The Radical Piety of The Message

Islam is an iconoclastic religion. Idols and icons are considered blasphemous and any images of the prophets, the caliphs, and above all, God, are forbidden. Thus, Islam is not a religion that lends itself easily to film, an artform composed entirely of imagery. This being the case, there are no Islamic epic films, except one: Moustapha Akkad’s The Message.

The Message was released in Europe in 1976 and North America in 1977 in both English and Arabic versions. Akkad filmed these versions simultaneously, using the same script, locations, and camera setups for both films, but swapping between the English and Arabic cast each shot. Both versions are essentially identical, although the Arabic version is referred to by its Arabic name, Ar-Risalah. Both versions chart the birth of Islam from Mohammad’s reception of the Qur’an in a cave on Mount Hira to his fleeing to Medina to his eventual capture of Mecca and death. However, Mohammad is never seen or heard once on screen. It’s a historical epic where the main character is conspicuously absent. His absence is obviously deliberate.

Five minutes into the film, right after the opening title screen, two title cards explain the reason for this absence and outline the respectful intentions of the filmmakers. The first title card reads: “The scholars and historians of Islam - the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo, the High Islamic Congress of the Shiat in Lebanon - have approved the accuracy and fidelity of this film.” The next card reads: “The makers of this film honor the Islamic tradition which holds that the impersonation of the prophet offends against the spirituality of his message. Therefore, the person of Mohammad will not be shown.”

Because Mohammad, Ali, Abu Bakr, and other core figures are not depicted on-screen in order to honour Islamic tradition, the film focuses instead on Mohammad’s fiery uncle, Hamza (Anthony Quinn), his adoptive son, Zayd (Damien Thomas), his companion, Khalid (Michael Forrest), and the slave-turned-muezzin, Bilal (Johnny Sekka). Much of the film plays like a biblical epic, which Hollywood churned out in the hundreds during its Golden Age. It’s shot like one, primarily consisting of medium-wide shots to accommodate the large cast, as well as the requisite sweeping desert vistas and vast battle scenes featuring hundreds of extras. Its cast looks like one in the English version, with lily white actors speaking with theatrical British accents. The story even plays out familiarly, following the epic conventions of portraying its hero as an underdog who miraculously triumphs over adversity. The result is a film that feels familiar despite the fact that it’s dealing with subject matter never depicted on film.

The Message opens with three messengers riding out to the emperors of Byzantium and Persia, and the Patriarch of Alexandria, to call them to preach Islam to the world. After this brief look in media res, the film goes back to Mecca in 610 CE, when Muhammad is visited by the Archangel Gabriel and first receives the Qur’an. After coming back from Mount Hira,, Mohammad starts preaching that there is only one God and that people must cast away the idols of their false gods. This brings Mohammad and his small band of followers into direct conflict with the elders of Mecca, as the city profited from the pilgrimages made to the city to honor the hundreds of idols housed within the Kaaba, a sacred house in the city said to have been built by the biblical Abraham.

What follows in The Message is familiar to any Muslim or student of history. As staying in Mecca becomes too dangerous for the fledgling Islamic community (ummah), the Muslims flee to Medina and swell their numbers. There they construct the first mosque and begin taking up arms against the Meccans, raiding their caravans headed for Damascus. Soon enough, the ummah comes into open conflict with the Meccans, winning famously at the wells of Badr, but losing at the Battle of Uhud, where Hamza is killed. Eventually, after a brief peace with the Meccans, the ummah takes Mecca and rids the Kaaba of its idols, all without bloodshed. Islam triumphs and eventually converts the entire Arabian peninsula, but Mohammad dies soon after.

While the broader scenes of The Message depicting the foundational events of Islam are handsomely mounted and entertaining for any fan of epic cinema, it’s in the quieter moments that the film is most remarkable. Most striking is how Akkad often uses the camera to depict the literal point-of-view of Mohammad. While Mohammad is never shown on screen, he is often present in the scenes being depicted. Characters talk to him and people react to his unseen actions. Akkad often has character look down the lens of the camera when addressing him. The camera even moves in response, nodded or looking away from certain characters.

One scene late in the film has Meccan leaders arrive in Mohammad’s tent to offer terms. Mohammad’s companions are hesitant to accept their terms, but after the Meccans make a plea directly to the camera (to Mohammad), terms are accepted and peace is established. After the Meccans leave, Bilal turns to the camera (Mohammad) and smiles, enthused by what can be accomplished in the coming peacetime. By assuming Mohammad’s perspective, Akkad is able to intimately recreate scenes involving him without offending Islamic tradition.

An earlier scene in the film goes even further than this tent meeting in its radical subjectivity. After Mohammad flees Mecca for safety’s sake, he tries to hole in up a nearby village, but the village leaders instigate children to go throw stones at him and his companions to drive them away. As Mohammad flees the stones, the camera assumes his perspective, rushing away from the oncoming children who throw stones straight at the lens. As the camera retreats, the children pursue. As their rocks tumble at the camera, the viewer is forced to experience Mohammad’s persecution. It’s a stunning manner of creating audience sympathy, for as Mohammad is abused, so is the viewer.

As a whole, The Message seeks to make global audiences respect and sympathize with Islam, and it’s largely successful in this regard. It’s a respectful film, firmly Islamic but not evangelical in purpose. It’s goal is to tell the heroic story of Islam’s birth, not convert viewers. Moustapha Akkad was a devout Muslim and sought to be reverent of Islamic doctrine. In some respects, The Message is overly reverent, but not in the way you’d think. Instead of robbing it of a dramatically compelling hero, the film’s iconoclasm proves its most vital artistic decision. Instead, it’s the way the unseen Mohammad is talked about that mellows the film’s impact. Just as the depiction of Jesus in 1950s biblical epics was overly tame and jovial, the Mohammad of The Message (although unseen) is wiped of any blemish or controversy. The film ignores anything unsavoury about the religion it promotes, avoiding elements of the Qur’an regarding slavery and violence in order to focus on Mohammad’s broader humanistic proclamations about taking care of the sick, respecting women, and loving other Muslims. Still, this softening of Mohammad’s message is in keeping with the convention of historical epics, and does little to detract from the film’s impact.

The Message is about as good a film on the life of Mohammad as is likely possible. It’s well-made, appropriately epic and even artful in its use of camera subjectivity. It makes the story of Mohammad stirring for any viewer, regardless of religious inclination.

This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.