a fictional piece of work without showing his face. The main reason why the discussions came to a deadlock after a certain point was the question of what should be considered as a depiction. On the other hand, as in the traditions of hilya and shama'il, the works that describe both physical and personal characteristics of the Prophet have aroused great interest among the Muslim communities throughout centuries, and it is known that the Prophet has been depicted many times with his face open or disguised. Nonetheless, the majority of Muslims tend not to depict Prophet Muhammad by visual means although there is no clear prohibition on the matter. There has more or less been a consensus, ‘a silent contract’ on this topic.
The second area where criticisms were intensified towards Majidi and his movie was the concern that he would take the issue in a political and sectarian viewpoint due to his Shiite identity. No matter how Majidi asserted that it would not be the case, especially due to the tense political atmosphere in the Muslim world and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, the movie could not help being an object of political struggles.
“The Message” vs. “Muhammad: The Messenger of God”
The first impression one can get from the movie is that it is completely different from the movie “The Message” to which the Majidi’s movie was often compared –naturally as the former has been the only movie ever made about the life of Prophet Muhammad. Number one reason for this comparison was obviously the time period they handle. “The Message” focused on Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood and especially his battles. Majidi, on the other hand, focused on Prophet Muhammad’s childhood on which there is little account in seerah (biography of Prophet) books.
Is It Permissible “To Make up the Truth”?
We can claim that the advantages and disadvantages of the time period chosen by Majidi have directly affected the film. Majidi is a kind of director who uses a lot of imagination in his films, bundled up with innocence. That is why he chose the childhood period of Prophet Muhammad which was the most appropriate era for creating the epic atmosphere he intended and eventually achieved. However, the lack and weakness of the information regarding the childhood period of Prophet Muhammad caused the director to ‘make up’ some parts. Any Muslim, whether a scholar or a decent believer, knows that some miracles attributed to our Prophet were controversial and some scholars claim that they did not have a trusted narration of chain. However, the miracles have a great place in Majidi’s movie. The movie “The Message” and some seerah books were criticized because of their too much focus on the Prophet’s campaigns which in fact covered a very short amount of time in his life. Similar criticism might be done for the Majidi’s movie because of its miracle-centered presentation of Prophet’s childhood. If we are to say that a child’s perception of the Prophet should not be shaped based on this movie, I do not think there will be many objections.
The Prophet Targeted by the Jews
In the script of the movie, there are other elements which raised doubts and whose authenticity is also controversial. One of these elements is a small group among the Jewish community plotting to kidnap/assassinate Prophet Muhammad several times when he was a baby. According to the movie, some of the signs occurred at the Prophet’s birth night referred to the “messiah” whose coming was foretold in the Jewish holy books. That is why all the babies born at that night in Mecca among the Jewish community have been monitored and investigated. However, they could not find the specific signs of the expected “messiah” in any of them. Some of the Jews say that the “messiah” might have been born among the Arabs, so they should extend their search to their new born babies as well and once they find the baby, they should exterminate him. Nonetheless, their proposal was not accepted, but they –even risking their reputation in their community- pursued their investigation and followed Prophet Muhammad who was a small child. Although this part added some thrilling and action to the movie, we know that it is not a historical truth. For some writers and critics, this story is full of political symbols. No matter if this idea is true or not, Majidi is responsible to share the sources of his script with the Muslim world.
There were also events in the movie with no doubt about them as they were based on the Qur’an such as burying daughters alive and the Elephant Incident. Particularly the latter which was presented at the beginning of the movie was made with a smart atmosphere, so it gave the audience excitement. Besides, this visual success can be seen throughout the movie and although not in the minimalist level, with details we are used to seeing in Majidi’s works, the story is taken to an epic dimension. However, it is difficult to say ‘Yes’ to the question if such an epic story was really necessary. After all, it is a ‘real’ life story. When the audience is detached from this reality, they just value the movie technically or esthetically.
Western Music Came Out from the East
The construction and the tone of the soundtracks we listened to throughout the movie were far from being satisfactory and representing the spirit of the story. We cannot say that the music composed by the Indian musician A.R. Rahman was not impressive, but a story which depicts the city of Mecca 1400 years ago should have been presented by much more original music, one that is at least not Western and not reminiscent of plainchants. On the other hand, the movie also had two instrumental songs composed by the Palestinian group Le Trio Joubran. While the chosen songs were nice, music lovers were already familiar with them, so they could not really connect them with the movie. At this point, one regrets that Majidi had not asked Le Trio Joubran to compose works uniquely for this movie.
As for the depiction issue in the movie… It is not a simple matter at all for a director to present the story of a protagonist without showing him. What is more, the burden of the director is tripled considering that the story is about Prophet Muhammad whose depiction has always been an issue in the Muslim world. Majidi prevented a giant crisis by not showing a visage. However, given that the director did not neglect the more moderate understanding of depicting the Prophet in the culture he comes from, we can infer that concealing Prophet Muhammad’s visage was not a voluntary action for him. Perhaps it is for this reason that he does show the actor’s hands, feet, hair, shoulders, and even reflect his eyes to the screen in one scene.
Majidi, in any case, deserves appreciation despite the ongoing negative critiques on his movie. That is because the Iranian director completed his film being aware of the storm it will bring about, ready to face severe criticisms. No matter what is said, he has also led Muslims into a very fruitful discussion and I hope this situation paves a new way for the Muslim world to draw a new line in its production of culture.
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What Did They Say about the Movie?
In Turkey, many people watched (and still watch) the movie because of their professional links to the cinema, their personal interests, or because it is a social phenomenon. We have asked four of those people (Faysal Soysal, Suat Köçer, Gökhan Yorgancıgil, and Nihal Bengisu Karaca) what they think about Majidi’s “Muhammad: God’s Messenger” movie to project different opinions regarding the film in the society. Here are their responses:
Faysal Soysal (Director)
First of all, whoever does anything in any way on this topic is doomed to lack. Even if Moustapha Akkad were to come back and redo it, it would have had deficiencies. It is too much for the cinema -a young kind of art- to overcome the problem of presenting Prophet Muhammad whose life and character were unique. His life cannot fit in any form of art also because of the personal spiritual relationship each human has with him. Muslims, however, are so keen to consume everything like a product by presenting it in cinema, marketing it, and showing it off. Majidi even made an unacceptable statement that if the Prophet were to come today, he would use cinema as a means to spread his message. I think no form of art is more effective and touchy than the power of words coming out from the tongues which affect your soul and mind.
If we were asked a question of who would most successfully make a movie on the childhood of the Prophet Muhammad, with no budget concerns, there could not be a better candidate in the Muslim world than Majidi. Since he aimed for making a film against Islamophobia for the Westerners, he preferred using the Hollywood language, compatible with its demanded standards. It can be debated whether it was a right decision or not. Since this framework was chosen from the beginning, all the cast and the aesthetic perception were set accordingly. Despite his suggestion, as no Muslim countries –including Turkey- responded positively to form partnerships in the project, the entire initiative was left with Iran and therefore Shiites who unilaterally financed the production. Despite this, I believe Majidi acted sensitively and did his best not to offend the Sunni world.
It is impossible to consider the movie as a piece of art because that was not the intention in the first place. It also doesn’t seem likely for the art of cinema to create anything artistic from a biographic and a historical phenomenon. These types of topics are generally turned into films for the sake of an ideal or an ideology. Considering the film within this frame, we can say that the production was successful in terms of cinematography and acting. Special effects were weak. Music was not very bad but it could have been better. They wanted to be careful not to have a problem with the People of the Book, but it affected the script negatively.
In spite of all its shortcomings, I see the movie as a great and important endeavor. Firstly, the director should be appreciated for his 5-year long effort. It is also significant after the 40-year-old movie, “The Message”, for Muslim countries to rethink on this issue and allocate budget for it. Otherwise, in a time when everybody shuts themselves off because of wars, there will be no chance left to understand one another, to show the truth, and to create a dialogue with disbelievers.
Gökhan Yorgancıgil (Director)
Many things were told about it, and probably there is going to be more as more people watch it. I have nothing to say to those who comment on the movie without watching it.
I think the first thing to say is the following: Making a film about great people is one of the most daring things in life –especially if they still have a great number of followers. For instance, Can Dündar a few years ago produced a documentary about Atatürk and it caused a great deal of uproar, as you will remember.
The main stream of narratives has some standards: You have the characters and they have some desires. They face obstacles while trying to overcome those obstacles, so they make progress and turn into heroes. Therefore, at the beginning of the story you need to present an immature version of the person whom the audience already knows as a hero. For example, it is unacceptable for Atatürk’s fans to see him as a child who struggles to resist challenges of life in a child’s way. He must behave heroically even in his childhood as if he knew that he would be Atatürk in the future. I mean it is almost impossible for the minds of masses to accept the simple versions of great people. The hero is a mystical and mythological figure here. That is why it requires some courage to talk about Atatürk, whose legacy is still a hot topic in discussions, in the form of narration. It requires an even bigger courage to write a story on a person who is the prophet of one of the biggest religions in the world. Moustapha Akkad therefore, did not use a special narration method and language to produce “The Message” and his movie was beloved to many. What Akkad did was just to take sections from the life of Prophet Muhammad and present them to the audience. And as he fully observed the depiction ban, the movie was embraced by the Muslim world. Because Majidi wanted to use a special narrative language and somehow challenged the depiction ban, there have arisen big discussions over the film. With this narrative language, by “showing” the child and adolescent versions of the Prophet, Majidi reduced the Prophet into the frame of the camera. And he almost created an only narrative of miracles to balance the mandatory objectivity of the cinematography and to reach out to his audience. While on the one hand the Prophet’s hands and eyes are so objective and profane for the camera, the miracles on the other hand are equally metaphysical and off the world. However, there is another challenge for Majidi at this point; the area of interest for a camera is the visible light wavelength area. I mean, it is quite restricted even in this physical world. Moreover, the Prophet in the Muslim tradition is not restricted to the physical world. The transcendentality of a camera is very much lacking in contrast to the traditional belief in the Prophet. Majidi seems to get stuck between transcendentality and objectivity, despite his efforts of using light plays and digital techniques. The film reminds us an old issue. We may even find an answer to the question what Islam is if we ask the right questions. Obviously, this is exactly where Islam as a monotheistic religion and Paganism differ.
