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Muhammad, the Movie – Not! Print E-mail
By Howard Kainz   
Thursday, 27 September 2012

In the aftermath of 9/11, when the shock of confrontation with pure evil had begun to subside, some of us with little knowledge of Islam began scrambling for answers. A religion? Delighting in massacring thousands of fellow human beings?  Dancing in the streets in joy at horrors that stagger the imagination?  What is going on here?

Certainly there have been massacres and pogroms in Christianity – even though there is not one line in the New Testament that would approve such things. Individual Christians at times and places simply took matters into their own hands, without finding authority in their religion.

Then some thought: perhaps the same thing happened in Islam – individual Muslims “hijacking” a religion that was primarily oriented to peace and human fellowship.

For me, this instigated much reading of books on Islam and biographies of Muhammad, by both believers and unbelievers. Presumably I had much company. Books on Islam and Muhammad have proliferated, and endless discussions pro and con take place on the Internet.

Before the riots following the publication of cartoons about Muhammad in Denmark, I naively began to think – why no movie?  A movie – The Saga of Muhammad – could be a blockbuster. 

In Hollywood fashion, it is possible to present great historical characters “without the warts” – the rather hagiographic movie, Luther, judiciously omits efforts at the Diet of Augsburg to make compromises with Luther’s demands for reform, and gives no indication of the effect of his revolutionary rhetoric in fomenting the Peasants’ War of 1524-1526, which resulted in 100,000 deaths.

And the movie, Gandhi, in bringing out the greatness and importance of the Indian spiritual leader, would have no need to include quirky elements like Gandhi’s decision to test his celibacy by sleeping with naked young women.

And if DreamWorks Studios and Warner Bros. are successful in their recently announced intention to produce an as-yet-unnamed drama about Martin Luther King, Jr.,  we may expect omissions of the extra-marital affairs described by Ralph Abernathy and others.

Possibilities present themselves: An interesting, and possibly inspiring movie about Muhammad might proceed something like this:

Scene One: Muhammad’s early life as a journeyman; falling in love with the businesswoman Kahdija; one day coming home from his meditations in the caves to report that the angel Gabriel had appeared to appoint him a prophet; Kahdija’s support; then announcing the good news to their cousins and plan for promulgation of a new monotheism to kinsmen and friends worshipping the 360 pagan gods at Mecca.


            A 1976 movie about Islam in which Muhammad does not appear

Scene Two: Meeting disbelief and cynical patronization, Muhammad finally flees to Medina, where he becomes established as a warlord-prophet, gathers together a harem of dedicated wives, and begins recruiting an impressive array of armed forces for conquering the enemies of his religion.

Scenes Three, Four, Five, etc.: could go into some of the more interesting intra-harem intrigues; successes and failures of convincing neighboring Jews about his prophetic credentials; expeditions against enemies; and final deathbed scenes with his favorite wife Aisha, discussing his ideals for expansion of Islam throughout the world.

In other words, with a little artistry, the movie could create a character that might with luck be comparable to Lawrence of Arabia, and maybe captivate many. The producers and directors could leave out stories of beheadings, intense animosity against Jews who resisted him, disgruntled poets, and tribal chieftains who spread anti-Muslim views, etc.

Other things being equal, the movie could be a blockbuster. 

But. . .the riots following the posting of cartoons about Muhammad in Denmark in 2005 indicated that “other things were not exactly equal.” Added to this is the recent world firestorm caused by an amateur anti-Islamic movie.

For Westerners, Christian or non-Christian, an exceedingly strange aspect of this phenomenon is that Muslims have no particular problem with irreverent depictions of Allah! The Qur’an even describes Allah as a deceiver, the greatest deceiver of all. A Danish cartoonist could publish a less-than-reverent spoof of Allah, and cause no uproar. But even an arguably non-hostile depiction of the Prophet could provoke a world-shaking reaction.

Why so much imbedded opposition in Islam to knowledge of Muhammad and the religion he created? Ex-Muslim Nonie Darwish answers in The Devil We Don’t Know:

What is Islam afraid of?  Of its documented bloody history? Of feeling deep shame because its prophet slaughtered both Arabs and Jews? Of the slaughter that continued afterward and up to this day? Of the lies and the cover-up? The answer is all of the above, plus even more hidden scandals yet to come that will strike at the heart and soul of Islam.

