'Muhammad: The Messenger of God' - An interview with Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi

Ahmed Atef, Tuesday 29 Sep 2015

In the epic film, which is part of a planned trilogy, Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi seeks to show prophet Muhammad's mercy and sympathy for all humankind

Majid Majidi
Majid Majidi (Photo: courtesy of Ahmed Atef)

Since plans for its production were announced years ago, talk has not ceased about the Iranian epic film Muhammad: The Messenger of God.

The film was written and directed by Majid Majidi who is considered one of Iran’s most important filmmakers, and whose repertoire includes The Children of Heaven (1997) that was nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar, The Color of Paradise (1999) and Baran (2001).

'Muhammad', the first of a planned trilogy, focuses on the prophet’s early life. Throughout the film, we see the prophet dressed in white and depicted from the back or the side with a beam of light surrounding him in every appearance. Most of the film’s dialogue is in Farsi, and some is in Hebrew. The only use of Arabic is during the recitation of Quran.

The film, which cost about $40 million, was produced by the Nourtaban Film Industry, a private company and an offshoot of a charity organisation that carries the same name. 

Muhammad made its international debut at the opening of the Montreal World Film Festival in August and was released in Iran on the same day.

Despite its brilliant cinematography, the film’s dramatic structure has an array of weaknesses. This is possibly a result of the dramatic narrative, which is manifested by jumps from one stage of the prophet’s life to the other.

The film is beautiful, yet not great.

The film was chosen to represent Iran in next year's Oscar for the best foreign film category. 

Ahram Online recently met with Majidi in Montreal and conducted the following interview about the film, the intentions behind it, and the preparations phase.

Ahram Online: What inspired you to make this film?

Majid Majidi (MM): We’ve been witnessing a violent surge of negative propaganda against the prophet Muhammad for the past seven or eight years. For example, the offensive cartoons and depictions of the prophet, which were published by a Danish newspaper, followed by the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo cartoons, in addition to many hostile depictions which were presented in western media to provoke Muslims’ feelings and their values. 

We had no reaction to offer except for objections and limited protestations voiced by Muslims. On the other hand, there were also some radical reactions to such depictions of the prophet, including the atrocious Charlie Hebdo attack, which we definitely weren’t happy about especially for the impression such attacks give of Islam as a religion steeped in violence. Thus, I wanted to answer back such depictions of the prophet in a positive manner, one that would present Islam as it is: a religion of peace, love and amity.

Ahram Online: In the film you focus on the prophet’s early life, including his childhood and youth, to the neglect of the first revelation (wahy-being called upon by God) despite the fact that the message of Islam manifests itself during those later stages. Why did you make this choice?

MM: Most of the west, as well as many Muslims know so little about the prophet’s upbringing. My objective was to orientate the audience with the period of Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic era), and how it was like before the appearance of the prophet. I wanted to depict Quraysh tribe [from which the prophet hailed] and unearth their mentality. I also wanted to show how the prophet was raised against this backdrop yet developed very firm principles since an early age and was against the wai'd (burying new-born daughters alive), slavery, etc.

There are more than 200 films about Jesus Christ, 100 films on Moses and 40 films on Buddha, but there is only one film about the prophet, which is The Message (1977) - which was produced decades ago at a time when cinema was not as developed as it is today in terms of picture, graphics, colours and sound. By focusing on the early period of Islam, I also tried to pave the way for reconciliation between Islam’s different sects because it was a time in history that wasn’t characterised by many dissentions.  

Ahram Online: The film also comprises certain events from the prophet’s life that are completely unknown to Muslims. What was the source of such events?

MM: In the beginning of the film, there’s a message that says that the film encompasses historical facts as well as free personal impressions about the prophet Muhammad. Accordingly, some of the film’s events did not actually take place in real life, but are indeed similar to events in the prophet’s biography and which exhibit his mercy, blessings and sympathy for all humankind regardless of whether they were Muslims or not.

The objective behind presenting these scenes is to show that the whole existence could feel the prophet’s presence as well as his mercy. But this does not negate the fact that most of the film’s events are historically accurate and are agreed upon by both Sunna and Shia sects.

