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Film / Mohammad, Messenger of God

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There is no compulsion in religion. A man may take many years, or only need minutes. It is God who decides the time.

A 1976 epic historical/religion film directed by Moustapha Akkad, and starring Anthony Quinn, Mohammad, Messenger of God (U.S. title: The Message), chronicles the life and impact of Mohammad and his teachings that founded the Islamic religion, primarily told from the perspective of his uncle Hamza, (though other historical figures from early Islam also pop up from time to time). The film mainly focuses on Islam's early years, covering several significant events, and ending with a battle to reclaim the city of Mecca from corrupt leaders.

Though born from a personal desire of director Akkad to try and help bridge the cultural gap between Western and Islamic cultures, to say the film had a difficult time getting to the big screen is an understatement. Due to Hollywood's resistance in tackling the subject matter, and difficulty securing funding, Akkad eventually had to leave the United States in order to make it, and continued to encounter financing problems and religious objections to the film, initially shooting in Morocco (with the blessings of King Hassan II), only to be kicked out several months later when the King changed his mind. After shutting production down for two months, Akkad somehow managed to get funding and filming locations from none other then dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi (who even provided a few thousand soldiers from his army to act as extras).

Unfortunately, the film's release didn't mark the end of its problems; The Supreme Council of the World Mosque Conference in Mecca denounced the film, and the scholars from The Council of Islamic Research at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, who had helped research and approve the script, condemned the film as an insult to Islam. It was even rumored that the King of Saudi Arabia offered to pay Akkad several million dollars to stop filming; naturally, Akkad refused the offer. In short, nobody in the Islamic world seemed to approve the movie, and it was widely banned (though Turkey and Tunisia did show it for a short while).

But worst of all came on the eve of the film's US release, when a radical group, believing that the film was sacrilegious, took 149 hostages in a siege, killed a reporter and police officer, and demanded that all copies be destroyed (though they did have other demands that were not related to the film), eventually being persuaded by ambassadors from several Islamic countries to end the siege peacefully.

Despite its later reputation as a flop, Mohammad was successful upon its initial release. The film did particularly well in the UK, where it held the number one box office spot for several weeks. Critical reviews, however, were largely scathing, and the turmoil surrounding its production and release overshadowed its box office take. Akkad's attempted follow-up, the Libyan-set historical epic Lion of the Desert (also starring Anthony Quinn), was the opposite, bombing with audiences despite favorable reviews.

Despite its troubled production and release (and subsequent fall into obscurity), the film seems to be enjoying a slow rise in critical favor, with many noting that it tries to present a balanced, respectful view of Islam and Mohammad. A remake was talked about in 2008, but nothing has been heard about it since. Coupled with the current political climate regarding Islam and Moustapha Akkad's own tragic death in a terrorist attack in Jordan by Al-Qaeda's Iraqi branch (which again, were unrelated to the movie itself though he was working on a project about the historical Saladin) as he was the one most passionate to spearhead such production, it remains to be seen if it will ever be made.

This work provides examples of:

  • The Ghost: For very obvious reasons, Muhammad is never seen or heard in the film. The closest we ever get to seeing him is glimpses of his staff, sword, tent, and camel. Interestingly, at certain times the film actually has the camera present Mohammad's point of view (though he remains silent).
  • Leitmotif: Whenever Muhammad is present or very close by, his presence is indicated by light organ music.
  • One-Man Army:
    • Hazrat Hamza ibn Abdul Muttalib was this to the point he makes the heroes in the Bible look restrained. This was a man who considered hunting lions to be a form of relaxation for God's sake. Oh yes, and what does he do as soon as he comes back from a leisurely hunt and hears from his slave that the lords of Mecca, particularly Abu Jahal, have disrespected his nephew the Prophet? He rides to the Kaaba in broad daylight and cracks their skulls open with his bow, dare the guys to get up and hit him back, declare his conversion to Islam in a city full of murderous pagan bastards while doing the medieval Arabic equivalent of COME AT ME BRO. Not a single person in Mecca dared to get in his way. The best part? Abu Jahal himself was so scared shitless of this guy that he basically says, "I deserve this. I am sorry." Looking at a biography of this guy is basically like reading an Icelandic Saga.
    • He tops it later at the Battle of Badr where he two others are called by Utba, the greatest warrior the Meccans had on call at the time, to engage with their chieftains in a Trial By Champion. Hamza faced Utba in single combat and slaughtered him with a single blow. Curb-Stomp Battle indeed.
    • Another one of his moments from the same battle which sadly didn't make it to the movie. When Al-Aaswad ibn Abdalasad al-Makhzumi swore he would single-handedly carry the walls of Medina and be the first to drink from its well, Hamza became furious at this arrogance, personally sought him out and pretty much bisected him from the waist. The top half of his body fell towards the cistern and he started to crawl over to it to make good on his promise. Hazrat Hamza saw this, walked over to his body, and cut his head off.
    • The movie even had to downplay his badass feats! During the Battle of Uhud where he died he was charging at the centre of the Meccan army dual wielding giant swords and roaring at the terrified Meccans "I AM THE LION OF GOD!", killing EVERYONE in his path! Who gets him? An Abbyssinian hiding several metres away from the battlefield with javelin, and even when he throws it and gets a direct hit, he's still too scared to approach Hamza's body because he's afraid he'll just get up and cut his head off. He ends up waiting for days to make sure he's dead and— you know what? Let Haishi ibn Harb note  himself tell you how it went down.
    ""On the Day of Uhud I was pursuing Hamzah. He was attacking the centre of the army like a ferocious lion. He killed every one whom he could approach. I hid myself behind the trees and stones, so that he could not see me. He was too busy in fighting. I came out of ambush. Being an Ethiopian, I used to throw my weapon like them (i.e. like the Ethiopians) and it seldom missed the target. I, therefore, threw my javelin towards him from a specific distance after moving it in a particular manner. The weapon fell on his flank and came out from between his two legs. He wanted to attack me but severe pain prevented him from doing so. He remained in the same condition till his soul departed from his body. Then I approached him very carefully and having taken out my weapon from his body returned to the army of Quraysh and waited for my freedom.

    After the Battle of Uhud, I continued to live in Makkah for quite a long time until the Muslims conquered Makkah. I then ran away to Ta'if, but soon Islam reach that area as well. I heard that however grave the crime of a person might be, the Prophet forgave him. I, therefore, reached the Prophet with Shahadatayn on my lips (i.e., I testify that there is no god but Allah and I also testify that Muhammad is His Prophet). The Prophet saw me and said "Are you the same Wahshi, an Ethiopian?" I replied in the affirmative. Thereupon he said: "How did you kill Hamzah?" I gave an account of the matter. The Prophet was moved and said: "I should not see your face until you are alive, because the heart-rending calamity fell upon my uncle at your hands".

    So long as the Prophet was alive I kept myself hidden from him. After his death the battle with Musaylimah Kazzab took place. I joined the army of Islam and used the same weapon against Musaylimah and succeeded in killing him with the help of one of the Ansar. If I killed the best of men (i.e. Hamzah) with this weapon, the worst man, too, did not escape its horror".
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