SHAFAQNA – The Tunisian Ministry of Culture banned Iranian film ‘Muhammad: The Messenger of God’, which focuses on the Prophet Muhammad’s childhood and adolescence, due to its “controversial content” and “personification and depiction of prophets”, which officials deem problematic for Tunisian society, reported news network Ansamed on 14 September 2016.
“The personification and depiction of prophets causes problems inside our society and touches on the foundations of our religion, which is why this film did not receive ministerial permission for the screening,” Mounira Ben Halima, director of the audiovisual arts section of the ministry, said.
Halima added that neither the cinema nor the film’s distributor notified the ministry of the screening.
The 2015 film, Iran’s most expensive film to date and its entry for best foreign language film at the 2016 Academy Awards, was scheduled to be screened on 21 September 2016 at a cinema in capitol Tunis with director Majid Majidi in the audience.
Majidi said of his film, which he also co-wrote, that he hoped it would change the violent image of Islam that many people around the world associate with the religion due to acts of terrorism committed by extremists. He further explained that the film never depicts Muhammad’s physical features, but only shows him in the form of a shadow and from his back.
Controversial film banned throughout Middle East
Besides being screened in Iran, Iraq is the only other Middle Eastern country to allow the screening of the film, as many groups have taken offence to the film’s personification of the prophet.
In 2015, Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest religious authority, Saudi religious authorities and the Muslim World League all condemned the film, urging nations to not screen it, reported Al Monitor on 21 September 2015.
In a statement, Al-Azhar said it “reiterates its rejection of the representation of prophets in works of dramas, due to their rank” and that “such representations undermine the prophets’ spiritual value”. The religious group went further by saying that such depictions are not simply limited to prophets’ faces, but to other representations, including their voices.
The Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz el Sheikh, said the film was “tarnishing and antagonising Islam” and urged that “it not be shown out of respect for Sharia Law”. Additionally, the Muslim World League called on Iranian authorities to ban their own film, deeming it “disrespectful of the Prophet”, and instructed Muslims worldwide to boycott it.
In September 2015, the Raza Academy, a Sunni-Muslim group in Mumbai, went one step further and issued a fatwa against Majidi and the film’s music composer, famed Indian musician A.R. Rahman.
According to Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, an institute responsible for Islamic legal research, it is a fatwa – a ruling in Islamic law – to “violate the sanctity of the Prophets and Messengers by personifying them in movies or any other artwork” and that “the production of any film of the Prophets is not sanctioned by Islam”.
Ban not the first of its kind
The ban on the Iranian film follows similar bans by Islamic religious institutions and censors in Arab and Muslim countries on other controversial films depicting prophets.
The 2014 Hollywood biblical epic ‘Noah’, starring Russell Crowe, was deemed “irreligious” by Al-Azhar and banned in Egypt and other countries, including Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, for “violating Islam by portraying a Prophet”.
In the same year, Ridley Scott’s epic ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’, based on the biblical book Exodus, was banned for its “historical inaccuracies” in Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Qatar and the UAE.