Mohammad, Messenger of God
(in Arabic: الرسالة Ar-Risalah; U.S. title: The Message) is a 1976 film directed by Mustapha Akkad chronicling the life and times of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Released in both Arabic and English, Mohammad, Messenger of God serves as an introduction to early Islamic history.
The film follows Muhammad starting with Islam’s beginnings in Mecca in which the Muslims are persecuted, the exodus to Medina, and ending with the Muslims’ triumphant return to Mecca. A number of crucial events, such as the Battle of Badr and Battle of Uhud are depicted, and the majority of the story is told from the point-of-view of peripheral individuals such as Hamza ibn `Abd al-Muttalib (Muhammad’s uncle), Abu Sufyan (the leader of Mecca) and his wife Hind bint Utbah (enemies of Islam who later become Muslims themselves)
Director Akkad faced resistance from Hollywood to making a film about the origins of Islam and had to go outside the United States to raise the production money for the film. Lack of financing nearly shut down the film as the initial backers pulled out; financing was finally provided by former Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. The film was shot in Libya and Morocco, with production taking four and a half months to build the cities of Mecca and Medina as they looked in Muhammad’s time.
Director Akkad saw the film as a way to bridge the gap between the Western and Islamic world, stating in a 1976 interview:
“I did the film because it is a personal thing for me. Besides its production values as a film, it has its story, its intrigue, its drama. Beside all this I think there was something personal, being Muslim myself who lived in the west I felt that it was my obligation my duty to tell the truth about Islam. It is a religion that has a 700 million following, yet it’s so little known about it which surprised me. I thought I should tell the story that will bring this bridge, this gap to the west.”
Akkad also filmed an Arabic version of the film (in which Muna Wassef played Hind) simultaneously with an Arab cast, for audiences in the Middle East. He felt that dubbing the English version in Arabic would not be enough, as the Arabic acting style differs significantly from that of Hollywood. The actors took turns doing the English and Arabic versions in each scene. Both the English and Arabic versions are now sold together on some DVDs.
In a film review, The New York Times reported that “when the film was scheduled to premier in the U.S., another Muslim extremist group staged a siege against the Washington D.C. chapter of the B’nai B’rith under the mistaken belief that Anthony Quinn played Mohammed in the film, threatening to blow up the building and its inhabitants unless the film’s opening was cancelled. The standoff was resolved” after the deaths of a journalist and policeman, but “the film’s American box office prospects never recovered from the unfortunate controversy.”
Depiction of Muhammad
In accordance with Muslim beliefs regarding depictions of Muhammad, he was not depicted on-screen nor was his voice heard. At the beginning of the film, a statement is displayed, “The makers of this film honor the Islamic tradition which holds that the impersonation of the Prophet offends against the spirituality of his message. Therefore, the person of Mohammad will not be shown.”
This rule extended to his wives, his daughters, his sons-in-law, and his caliphs (Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, Ali ibn Abī Ṭālib, Umar ibn Khattab,Uthman ibn Affan). This left Muhammad’s uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) and his adopted son Zayd (Damien Thomas) as the central characters. During the battles of Badr and Uhud depicted in the movie, Hamza was in nominal command, even though the actual fighting was led by Muhammad.
Whenever Muhammad was present or very close by, his presence was indicated by light organ music. His words, as he spoke them, were repeated by someone else such as Hamza, Zayd and Bilal. When a scene called for him to be present, the action was filmed from his point of view. Others in the scene nodded to the unheard dialogue.
The closest the film comes to a depiction of Muhammad or his immediate family are the view of Ali‘s famous two-pronged sword Zulfiqarduring the battle scenes, a glimpse of a staff in the scenes at the Kaaba or in Medina, and Muhammad’s camel, Qaswa.