Juan Cole on Mustafa Akkad

There’s been much discussion on the terrorist attacks in Amman on Sunni Sister ([1], [2], [3]) and Izzy Mo’s blog ([1], [2]). The director of the famous “da’wah film” The Message, Mustafa Akkad, was killed in one of the bombings along with his daughter and a number of other wedding party guests. Juan Cole has posted an appreciation, on his blog Informed Comment, contrasting the murderers with Saladin (Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi), about whom Akkad intended to produce another film. He likens them instead to the Halloween films’ Michael Myers, the psychopath who murdered his own daughter and, on escape from an asylum, began stalking three teenage girls.

Umm Zaid notes that people had issues with the film, issues Juan Cole spells out:

He faced enormous problems as a cinematographer, given that the Arab Muslim tradition is iconoclastic (condemnatory of images), especially with regard to the Prophet Muhammad. Akkad therefore had to find ways of suggesting the Prophet Muhammad’s presence without actually showing him, such as the shadow he cast. But even showing the Prophet’s shadow was denounced by some Muslim groups. The film caused a sensation when its screening provoked the taking of hostages by members of the Nation of Islam, a small African-American sectarian group that is heterodox and had little connection to mainstream Islam. Akkad was confused as to how the Muslim world could not recognize the act of communication he was attempting to perform. As an in-between man, he faced the hostility both of bigotted non-Muslims and of hidebound fundamentalists from his own community. His artistic career played out in the arena of globalizing alienation.

He is right, of course, on the Nation of Islam; they are, or at least were, a racist Afro-American sect which used some Islamic terminology. But the fact remains that people would have been rightly offended by the film due to the very fact of companions of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) being play-acted - and by non-Muslim professional actors at that. It simply is alien to the Islamic tradition, however popular it is among Christians.

The film gained some popularity because of the misconception that the two principal Companions depicted, Hamza and Bilal, radhi Allahu ‘anhum, were somehow “lesser” Sahaba compared to, say, Abu Bakr or Ali (radhi Allahu ‘anhum). The particularly high status of the Four Caliphs does not change the fact that, even if we were able to put the Sahaba on any type of scale, Hamza and Bilal (radhi Allahu ‘anhum) would be nowhere other than very near to the top of it. Bilal was one of the very earliest companions, who accepted Islam in Makkah and underwent some of the worst persecution due to his low social status until he was bought out of slavery. He was not “just” the first prayer caller! He was not “just” a role model for black people either (for all you who insist on calling any black Muslim “Bilal”, a phenomenon I’ve been told about in south London), particularly given his east African origins when most black people living in western countries are of west African origin. As for Hamza, radhi Allahu ‘anhu, if one considers the love the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) had for Abu Talib who was not Muslim, then consider that he had the same relationship to the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and did believe and died in the service of Islam, how could we think him an also-ran?

Add to this the fact that The Message fails to mention the fact that Abu Sufyan, radhi Allahu ‘anhu, converted to Islam immediately after the conquest of Makkah and fought in the Islamic army, losing both eyes in two separate battles. This, no doubt, would appeal to the Iranians with their notorious anti-Umayyad prejudice, but has no place in mainstream Islam.

The film is banned in several Muslim countries, and would have caused enormous offence. A lot of Muslims perceive orthodox Islam’s rejection of certain art forms which are part of “high culture” in the west as one reason why our civilisation “fell behind” theirs and ended up being conquered, and a film heroising some of the Sahaba might have seemed like a way of remedying this. In reality it reflects how far Muslim culture had fallen; even in the last century of the Ottoman empire, even the British decided against staging a play about the first generation for fear of upsetting the Turks; now Muslims do something similar the same to impress the west! To the sort of extremists who would do something like these terrorist attacks, he would have been fair game; this is not a position we as mainstream Muslims hold. People do not become non-Muslims by committing sins, and there are scores of reasons why such attacks are against Islam, the obvious possibility of killing innocent bystanders being one of them; their definition of innocent, however, no doubt excludes even someone who was delivering the mail, such is their warped mindset. Still, one has to ask if Akkad was a target, not just a victim.

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