Muhammad, the Movie – Not!

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, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.