When the medium is The Message

It has been reported that The Message, a film about the arrival of Islam which featured Anthony Quinn in the original, is being remade, this time with Muslim actors and set around Makkah and Madinah. The original was sponsored by Colonel Gadaffi and caused a siege in New York before its premiere, because some local Muslims mistakenly believed that the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) was depicted in the film. The Guardian’s report connects this to the recent “Jewel of Madinah” affair and predicts that “the film is likely to renew debate about freedom of expression and self-censorship”. Since this film is being made by Muslims, and the earlier version is commonly available in Islamic shops in many countries.

The problem is that, if the film is to be remade with its original storyline and screenplay, it is still problematic. The fact that the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) himself is not depicted in the film is irrelevant, as the rule applies to the Sahaba also, and several of these appear. The excuse may be that Hamza and Bilal are the “most important” figures in the film, but neither of these were “unimportant” Companions. One was the uncle of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and the other a very early companion who suffered a great deal of hardship, including torture from the idol-worshippers in Makkah, for the sake of Islam (may Allah be pleased with them both). Just because they were not among the first few people one might think of when one hears someone mention the Sahaba, it does not make them unimportant, and certainly does not make them less worthy of the reverence shown to people like the four Caliphs or the Mothers of the Believers (radhi Allahu ‘anhum).

A second problem with this film is its portrayal of Abu Sufyan (radhi Allahu ‘anhu) who became a Muslim after the conquest of Makkah, and died blind after losing his eyes fighting for the Muslims. Even before this, he was nowhere near as vicious as, say, Abu Jahl or Abu Lahab, and famously assisted Fatimah (radhi Allahu ‘anhaa) after she was attacked in the street by one of the pagan thugs, standing with her as she retaliated. You would not know any of this from the original version of this film, which ends with the conquest of Makkah and gives the impression that Abu Sufyan had simply been vanquished. Perhaps this avoids upsetting Shi’ite sensibilities, but why should we satisfy them by doing an injustice to a Companion they hate?

Perhaps the Saudi authorities could do some good here by refusing to allow it to be filmed in or around the Haramayn (or indeed, anywhere in the country) if the issues surrounding the depiction of the Sahaba are not fixed in this version. However, I do not see why this version has to be made at all; can they not find something else to make a film about which could be of benefit to people in religious terms? After all, how are Muslims living in the west supposed to explain (to teachers, for example) that we do not play-act our Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) or any other, or his Companions, if they see Muslims doing precisely the same, and in Saudi Arabia to boot?

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