Ahmed Atef, Majid Majidi
Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi (right) in discussion with film critic Ahmed Atef (left) (Photo: courtesy of Ahmed Atef)

Ahram Online: But these ‘free’ impressions put you at the risk of being accused of overlooking historical accuracy, no?

MM: Depicting the particularities of prophets’ biographies does not matter as much as showing their underlying spirit does. It is not solely the events, but rather the meaning that underpins them that is important to portray in cinema. And the art of cinema has the aesthetics that can accommodate such imagination. As such, the filmmaker can take certain liberties with the text as long as he preserves its essence, and without being obliged to maintain a literaliness of events.

And this is the difference between documentary and fiction. While the former is a literal embodiment of an event, the latter presents a culture and has an essence.

Ahram Online: The film only shows the prophet from the side or back, yet many religious institutions still objected to this depiction. What’s your take on this? And why did Al-Azhar refuse to watch the film?

MM: For my part, I respected the religious belief that prohibits any visual depictions of the prophet’s face. I did not allow myself to ruin this belief held firmly by 1.7 billion Muslims. Every Muslim has own impression and imagined picture of the prophet, and it has to be respected.

As for Al-Azhar, I do respect their sensitivity towards the prophet’s image. But allow me to ask them the following questions: what is our responsibility as Muslims in the face of this depiction of Islam as violent in the West? How do we alter this negative image of Islam? And how do we show international opinion that Islam is indeed a religion of peace and love? Until when are we to remain silent in the face of offences against the prophet? And do we respond to such offenses with violence as what happened in the Charlie Hebdo attack? Or do we orchestrate a civilised response, employing culture and arts to show who the prophet really was?

Ahram Online: Can a film still influence its audience if they do not see the protagonist’s facial expressions throughout its 171-minute long duration?

MM: I definitely agree with this point, for showing the face is absolutely necessary in cinema. In the case of our film, we compensated for that by focusing on other tools of expression like camera movement, and use of lighting.

I agreed with Italian director of photography Vittorio Storaro to designate a camera that focuses on the prophet, and another Steadicam that focuses on the prophet’s perspective and a few other cameras for the rest of the cast. We increased the film’s speed from 24 cadres per second to 30 cadres per second for the movement to be more smooth.

Ahram Online: Did you consult religious experts while working on the film? And were their opinions binding?

MM: To make a film about prophet Muhammad, I had to seek the advice of jurists and clerics, especially regarding the method I chose to narrate the film, and my choice to focus on specific stages in the prophet’s life. I met with a number of clerics and explained my vision and the impressions that I wanted to communicate through this film.

I met and discussed the film with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has been very supportive and viewed the final movie. Other names also include Ali Al-Sistani, Ayatollah Wahid Khorasani, and Iranian philosopher Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli. My research team also sought the advice of Sunni Ulama, among whom was the Turkish Hayrettin Karaman.

Ahram Online: Is the voice that recites the Quran at the film’s beginning and again in the finale meant to embody the prophet’s own voice?

MM: Well, it can either be the prophet’s voice, that of the wahy (revelation) or the narrator’s own voice. I am aware that many also prohibit depicting the prophet’s voice, but I still believe that each person has the right to interpret his voice the way they aspire. We should exhibit more openness regarding how we receive art, because if we limit ourselves to such confines we will forfeit many important things.  

Ahram Online: As a filmmaker who always seeks to present humanistic messages in his projects, how do you see the world today especially with the prevalence of religious extremism and in the presence of groups like ISIS and others?

MM: In no way should ISIS and other terrorist groups be attributed to Islam, or be dubbed the ‘Islamic State’. Any sane person holding onto a set of principles will condemn this mentality and what it calls for. But in light of how the prophet brought mercy to human existence, we should be aware that the youth that join such groups are being tricked into it. And accordingly, we must bring them back to the true and tolerant Islam. I believe that ‘Muhammad: The Messenger of God’ can influence their thoughts and allow them to reclaim the tolerance of Islam.

That said, I do not claim having presented a full picture about the prophet in this film, but rather snippets that attest to his greatness. My dream is to encourage many others to undertake similar projects and produce films on the prophet. At this moment, my aspiration is that everyone will watch the film and feel the love, appreciation and respect we have towards the prophet.  

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