The film moves away from the real world with its miracle-based scenes, but it creates an iconographic situation with its camera objectivity. It is the exact reason why some people who watched the film connect some scenes with some Christian images in their minds. On the other hand, it is also a topic of discussion what the movie means for a non-Muslim as it does not use an objective language. I personally believe that a narrative where Prophet Muhammad is in the center as a ‘protagonist’ cannot be created in cinema.
To sum up, it is not right to consider cinema as an ideological stick rather than an art. On the other hand, the cinema can carry a ‘meaning’ too. That is why whatever thought you had in your mind before watching Majidi’s film, you will have the opinion accordingly afterwards. It seems that the producers made a clear choice between ideology and meaning, which is beyond being courageous.
Nihal Bengisu Karaca (Journalist-Columnist)
Some sensitivities behind the critiques towards the movie are understandable. However, there are some statements like “There was no need to make a movie about the life of the Prophet and why do we bring new methods instead of using our traditional ways of spreading Islam?” Let us be honest, this is a void statement. Our Prophet was sent to the worlds as a mercy and every believer is required to inform his or her peer on this reality. Just like hundreds of years ago people around the Prophet heard him reciting the Qur’an live and they later tried to spread the message, today cinema has this function.
Today, it is very easy to explain the story of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) but it is very difficult to overcome the barriers between the story and hearts. Today’s humans are busy. Today’s humans have difficulty in receiving/producing nonvisual images because they lack in focusing. Today’s humans do not exchange and share their senses with anybody they do not show empathy towards. They need to have commonalities. When they cannot understand things emotionally, they cannot connect with the message or narrative. It is impossible to present religion or history to today’s humans without producing cinema or making up stories from among the real topics.
Majid Majidi, is a powerful director whose emotion for cinema is high. I believe it is a right and meaningful choice to produce a movie on the childhood of the Prophet to women/mothers as an emotional/visual repertoire. There are three points here and the movie is one of them I believe. Let men not get sad; if continues it could be better to produce a movie on “jihad”, and there needs to make a movie on the “conquest”.
Let me summarize briefly:
- It’s unnecessarily long and that’s a problem.
- The director should have considered that the scenes where the figure who represents Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) speaks would cause a problem in Islamic countries. The sound of the dub leaves its place to a deep silence which causes an unjustifiable disengagement for the spectator.
- The film should have been in Arabic.
- It shouldn’t have depicted miracles that have never taken place. Stretching history that much is a problem. And many more…
Nevertheless, like I said, the director simply performed his job. And while doing it, of course influences from his culture and nationality sneaked into his job. That’s normal; it happens.
Suat Köçer (Cinema Critic – Writer)
Majidi has developed a universal socio-cultural approach in his movies, enriching the general minimalist approach in cinema with his unique spiritual search. Leaning on the ancient structure of Iranian art, he has told touching stories that deeply impress the spectators. Majidi is known with the emphasis he puts on faith and often expresses that he walks in the steps of the prophets. He has kept saying that his greatest wish in his life was to make a movie on the life of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as in his opinion would be a form of zakat (alms) of his cinema. At the end of approximately four years of shooting, he has made this wish come true with the film “Muhammad: The Messenger of God.”
“Muhammad: The Messenger of God” has taken a pretty different position in the cinematography of Majidi with its nearly 40 million dollars cost of production and, unlike his other films, its structure based on mainstream understanding and not the minimalist style. While the film came as a surprise to those who were closely following his cinema, it was overshadowed by controversies about depiction of the Prophet and harsh and mostly unfair criticisms that it was made in the Shia perspective. The film has succeeded to be a spectacular production that is beyond contemporary world standards thanks to its brilliant visual effects, as well as 3-hour duration, mighty cinematographic configuration, competence in photography directing, transitions and plans, and well framing that reflects Majidi’s aesthetic maturity.
Designated as the Oscar nominee of Iran, the film has confirmed Majid Majidi’s merit with its powerful objection to Islamophobia both in terms of content and cinematic dimensions. His cinematic success aside, the director, whose love for the Prophet is well known, has marked a movie that will encourage contemporary and future Muslim film-makers in all aspects.