In his book Did Muhammad Exist?, Robert Spencer observes that while Christianity and Judaism have survived the massive historical criticism that began in the nineteenth century, Islam could never survive such examination, and thus prohibits and punishes any such attempts.

A first-class, even a sanitized version of such a movie could at least help dispel the ignorance of the Islamic religion even among Muslims (who may be even less faithful in reading their scriptures that Christians). Possibly even conversions would result from a sympathetic portrayal of the movement from polytheism to monotheism, at the heart of Islam.

And awareness of the ideal of the one world religion promulgated by Muhammad may put naive believers that “all religions are the same” on notice that, with Islam, we have a very different concept of religion.

Unfortunately, no such movie can appear. Islam is the religion that by definition cannot be subjected to impartial or even sympathetic critical scrutiny. Muhammad, who is idealized as the perfect man to be imitated by all Muslims, must remain a darkened figure, lost in the fog of myths and legends.

The sacrosanct canons of free speech common in the Western world will protect neo-Nazis and pornographers and disgusting defamations of the figures of Christ and the Blessed Virgin. But apparently the great free-speech advocates of the world have been stymied by an ancient Islamic taboo of mysterious origin.

 
Howard Kainz is emeritus professor of philosophy at Marquette University. His most recent publications include Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).
 
 
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Comments (22)Add Comment
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written by Manfred, September 27, 2012
Mr. Kainz,I think the visceral issue here is the guilt Catholics feel when they tolerate public displays for years of a picture of Christ crucified in a container of piss, when they tolerate a painting of the Blessed Virgin with elephant dung flung on the painting, and they tolerate,often for years,their sons being buggered by their parish priest. The Muslim response is violence in the quest for justice for the affront. The Catholic response is prostration in the presence of the offender mumbling words of forgiveness. Readers may want to see the forty minute video "The General's Son" by Miko Peled (who is the General's son!). They will gain a different perspective than they have ever received from American media.
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written by Jack,CT, September 27, 2012
Thankyou Manfred thumbs up!I apreciate it.I haate that
a good Religion is so distorted by "radicals" just as
in all religions the fringe makes us all look bad.
Most Islamics are beatiful people and deeply "Spiritual".
I feel sorry for them,as "radicals" Hijack the faith.

Pray for our "Brothers and Sisters",I would hate to have
a stigma they have!All for being a "Participant" in the
"FAITH" you were born in into.

please protect this Faith from defamation that the
"Radicals" have done dear Lord, I ask all us Catholics
to pray for our peaceful Islamic brothers and sisters.
Jack
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written by Emina Melonic, September 27, 2012
Hi professor Kainz, nicely written (as always!). Well, you know that I am a Bosnian Muslim. And as such, I have to say that you do raise some very good questions, which certainly ought to be asked. One thing I would be careful about is Robert Spencer. I dislike extreme opinions (and it matters not to me whether they are on the left or right) and Spencer has been guilty of such a thing. I question his motivations, especially since he has repeatedly denied genocide of Bosnian Muslims, all for the purpose of speaking against Islam and affirmation of Christianity (in this case, Serbian Orthodox Church). This is not good or factual. And so, to be honest, I don't have much to say to people like Spencer. It is my position that Islam has been, first co-opted by these ridiculous, evil, radical, irrational people and perhaps issue is more cultural than religious (since there are plenty of countries that have Muslim population and are not engaging in acts of extremism). Second of all, Islam has been treated as an ideology, and with such treatment, both the left and the right have been engaging in political Olympics. And so, for me, as a practicing Muslim, I find this to be quite disappointing and before we can treat ideological offshoots of Islam, we need to speak of it philosophically and theologically. Otherwise, there will be no progress, and CERTAINLY no possibility of any reform. Anyway, I hope I did not take away the attention from your article and that I ended up talking about something entirely different. Like I said, you do ask very good questions.
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written by Grump, September 27, 2012
Good piece, Howard. "The Saga of Muhammad" definitely would be a smash at the box office, especially if rated R so that it could include steamy scenes depicting the prophet's marriage and couplings with 13 females including 11 at one time, plus countless concubines.

Artfully and sensitively handled, Muhammad's face would never actually have to be shown. However, one can envision Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt cast in the title role.

