Muslim world divided over new film about Muhammad

Visual depiction of the Prophet sparks controversy.

by Jennie Kermode

It's a film yet to be released, but early stills from new Iranian film Muhammad, Messenger Of God have already caused an outcry in the Middle East, with Egypt threatening to ban the film. The controversy centres on the visual depiction of the eponymous Prophet, even though he is seen only as a child and his face is never shown.

Decorated text traditionally stands in for pictures.
Decorated text traditionally stands in for pictures.

Although Muslims are united in condemning images of Muhammad that are intended to ridicule, the Islamic position on other depictions is more complex. The Qur'an makes no comment on the matter but Sunni Islam - the predominant religion in countries like Egypt - forbids it outright. Shia Islam, practiced in Iran, used to do so as well but has gradually softened its stance. The original prohibition appears to have been concerned with dissuading people from worshipping pictures; the concern among many Shia Muslims today is whether or not a picture can do justice to a man described in text a the perfect human being. Some born again Christians take a similar stance on religious imagery and Mel Gibson's Te Passion Of The Christ was subject to protests on this basis when it came out in 2004.

Two years ago, controversy over a short film called Innocence Of Muslims which depicted Muhammad led to unrest around the world before its producer was arrested in the US for unrelated criminal activity.

The new film's director, Majid Majidi, has assured critics that his depiction is intended to be respectful. His film deals only with the early life of the Prophet and is aimed at spreading a religious message in a world where film is an increasingly important medium. Made on a very large budget for the region, it will be released in Arabic, Persian and English language versions.

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