Iranian ‘Muhammad’ Movie Does Big Business Despite Fatwa Threats

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A new Iranian film about the early life of Muhammad is doing brisk business at the box office even as its creative team faces fatwa threats and some of the Muslim world’s most prominent Sunni clerics have called for it to be banned outright.

Muhammad: The Messenger of God premiered late last month at the Montreal Film Festival before opening in wide release on roughly half of Iran’s 320 movie screens, reports Variety. The film, partially government-sponsored, is the most expensive in Iranian history with a $40 million price tag.

The film has reportedly taken in 30 billion rials ($1 million) in two weeks of release, a solid number for so few screens. Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance spokesman Hossein Nushabadi predicted to the state-controlled Tehran Times newspaper that the film would be a hit because “many” requests had been fielded by countries wanting to screen it.

“The film is currently being dubbed into Arabic and English and we are hoping it will go on screen in Muslim and non-Muslim countries,” Nushabadi told the paper.

The 171-minute film (first in a planned trilogy) from Iranian director Majid Majidi follows the early life of Muhammad, from birth until age 12. In accordance with Islamic law, Muhammad’s face is not shown onscreen; instead, the character is filmed mostly from the back while other characters, including Muhammad’s uncle Aboutaleb, repeat his lines for him.

The film was lensed by Oscar-winning Italian cinematographer Vittorio Stotaro, who has worked on such critically-acclaimed Western films as Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor, Last Tango in Paris and Dick Tracy. The film’s score was composed by Oscar-winner A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours).

“I decided to make this film to fight against the new wave of Islamophobia in the West,” Majidi told Iranian magazine Hezbollah Line, according to the Jerusalem Post. “The Western interpretation of Islam is full of violence and terrorism.”

But despite the film’s star-studded creative team and welcome reception in Shiite Iran, a number of Sunni clerics have condemned the film for its portrayal of Muhammad. Egypt’s al-Azhar, considered Sunnis’ most prestigious university, publicly condemned the film while India’s Raza Academy issued a fatwa against Majidi and Rahman and called for the film to be banned in that country.

“This matter is already settled. Sharia prohibits embodying the prophets,” al-Azhar dean of Islamic theology Professor Abdel Fattah Alawari told Reuters. “It is not permissible in Islam [because an actor] has contradictory and conflicting roles; sometimes we see him as a blind drunk, sometimes as a womanizer… and then he embodies a prophet… This is not permissible.”

Raza Academy raised similar concerns, saying if the actor who played Muhammad took on the role of a criminal in a later film, some could be confused and associate Muhammad with that character.

Rahman responded to the fatwa issued against him in a Facebook post last week.

“I am not a scholar of Islam. I follow the middle path and am part traditionalist and part rationalist,” the composer said in a statement. “I live in the western and eastern worlds, and try to love all people for what they are, without judging them. I didn’t direct or produce the movie… I just did the music. My spiritual experiences working on the film are very personal, and I would prefer not to share these… My decision to compose the music for this film was made in good faith with no intention of causing offence.”

Majidi has not yet responded to the fatwa issued against him, according to the Guardian.

Sami Yusuf, an Iranian-born musical star who contributed to the film’s soundtrack, said criticism of the film from Sunni clerics was strictly political.

“I am sure people in al-Azhar and others who criticize the film haven’t seen it yet,” Yusuf told Reuters. “They are against the film only because it’s a cultural export of Iran… You cannot study Muhammad’s life and not fall in love with him and his character. If this film makes people of the world know our Prophet better and see how kind he was, we have done our job.”

Meanwhile, the film has earned mixed reviews from Western critics. Variety‘s Alissa Simon wrote that the film “feels stiff and awkward, burdened rather than elevated by its weighty subject matter.” The Guardian‘s Phil Hoad called the film “intellectually honest, committed and poetic, but let’s hope we never need to call it ‘brave.'”