According to the Hadith, said to be the actual words of the prophet himself, his marriage to a 7-year girl was consummated when she was 9. When he was not having sex with her, he gave her dolls to play with. A modern take on this would be to feature Sesame Street muppets so children could watch the movie -- with parental supervision, of course.

Though largely outlawed today, polygamy as a movie theme no doubt would garner a wide audience, especially when one considers that the next likely American President embraces a faith that once sanctioned it.
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written by jsmitty, September 27, 2012
Agree totally...we keep asking whether the West will survive the coming interaction (clash?) with Islam...but we should be asking whether Islam will survive it. Say what you will but Christianity has been forged by centuries of critical scrutiny both from adherents and hostile outsiders--scrutiny of the sort that Islam has mostly missed entirely. In the next century or so, we'll have a chance to test Benedict's Regensburg view that a religion that fundamentally rejects rationality and rational inquiry will not survive. It will be interesting to see..
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 27, 2012
Grump

I am puzzled by your claim that polygamy is "largely outlawed today." Some 48 countries include it in their civil codes. In most of them, all marriages are, at least, potentially polygamous. Another 13 permit it under customary or tribal law.

A number of cases have come before courts in Europe of foreign nationals who have married under a polygamous regime and who have subsequently settled in Europe. Such cases involve nationality, naturalisation, state benefits, freedom to marry and inheritance, to name a few.
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written by Howard Kainz, September 27, 2012
@Emina Melonic: Hi, Emina. Nice to hear from you again on TCT! Robert Spencer does tend to extremes -- most recently, completely doubting the existence of Muhammad, because of the lack of unbiased historical evidence. But what is your view on the apparent impossibility of a biographical movie on Muhammad? Is the prohibition "written in stone?"
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written by Ben Horvath, September 27, 2012
What I have taken from this whole episode is that our government and polite society can be manipulated by violence and/or the threat of violence and public disorder. While individual acts of terrorism have not worked so well public disorder or the possibility that individuals will be targeted seems to be an effective tactic for getting radical Muslims what they want.

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written by Emina Melonic, September 27, 2012
Professor Kainz, personally, I would have no problem with depicting Muhammed in a film, to get more into the "personality" of who he is, as much as we can. The only thing I can think of, when I think of such a prohibition, and just prohibition of images in general is that God is beyond Being. Unlike in Christianity, there is no personal God. I can still communicate with God--for example, after I say prayers in Arabic (ritual prayers during the day), it is completely permitted to say prayers in your own language and communicate to God whatever is on your heart. But to go back to images issue--Muhammed as being the Prophet has the "link" to God, and because of that, with an association (using this word very loosely), then the depitction of image of Muhammed is also prohibited. I keep going back to the metaphysical/theological conception that God is beyond Being. What do you think? At least, it seems to me, that metaphysics are somehow inevitably linked to this whole thing...anyway, a few thoughts. And by the way, nice to talk to you again! :)
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written by Quaecumquae Vera, September 27, 2012
The fundamental reason that you can have a movie about Christ (several have been made) is because Jesus as "God with a human face" shows us what our humanity should be. A movie cannot be made about Muhammed because of the barbarous acts he committed. His life is in no way exemplary even from the standpoint of human decency.
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written by Howard Kainz, September 27, 2012
@Emina Melonic: The point you bring out about Allah not being a personal God is absolutely important, and I spend some time in my book on the existence of God on that subject. It is the major difference with Christianity. On the other hand, Muhammad refers to a long line of prophets -- Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus -- as prophets who similarly had a "link" with Allah, and Muhammad himself never prohibited depiction of any prophet -- so why not present depictions of the one who claims to be the last "link"? As you know, there is nothing forbidding depictions of Muhammad in the Qur'an, and Muslims disagree about whether this is permissable. I think the Shiites in history have had no problems with this. In fact, if you surf the internet, you find numerous depictions of Muhammad by Muslim artists. My personal feeling is that this is one of those taboos that started strangely in the mists of history, and we think "well, this is our tradition, and there must be a reason for it." To me it seems an unnecessary and major impediment to rational inter-religious dialogue.
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written by Grump, September 27, 2012
@Mike...There are nearly 200 countries in the world; if one accepts your claim that a quarter allow it, it's still a significant minority. In America and most western societies, polygamy is not viewed favorably and I doubt whether the countries you mention legalize sexual abuse of minors, which is the more egregious offense alluded to in my post.
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written by Jack,CT, September 27, 2012
I am so suprised I recieved "Negative" feedback for
A prayer for our Islamic brothers and sisters.I just wanted
a chance to "Reinforce" my statement: A Majority of Islamic
people are loving and Peaceful!

