If I told you the première of Iranian film-maker Majid Majidi’s biopic Muhammad: The Messenger of God in Montreal late last month was a turning point in Islam, would you think it preposterous?
Note that what could have been an explosive occasion pretty much passed off without an incident in the so-called Muslim and western worlds. Just months ago, the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris served to remind us that the Prophet’s portrayal, albeit in a provocative manner, had done its incendiary job again. The film should have brought Muslims from the Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis or British Muslims in Sheffield on to the streets. Nothing of that sort happened. We did hear murmurs of protests. Understandable. The Mumbai-based Raza Academy issued a fatwa, or a religious edict, calling for both Majidi and AR Rahman, who has written the film’s score, to re-embrace Islam.
Cairo’s Al-Azhar University — a more noteworthy institution and an important seat of Sunni Islam — has asked what if the character playing Mohammed were to play a negative role in a future film and defile the Prophet’s status? Not in the least a summary call for collective Muslim action to block the film, such a position sounds almost rational reasoning from a viewpoint of internal religious logic.
Prophet Mohammed did caution against graphic representation of living beings. Islam’s problematic relationship with visual representation — film, sculpture and photography — has to do with its inviolable tenet of monotheism, or worship of one God alone. The Prophet repeatedly stressed his human status, and feared his own portrayal through art could lead to his future worship.
Majidi’s film is screening across Iran’s theatres and has evoked interest in Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia. How do we explain all this? Is Majidi a Muslim Voltaire who has won over his people? Or, to paraphrase Salman Rushdie, have Muslims turned godless men thinking a great deal about God?
For an answer, we can’t be looking at Majidi’s film in isolation but connect the dots: The current Muslim exodus to Europe’s shores, the Islamic State (Isis) and Iran’s own changing political values.
Majidi’s own diligence in dealing with his subject helped. The film creatively avoids facial depiction of the Prophet. If a discussion on Islam appears credible, then Muslims will participate in it.
The film is also being seen as an answer to the constant western narrative about Islam and at the same time an opportunity to help explain Islam.
Simultaneously, the flood of refugees from the Muslim world to Europe has demonstrated that there is no deeply ingrained hatred of the West among Muslims. More Muslims are fleeing the Isis than are joining it. The refugees could have chosen Asia or Africa. Their preference for western Europe is a rational choice. It shows that Europe is viewed as a desirable land of rights, law and positive opportunities. It is equally for the Isis and Western governments to understand the message.