Islam

Friday A/V Club: The Muhammad Movie That Never Was

'The choice of Paris as the venue of the performance suggests there is a conspiracy against Islam.'

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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.

Ella Shohat tells the story in her 2006 book Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices. In 1926, she writes, controversy descended on

Mr. Wahbi in a fez. Fezzes are cool.

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

No offense.
Berkeley Breathed

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:

NEXT: On Charlie Hebdo and campus speech codes

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  1. …”the tension between Muslims whose version of Islam prohibits depictions of Muhammad and Muslims whose version does not.”…

    As was noted yesterday, that “tension” is largely academic; what’s needed is some real tension between those who wish to be civilized and those who favor thuggery and murder.
    We’re waiting for some of that.

    1. Academic indeed. Noting thay somebody didn’t make a movie early in the last century doesn’t change the facts that (1) there are Muslims who behead people who offend them and (2) their. coreligionists can’t be arsed to do anything about it.

      Walker’s article just points out that the head choppers had won by the 1920s. Things have gotten worse since.

      1. Well, they’d won in Egypt. They clearly hadn’t won in Turkey.

        And there are plenty of Muslims who oppose the ISIS types. I mean, they’re fighting an actual war with ISIS, you know?

        1. Get back to me when they win it.

        2. “They clearly hadn’t won in Turkey.”

          They started winning in Turkey when Erdo?an showed up.

          1. I read your original comment too quickly when I responded to it. It’s the no-depictions-of-the-prophet types who in the ’20s had won in Egypt but not Turkey. The head-choppers are a subset of that group, and they’ve won far less ground.

  2. http://gawker.com/how-much-did…..1678317390

    ^ Is Gawker the worst website on the internet?

    “How Much Did We Need This Blasphemy?”

    Apparently free speech should be predicated upon how much the collective decides they need the speech in question.

    They then proceed to call Ross Douthat a hypocrite. Why is he a hypocrite? Because he said the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were heroes for continuing to go after Islam after receiving death threats, but a few years ago he wrote an article about pop-culture where he said pop culture has become too vulgar. Apparently if you ever criticize someone’s speech, you can’t call someone a hero for engaging in free speech even when being threatened. I don’t know why, but Gawker has spoken.

    Gawker then goes on to preen about how Charlie Hebdo totally should be allowed to say whatever they want, but they were also totes racist and gross. They actually claim it’s racist to make fun of Mohammed, which is hilarious since I question if Gawker would ever say something similar if someone blasphemed Christ. Maybe they should consider their own hypocrisy before attacking other people.

    1. Shorter Gawker: “Shoot me last”

  3. Lots of folks being offended is nothing new. Using government as the first weapon of choice for retaliation against the offenders seems to be. At this point it would be nice to just bring dueling back so offenders and offendees could sort it out between themselves without taking us all down.

    1. Lots of folks being offended is nothing new. Using government as the first weapon of choice for retaliation against the offenders seems to be.

      It isn’t.

      1. Yeah that is pretty tried and true. Not using the gov. to enforce your personal views on others is a pretty revolutionary concept.

      2. Then we have those who skip the government step and take to cutting peoples’ heads off.

    2. Using government as the first weapon of choice for retaliation against the offenders seems to be.

      It isn’t. Your lack of historical knowledge while attaching your ignorant thought to the name of John Galt is blasphemous.

      1. Ouch.

  4. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link,
    go to tech tab for work detail ???????? http://www.jobsfish.com

  5. The Message (1976) managed to make a movie about Muhammad without ever showing him or having his voice heard.

    1. I’ve read about that. I’m curious to watch it, just to see such an experiment.

  6. “To allow an actor to portray Mohamed today means that tomorrow he will play Jesus and the day after that Moses. ..”

    Add Ram and Vishnu , et al , and that’s exactly the career of the opening central character in Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses .

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