Ordinarily, I use this Friday A/V Club feature to show historical pieces of film or video. But this week, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, I want to look back at a movie that never got made in the first place. The episode illustrates a theme my colleague Nick Gillespie noted yesterday: the tension between Muslims whose version of Islam prohibits depictions of Muhammad and Muslims whose version does not.
the anticipated production of a film about the grandeur of the early days of Islam. The Turkish writer Wedad Orfi, who initiated the idea, approached the Egyptian director and actor Youssef Wahbi to play the role of the Prophet Muhammad in a film to be financed by the Turkish government and a major German producer. Within a modernizing vision that characterized the new Turkish nation, it is not surprising that Atatürk, as well as the Istanbul council of 'ulamas (scholars of religious law), gave their approval. Upon learning of the plan, the Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo alerted Egyptian public opinion, and published a juridical decision, stipulating that Islam categorically forbids the representation of the Prophet and his Companions on the screen. King Fouad sent a severe warning to Wahbi, threatening to exile him and strip him of his Egyptian nationality.
The project was then abandoned. But before it died, it was debated in a series of letters published in the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram. Much of the argument there centers not on the mere fact that Muhammad would be represented onscreen but on worries about how he would be represented. These fears were heightened by the fact that the film was to be made abroad—in Paris!—and by a rumor that Wahbi planned to use Rasputin as his model when portraying the prophet. One offended letter-writer declared that the
government should prohibit Youssef Wahbi from travelling in order to perform the play in a country whose inhabitants hold views and beliefs on Islam and the Prophet that conflict with Islamic tenets. To stage the play in Paris, the city of profligacy and profanity, is to stir up new animosity against the Muslim people and to invite slander against the Prophet, especially if he is portrayed like Rasputin, that debauched spy, lecherous womaniser and satanic seducer. Such a characterisation can only be seen as a means to debase the person and status of the Prophet, ridicule his religion, malign those who have embraced his call, abuse the dignity of Muslims everywhere and mar the reputation of Islam.
The choice of Rasputin as the model for the photograph that is to represent the Prophet is irrefutable proof that the company that engaged Wahbi ultimately seeks to disparage the Prophet, Islam and Muslims. The choice of Paris as the venue of the performance suggests there is a conspiracy against Islam. If the Egyptian government has no control over the company or where the play is to be performed, it has the power to prevent Wahbi and his troupe from leaving the country and to bring him to account for having depicted the Prophet in such a horrendously base and utterly disrespectful manner. If the government is lenient with Wahbi on this play, others more scandalous and shameful are certain to follow.
Another letter included this argument: "To allow an actor to portray Mohamed today means that tomorrow he will play Jesus and the day after that Moses. Such a grave prospect must be avoided at all costs."
Wahbi, meanwhile, presented this rationale for the project:
I was greatly moved and inspired by what [the man who offered him the part] said, but I remained hesitant, telling him I could not agree. When he asked why, I said it is forbidden in our religion to portray that great man, however noble our intentions might be. He responded, "But if you refuse to play the part some foreigner will take the role, a foreigner who is not truly familiar with Islam. As he would care little for defending it he would not refuse, if asked, to perform scenes contradictory to the truth about the Prophet. You, on the other hand, would be able to monitor the content of the film, for we would never have the audacity to ask you to participate in a project that degrades your religion and your Prophet."
Read the rest of the Al-Ahram exchange here. Read my colleague Charles Paul Freund exploring some other Egyptian examples of religiously inspired film censorship here. Check out past installments of the Friday A/V Club here. And because it feels wrong to do a Friday A/V post without a video clip in it, here is the story of Muhammad's life told with folk music and anthropomorphic cats. The pious needn't worry—they don't show his face: