Islamic Group Declares War on Religious Films Written by David E. Miller
Published Wednesday, January 05, 2011
A new ruling reiterates ban on religious character depiction in film and televison
An international Islamic organization has declared war on cinematic depictions of the prophet Muhammad and his companions, arguing they denigrate Islam’s most revered characters.
The Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) Council, a body of the Muslim World League, said in a statement issued Sunday that the images not of the prophet himself but of his companions were creeping into films and television series and prompted the new ruling, which was adopted during the 20th conference of the Council in late December.
“The council reiterates its previous decision banning the production, promotion … and viewing of these films and series,” the statement read. “These [portrayals] may cause the denigration and devaluation of the figures and be used as an excuse to ridicule them.”
The Quran, Islam’s divine book and primary source of law, doesn’t explicitly forbid the depiction of Muhammad or other prophets, which include figures like Abraham, Moses and Jesus from the Jewish and Christian traditions. But some oral traditions, known as hadiths, ban any such visual representation. The main concern cited by jurists was that depicting Muhammad would encourage idolatry.
Based in Mecca, the Muslim World League is one of the largest Islamic NGOs. Its missions include Islamic proselytizing, coordination of Islamic preaching and support of needy Muslims worldwide.
The statement dismissed the argument that the films were a means of educating the public about Islamic figures, saying “the holy scriptures contain sufficient information.”
Film industry officials and observers said the council had nothing to worry about because producers and directors wouldn’t dare test the ban. Mousaad Fouda, president of the Egyptian Film Syndicate, said that work on an excellent film about the life of Jesus was stopped recently in Egypt mid-production, adding that Egyptian audiences preferred action movies and dramas.
“There are no producers in Egypt that would make a film depicting the Prophet or his companions,” Fouda told The Media Line. “They would be too worried that such films will not succeed commercially.”
Sariel Birnbaum, an Arab film researcher at the State University of New York in Binghamton, said the Arab film industry has gradually become more conservative regarding the depiction of Islamic figures.
“In 1951, when religious films were first produced, only the Prophet and his close companions were banned from the screen,” he told The Media Line. “Today, there are hundreds of characters from the dawn of Islam who cannot be shown.”
Among the most common cinematic methods of depicting the prophet are showing the scene through his eyes, or focusing on his enemies in seventh-century Mecca and his Jewish rivals, Birnbaum said.
In a rare instance when Hollywood took on the Muhammad story, American actor Anthony Quinn depicted the prophet’s uncle, Hamza, in the 1976 epic film “The Message” directed by Moustapha Akkad. The presence of the prophet was symbolized in the film by organ music, and his words – unheard – were repeated by other characters.
Birnbaum attributed the growing orthodoxy of Sunni jurists regarding the film industry to a battle being waged on two fronts: one with Christianity and the other with Shiite Islam, both of which encourage artistic depiction of their revered figures.
Offensive caricatures of Muhammad published in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in 2005 caused widespread protests in the Arab and Muslim world, including the burning of Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. The cartoon continues to inspire Muslim anger. Denmark and Sweden courts last week ordered four people held in custody for allegedly planning a “Mumbai-style” terrorist attack on the newspaper.
“Religious censorship rules supreme,” Birnbaum added. “If an official religious authority bans a film post-production, the investment is lost.”
Joseph Fahim, the arts and culture editor at Daily News Egypt, said the timing of the statement was strange, as religious programming was at an all time low.
“Religious TV dramas have been declining in popularity for six or seven years,” Fahim told The Media Line. “Programs come and go and no one notices them. They are placed in time slots where viewership is minimal.”
Fahim said the only recent Islamic production he was aware of was announced in Qatar at the opening of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2009. The epic $150 million, English-language production about the life of Muhammad was meant to bridge cultures, but Fahim said no news about casting or production was released since the initial announcement.
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