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5 November 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

A life less ordinary

Why modern film-makers should not be afraid of tackling Islam

By Nesrine Malik

When I was growing up, watching The Message was the Eid festival equivalent of watching It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas. An epic detailing the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the rise of Islam, it was shot twice — once in English with western actors and once in Arabic with a pan-Arab cast. The Prophet was never represented on screen, but his disciples, enemies and followers were. The power of the film, as far as I was concerned, never really resided in its religious significance but lay in the storytelling and characterisation.

Barrie Osborne, one of the producers of The Matrix and Lord of the Rings, is reportedly planning a biopic of the Prophet’s life. This is to coincide with a remake of The Message by Oscar Zoghbi. What is to be gained from this surfeit of coverage of the Prophet’s life? Shahed Amanullah, writing for the Guardian‘s Comment is Free website, believes that the world, steeped as it is in prejudice and negative attitudes towards Islam, is not ready for all of this. He also suggests that observing the Islamic prohibition against portraying the Prophet (which Osborne et al will reportedly respect) renders “a serious biopic with this subject matter nearly impossible” in this day and age.

I would imagine that the opposite is true, as developments in cinematic production since the 1970s would allow much more scope to be creative. Moreover, it will facilitate a focus on the actual message and values of Islam as espoused by the Prophet, minimising the risk of stereotyping or caricaturing him. This was done before and it worked; there is no need to be gratuitously offensive just to “push boundaries”. Controversy is no proxy for talent. Aversion to the idea stems partly from obvious accusations of self-censorship, informed by reaction to the Danish cartoons.

In one of the most powerful scenes from The Message, the Prophet destroys the idols within the Kaaba. Shot from his point of view, even using quite basic production facilities, the image of the Prophet’s staff smashing the idols and then emerging into the sunlight could not have had more impact if he had been shown. The tone of deference did not ever ascend into reverence, as the film retained a gritty, sand-swept, sun-scorched ambience but did not go out of its way to be iconoclastic. The story was merely told, not proselytised. In this way, it managed to bridge a cultural divide, earn an Oscar nomination and eventually win over audiences in the Muslim world, especially in Arab countries.

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I have more faith in both the viewing public and the resourcefulness of film-makers. There is so much more to the Prophet’s life and story than Aisha’s age at marriage (a hackneyed and pivotal part of efforts at character assassination). Besides, this is a point of detail that not even Muslim historians are in agreement about.

Muhammad’s tale and the birth of Islam are part of universal human history, and Muslims should not be covetous or culturally territorial. This only plays into the hands of those who have made a priori judgements about Islam, and deprives us of enjoying and retelling what is, above all else, a gripping story.

Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese-born writer who lives in London

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