Muslim community divided over proposed ban on Prophet Mohammad film

By Ratan Mani Lal and Tarique Anwar

Lucknow/New Delhi: The appeal by Raza Academy, a Mumbai-based Sunni organisation, seeking an India-wide ban on the film Muhammad: The Messenger of God, has evoked a mixed response from the community. In a letter sent to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the Raza Academy sought a ban on the film directed by acclaimed Iranian film-maker Majid Majidi, and called for legal action against the film’s music composer AR Rahman.

Muhammad: The Messenger of God was released in Iran on 27 August, and is still awaiting an India release. According to the organisation, showing pictures or portrayal of the Prophet is blasphemous under Islamic traditions.

Wahid Ali Wahid, a noted Urdu poet who has been honoured by the Uttar Pradesh government with the Guru Gobind Singh Award for National Integration, said it was all right if Prophet Mohammad was not shown in physical form, and His thoughts were voiced by someone else. However, the poet, who is known for his rendition of patriotic songs, added that any portrayal should be avoided in view of the sharp reactions such a portrayal could elicit all over the world, particularly in India.

A still from the film's trailer. Screengrab from YouTube

A still from the film's trailer. Screengrab from YouTube

A noted wildlife photographer and filmmaker Abbas Hasnain, whose film on the dwindling number of vultures has won plaudits from across the world, said he had not seen the film but since it had been made by a renowned film-maker who himself was a Muslim, he thought there should be nothing wrong with it. “The film has been made in an Islamic country by a Muslim, therefore there should be no problems with it,” he said.

The reactions of a number of eminent Muslim writers and artists varied along sectarian lines with Shia Muslims saying there was nothing wrong with the film since it did not portray the Prophet, and Sunni Muslims fiercely opposing it. Most, however, chose not be quoted.

Athar Husain, who heads the think tank Centre for Objective Research and Development (CORD) said he did not think there was anything wrong if the message was conveyed in the right spirit. In this context he recalled the film Mohammad, Messenger of God by Syrian-American filmmaker Moustapha Akkad. The film, made in Morocco and Libya, was released as The Message in 1977 in the United States. Akkad is believed to have consulted Islamic clerics and received the approval of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Egypt, however his film was rejected by clerics in Saudi Arabia.

“In that film, all precautions had been taken not to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims, and if the present Iranian film has also taken care of this, then there should be no issues with it,” Husain said. Navaid Hamid, member of the All-India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, an umbrella body of Muslim organisations in India, is completely opposed to the idea of making any film depicting Prophet Mohammad and the sahabas (the companions of the Prophet).

“It is prohibited and forbidden in Islam to imitate or draw a sketch of Prophet Mohammad,” he said adding that “though many Shiites have a culture of depicting the Prophet in their arts, it is totally prohibited and even a sin in the Sunni sect, which constitutes 87 to 90 percent of the world's Muslim population”.

There is a split on this issue between the two major denominations of Islam — Sunni and Shia. Most Sunnis believe that visual depictions of all the prophets of Islam should be prohibited and are particularly averse to visual representations of Prophet Mohammad.

When asked if he opposed the film because it has been made by an Iranian filmmaker, Hamid replied, “It is not about political conflict between Saudi and the Iranian interests. It is about the deep understanding of faith. Mumbai-based Raza Academy does not support Saudis, then why are they protesting against it? Be it Wahabi, Deobandi or Barelvi, everyone will oppose it.”

On the topic of promoting censor-free speech and exhibition of art, he outrightly rejected the notion of accepting the movie as a form of art.

But Dr Tanweer Fazal, who teaches at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), is completely opposed to Hamid’s view.

“Free speech is non-negotiable and therefore, the demand to ban or proscribe any book, work or literature goes against our constitutional principles,” he opines arguing that “it will also be counterproductive because proscription or banning today cannot be successful. Rather it will actually make that work more popular”.

He considers the objection of Muslims “unfounded”.

“The Muslim concern is about the image of Prophet Mohammad, but as I have heard, the director has taken care to actually hide or blur the face. So, without watching the movie, whatever I have heard from news reports, it appears that the director was conscious about the sensitivity of Muslims. And therefore, this complain is unfounded,” he added.

Dr Arshad Alam, assistant professor at JNU who has researched madrassas, says: “Within the Muslim world, there is a plurality of traditions. This movie is not the first of its kind. Such movies have been made earlier as well. The filmmaker has not only taken care of the sensitivity of Muslims, but specifically that of the Sunnis, by not creating visual depictions or figures of the Prophet. So, no one should have any problem.”

Although Firoz Bakht Ahmad, educationist and grand nephew of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, also accepts that the movie is not in tune with Islamic tenets, he suggests the community ignore it.

“As far as the Muslim community is concerned, no Muslim anywhere in the world, whether educated or uneducated, will tolerate anything regarding Prophet Mohammad, which is in anyway, even on the basis of an iota, not in tune with Islamic tenets,” he says.

Dr Syed Ali Kazim, assistant professor at the department of history, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, also says movies like this have been made in the past, where the face of Prophet Mohammad and companions have not been shown. “I think if visual depiction has not been done, there should be no problem to anyone because such movies have been highly appreciated in the past,” he said.

He argued that the entire controversy has been created by “orthodox Muslims who paint everything with the same brush”.

“The movie has been made to impart the correct knowledge of Islam. Light has been used instead of visual representations of the Prophet Mohammad out of respect. The end product has to be seen. The movie has been made by a Muslim and in an Islamic country like Iran where nothing that hurts the sentiments of Muslims is allowed. The entire controversy is because of orthodox Muslims who paint everything with the same brush,” he alleged.


Updated Date: Sep 08, 2015 11:41 AM

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