Iran is preparing to release a blockbuster film depicting the life of the Prophet Muhammad, much to the consternation of Sunni Muslim religious authorities. Despite widespread taboos against the depiction of Islam’s founder, the Shiite state has backed the production of the $30 million “Muhammad, Messenger of God” movie, which will attempt to tell the story of the prophet’s early life.
The film’s director has argued that the production of a high-quality film depicting Islam’s most important figure is an important endeavor in giving the world the right impression of him. "How should we introduce our prophet?" asked Majid Majidi in a Wednesday interview with the Associated Press. "Many relay their messages to the world through cinema and pictures."
While Muhammad’s face will not be shown in the film, the inclusion of scenes showing him from behind is already sparking anger from Sunni religious leaders. Egypt’s Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s premier institution, condemned the film and called on Iran to ban it in a statement last month. Portrayals of Muhammad, even those that are limited to his voice or faceless figures, amount to disregarding the prophet’s “spiritual prestige” and are prohibited, according to Al-Azhar, reflecting the mainstream view of Islam’s dominant sect.
Previous depictions of the prophet in media have elicited angry responses across the Muslim world, with a 14-minute U.S.-made video mocking Muhammad sparking violent protests in Sunni-majority countries like Egypt and Libya. More recently, killers targeted the Paris offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January over its caricatures of the prophet.
Shiite Islam, on the other hand, has a far more liberal attitude on the subject, and images of the prophet’s son-in-law Ali, revered by Shiites as Muhammad’s rightful successor, and his son Hussein, are ubiquitous in Iran. The Islamic republic's founder, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, kept a picture similar to Muhammad in his room for years, according to the AP.
Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has shown support for the film, even making an unprecedented visit to the film’s set in 2012. The move is a “clear indication that he is endorsing the project and thus seeks to pre-empt any opposition from other high-ranking clerics,” wrote Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University in New York, in a commentary for Al Jazeera.
While most of the Sunni outcry against the film has centered on the morality of portraying the prophet, other Sunni states are taking a different approach to countering the Iranian film. Qatar announced that it was undertaking its own cinematic treatment of the prophet’s life at the cost of $1 billion. The oil-rich Persian Gulf nation has reportedly hired "Lord of the Rings" producer Barrie Osborne to helm the project, which is slated to be a series of epics designed for a worldwide audience, the Guardian reported. It is not yet clear whether the Qatari project will depict the prophet.