I AGAIN pray for all "our peaceful brothers and sisters"
Thanks, Jack
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written by Achilles, September 28, 2012
Jack, maybe it was because you said "thumbs up Manfred". Sure if we separate the zeal from the intrinsic evil of violence that radical Muslims commit we might find that zeal impressive. We are Catholic, we return good for evil if we are to follow Christ. What on earth is Manfred suggesting? That we imitate the violent Muslims? And Jack, I don’t know if the majority is being highjacked by a tiny minority or not, that sounds a little like multi-cultural propaganda. As our Holy Father said at Regensberg, the lack of possible dialogue with Islam is cause for concern.
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written by Jack,CT, September 28, 2012
Thankyou "Achilles"! I sincerly meant to thank
Mr Kainz,I scrolled up and saw "Manfred and
Thanked him in error,I meant to thank
the author, I apologise to all the readers.
Jack
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written by Jack,CT, September 28, 2012
@Achilles,

Dear friend i apreciate your critique again,
however I never said a"Majority is being
hijacked by a tiny minority" I said, the
"Fringe" and I stated most Islamics are
beatiful and peaceful people." More over
I never used those words,I hope what I was
Attempting to say is cleared up.
Jack
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written by Achilles, September 29, 2012
Dear Jack,

thank you for clarifying. One of the grand errors of our time is racism which has been perverted beyond recognition by the public schools and universities. To make a statement like “Muslims are beautiful and peaceful people” (I know this is not exactly what you said). It is confusion of accidentals and things done on purpose. Muslim’s are no more beautiful and peaceful than are Bantus or Navajos. Usually being Muslim is simply an accident of birth like most born into any culture and to be proud or ashamed of either is a misunderstanding and usually an ill act of prejudice. We teach our kids to be “proud” of their culture in the public schools and this misguided attempt to make them feel good plants the seeds of disordered pride. So too when we assume generally that a people is beautiful and peaceful by accident of birth it is a misguided statement. I love Catholics, but to say they are all beautiful and peaceful would be demonstrably false. I know many Muslims and some certainly are beautiful and peaceful, some are not. However, in the world today, has not the Muslim culture shown a propensity for violence and barbarity that we cannot attribute to any other major culture? The modern PC response is to try to build their self esteem ever since Said Mohammed wrote the Muslim Other and the university continued their quixotic quest to destroy Western Civilization. We are all fallen, inside of all cultures most are fallen, the only class that is truly beautiful and peaceful is the class of the Saints and that was no accident.

I hope I have not incurred further misunderstanding, peace to you Jack, Achilles
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written by Pamela, September 29, 2012
The movie about Muhammad's life already exists. It's called "Muhammad the Messenger of God" and it isn't too bad. I don't understand the remarks about the historicity of early Islam. Whether you agree with him or not, Muhammad's life was very well documented--much more so than Jesus, for instance.
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written by Howard Kainz, September 29, 2012
@Pamela: "Muhammad the Messenger of God" is the English title of "The Message," which, as mentioned above, does not include any depiction of Muhammad. If you know of any movie where an actor actually depicts Muhammad, I would be interested in hearing about that. In regard to the historicity issue, Robert Spencer in his book argues that the first attempt to record stories about Muhammad (“hadiths”) did not begin until the 8th century, under the 5th Umayyad caliph, Abd al-Malik; this project continued on into the 9th century, when the first biography of Muhammad was authored by Ibn Ishaq. All subsequent biographies have been based on Ibn Ishaq’s very late-appearing work. Muhammad's existence is certainly not well-documented by non-Muslim historians.
The existence of Jesus is well documented both by Roman historians and the Jewish historian Josephus.
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written by Jack,CT, September 29, 2012
Dear Achilles,
Thanks for your comments,I apreciate
your remarks.I do believe there is "Good and Bad"
in ALL of us.You see no matter the religion we all
have that in common in my humble opinion.
God Bless,
Jack
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written by Julie Ashton, October 01, 2012
What a fascinating discussion. I especially appreciate the dialogue between Emina Melonic and the Professor.
I have read that Islam is basically a Catholic heresy, even a sort of non-sacrificial Judaism. Pre-Islam was possibly more Catholic/Jewish than pagan? The Sovereign God, "beyond Being", and basically inscrutable, for instance: the Christian God is Being Itself, and knows us and can be known, yet is also "beyond Being" and high above our human thoughts.
(He Sovereignly deigns to reveal Himself.) So -- how would such a movie depict the pre-Islamic world, Ishmael's world? The Jewish/Calvinistic/Islamic fear of imagery is a given. What about the imagery of Story? A picture is worth a thousand words, and a thousand words can give us a picture -- but best not take the chance of offense with either. This idea could lead to a look at the family dynamic as it relates to revelation -- would we want our children to live in this kind of fear of us? how do we love to communicate with our children? (in story and pictures)--- and then we could refer to the Theology of the Body. Is there anything similar in Islamic theology??
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written by ib, October 01, 2012
I taught a class on "Cinema and the Islamic World" for many years. There are very few movies about Mohammed. "The Message" is one of the best because of its high production values. It was made in the 70s when Islam was finding its way out from the colonial period. The Muslim Brotherhood, established in the 20s had been suppressed and secular movements like Pan-Arabism and narrower nationalism were to the fore. That's why it could get made. Moustapha Akkad, the director, put together an international consortium to make the film and received the backing of Al-Azhar University in Cairo (interestingly, according to Akkad, Islam frowns on representing any prophet, whether Mohammed, Jesus, Moses, Hūd, etc). Would a live-action film of Mohammed's story be possible at this point?

For example, there is an animated film of the life of Mohammed, "Muhammad: The Last Prophet" (2002 A.D.) which, like "The Message", never shows Mohammed. This animation was made, with the funding of Islamic organizations, precisely to fit a niche for some kind of children's version of "The Message." Other religions (even Shintoism) have had popular animations about them. Muslim parents, trying to pass on their faith to their children, found it very difficult to do so without a high-quality animated film about Islam.

On some other points:

1) Textbooks on Islam always state that the prohibition against depicting the prophets (or any human form) have to do with idolatry. They usually link it to the cleansing of the Kabaa by Mohammed sometime between 610 and 622 A.D. and the smashing of the idols by Abram (found in the Jewish Midrash on Gen 11:26-29).

In 8th century A.D. (2nd A.H.) the ban on images was established partly as a reaction against the use of images in Christianity. As Oleg Grabar writes “to a Muslim of the 8th century, images were one of the most characteristic and in part hateful aspects of Christianity” (Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art, pp 86-89). One hadith states that “No angel will enter a house where images are kept or where dogs live.”

2) Robert Spencer definitely has an agenda WRT Islam. And some of what he says is simply exaggeration or the worst interpretation one can place on skimpy facts. That said , he is not always wrong, either. Many reputable historical-critical scholars have been raising these question for the past three decades. Some of the recent scholarly works in this area are:

Ali, Wijdan. "From the Literal to the Spiritual: The Development of the Prophet Mohammed's Portrayal from 13th Century Ilkhanid Miniatures to 17th Century Ottoman Art." Proceedings of the 11th International Congress of Turkish Art, Utrecht - The Netherlands, August 23-28, 1999. No. 7, pp 1-24.

Donner, Fred. Muhammed and the Believers, at the Origins of Islam. Boston: Harvard UP, 2010.

de Maigret, Alessandro. Arabia Felix. London: Stacey, 2009.

Lawson, Todd. The Crucifixion and the Qur’an. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.

Luxenberg, Christoph. The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran. Schiller: Berlin, 2007.

Ohlig, Karl-Heinz, Ed. The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into its Early History. Prometheus: New York, 2010.

Seyf, Hadi. Coffee House Painting. Tehran: Reza Abbasi Museum, 1989.

Sfar, Mondher. In Search of the Original Koran. Prometheus: New York, 2008.

Shahid, Irfan, Mar Sawirus Ishaq Saka, and Mar Bawai Soro, “The Rise of the Eastern Churches and their Heritage (5th-8th Century),” Christianity, A History in the Middle East. Middle East Council of Churches: Beirut, 2005. pp 219-270.

Shahid, Irfan, “Arab Christianity Before the Rise of Islam,” Christianity, A History in the Middle East. Middle East Council of Churches: Beirut, 2005. pp 435-448.

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