In the Spirit of the Gracious and Compassionate
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth
Observations and Comments on The Message
The Message: The Story of Islam
This film, available on DVD, was directed by Moustapha Akkad. It chronicles “the life and times of Muhammad. Released in Arabic (1976) and English (1977), The Message serves as an introduction to early Islamic history.”
“The film was nominated for Best Original Score in the 50th Academy Awards, composed by Maurice Jarre, but lost the award to Star Wars (composed by John Williams).”
(Quotes from Wikipedia.)
In 1977, as the film was scheduled to premiere in the United States, a splinter group of the black nationalistNation of Islam calling itself the Hanafi Movement staged a siege of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the B’nai B’rith. Under the mistaken belief that Anthony Quinn played Muhammad in the film, the group threatened to blow up the building and its inhabitants unless the film’s opening was cancelled. The standoff was resolved after the deaths of a journalist and a policeman, but “the film’s American box office prospects never recovered from the unfortunate controversy.” (Wikipedia)
The Message is an enjoyable Hollywood blockbuster. I find that non-Muslims not only enjoy the film but are enlightened by it.
On the other hand, I have so many objections to the film that I find it difficult to watch:
- The depiction of Arabs 14 centuries ago as light-skinned people. As a result of over a thousand years of Europeans being traded into North Africa, the Middle East, and Arabia itself, the populations of those regions have come to resemble Europeans. Unlike slaveholders in the United States, Arab men often married their female slaves and treated the children as their own legitimate descendants and heirs. Prior to 14 centuries ago, the Middle East and Arabia were populated by brown-skinned, curly-haired people, and the population of North Africa was overwhelmingly black, with woolly hair. Hannibal, for example, was a dark-skinned woolly-haired African. Over 1.5 million Europeans were sold into slavery in North Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries alone — at a time when Europe was increasingly powerful. During that same period, thousands of white Americans were captured at sea and sold into slavery in Morocco. Their descendants are still there, part of the general population of Morocco. The Message depicts the Arabs of 14 centuries ago as if they had the same appearance as they do today — more so in the earlier parts of the movie than later on.
- The failure to depict light-skinned Arabs as slaves. In Arab society, free people could not be abused, let alone tortured and killed, because their extended families would protect or avenge them. The weight of persecution fell on the poor, the orphans, and the slaves, who came in all colors and ethnicities (including European and Persian).
- The constant depiction of blacks as slaves. With the exception of one scene early in the film, blacks are depicted naked from the waist up, as servile slaves. In the one early scene, some black people are depicted (to judge from how they are dressed, and by their manner) as Arabs who are wealthy, powerful, and haughty. This is historically accurate — to this day. But this is just one scene.
- Making Muhammad seem otherworldly. Of course, Muhammad should not be depicted. But the way in which this is done — especially how the scenes in which his presence is indicated by eerie music — makes Muhammad seem mysterious, rather than the ordinary person he was. Anyone who did not know him and was looking for him, upon seeing him with his companions, would need to ask, “Which of you is Muhammad?” He did not want people making images of him in order to avoid deification the way Jesus Christ and his images became deified. Even I, with no experience writing a screenplay, can imagine how this story can be told without making Muhammad seem like an invisible “presence”.
- Missing the message. The Message is told from a point of view governed by the history of the Muslim community, which deviated from the mission of Muhammad and the message of the Qur’an 29 years after the passing of Muhammad. Muhammad was a messenger — first to the society of his time and place, which badly needed to change; and then to the entire world, which needed and still needs to change. Muhammad did not establish a religion. He was and still is the messenger to an entire world (especially including Saudi Arabia) that needs to heed the message and change.
There are other serious issues, but I will stop here, for now.
Muslim or not, I recommend that you watch The Message. It is well-made, packed with famous movie stars, accompanied by a sumptuous movie score, and exciting. A true Hollywood blockbuster.