FILM REVIEW:  Muhammad: The Last Prophet (2004)

Pamela K. Taylor

Posted Dec 3, 2004      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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FILM REVIEW:  Muhammad: The Last Prophet (2004)

by Pamela K. Taylor

Written by Brian Nissen
Music by William Kidd
Directed by Richard Rich

The atmosphere in the lobby of the Museum of Science and Industry was charged with excitement and anticipation. Some 125 members of the Chicago Muslim community had gathered for a premiere performance of Muhammad, an animated film about the life of the Prophet that will be released to the general market in select cities this weekend. Children and adults alike were eager to see how the makers of the film, Badr International, and director Richard Rich, who directed animated classis such as The King and I, and The Fox and the Hound, handled a topic so near and dear to the community�s heart. The after hours showing, with a private viewing of MSI�s new exhibit on filmmaking, Arab hors de oeuvres and trays of fruit, and a special appearance by the film�s producer, Muwaffaq al-Harithy, contributed to the festive feel of the evening.

90 minutes later, the excitement had, if anything, grown stronger. The children were absolutely thrilled. The adults� reactions were more reserved: a few were unabashedly enthusiastic; most expressed admiration and appreciation of the film with some reservations.

�It�s a great movie,� said one attendee, �but I wish they had shown more about life in Medina � the society that was established there, how Muhammad brought people together and the values that they lived by � justice, and peace, and brotherhood.�

This reviewer has to agree. The film is appealing, but it missed an opportunity to showcase many of the positive aspects of Muslim society. While the film briefly touches on Islam�s encouragement of compassion, generosity, moderation and humility, and its rejection of corruption, racism, greed, arrogance, and indifference to the suffering of others, the emphasis is primarily on the historical events of the conflict between the powerful Meccan clans and the growing Muslim community led by Muhammad.

The movie opens with a Muslim family headed to market. They encounter an old man, starving, destitute and a stranger to their town, who they take in. He is bewildered by their charity and while he is recovering, the father, Malek, a fictional companion of the Prophet, explains how kindness is mandated in their religion and narrates the story of Prophet Muhammad. The first half of the tale is dominated by the Meccan tribal leader�s discussion of the threat Muhammad poses to their society, the martyrdom of Safiya and her husband, the torture of Bilal, the exodus to Abyssinia, and the banishment of the Muslims to the outskirts of Mecca, culminating in the incident at Taif, where Prophet Muhammad was turned away and stoned by the children of the town. There are scenes of the first revelation, numerous conversions are shown, each instance with the repeated mantra of �I bear witness that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger,� and references are made to some of the values Muhammad taught, but the overall impression is of the great opposition to his mission.

The second half of the movie continues with the move to Mecca, the plot to assassinate Muhammad, his miraculous escape in the cave, and the building of the Prophet�s mosque. From there, the story focuses almost exclusively on the battles between the Meccans and the newly founded community in Madinah, culminating in the return to Mecca. The film ends with the old man becoming fast friends with Malek’s family, especially his winsome young daughter, Siham. Unfortunately, because the latter half of the film focuses so heavily on battles and warfare, and because there are graphic portrayals of the pain of death, with men grimacing, groaning and falling, the lasting impression is of violence and conflict, and the Muslim�s deep dedication to Islam despite the suffering they must endure, rather the positive teachings of Islam, the love of Prophet Muhammad that inspired that dedication, or a feeling of the just and harmonious society that was built n Madinah.

One suspects that Anthony Quinn�s film, The Message, had a heavy influence in the writing of the script of Muhammad: The Last Prophet. Many of the scenes seem almost duplicated from the earlier film and both movies show the same events � and have the same holes. Like The Message, Muhammad refrains from depicting the Prophet, as well as most of his close companions, his family and his wives. Abu Talib, Bilal, Salman the Farsi, and Zaid are shown, and one has to wonder where and how the line was drawn.

Some of the other things that irritated this viewer � a Hollywoodesque portrayal of the good guys and the bad guys � almost all the Muslims were shown wearing white, the non-Muslims wore colors; the good guys tended to be clean shaven with beautiful teeth, the bad guys bearded, often with physical defects � no mention whatsoever was made of Aisha or any of the other wives, Nusaiba was left out of Uhud; salaat was only barely touched upon, fasting, zakat and Hajj are missing completely; many of my favorite stories were left out � like stories of the Prophet kissing his grandchildren and teasing old women, of his mildness in judging and his rejection of favoritism, his fondness for his wife, laying his head in her lap, and his helpfulness at home, darning his own socks, his devotion to prayer and his beautiful dua, the mistakes he made � in farming and etiquette. I missed these stories which give a human, humane face to the Prophet.

Quite a few of the attendees expressed concern about the level of violence, especially the graphic depiction of physical suffering during the martyrdoms, torture and battle scenes. Oussama Jammal, CEO of the Fine Media group, said that the film is not intended for children under the age of 9, but knowing the Muslim community, it seems inevitable to me that it will be shown to even very young children in Muslim households. My ten-year-old daughters, who accompanied me, were not disturbed by the depictions, but they thought that their five-year-old sister might find the movie too scary.

I do want to say, that despite the film�s shortcomings, I believe that the Muslim community, especially Muslim children, will benefit from it, that non-Muslims will learn from it, and that it is a significant and worthwhile effort. The children in the audience were clearly energized by a movie that depicted their community and their Prophet in a positive light. My daughters identified strongly with the characters, and displayed obvious pride not only in the story, but in themselves as Muslims. As a mother, even if I wished the movie had done certain things differently, my children�s reaction overwhelms all the negatives I might feel. Given that, I hope that the Muslim community supports it, and I encourage people to make it part of their Eid celebration, despite the steep admission price. Perhaps it if is enough of a financial success, other movies will be made which do more of what I wish this movie did.

I do think the movie will be a useful teaching tool. While the conflict overshadows the teachings of Islam and the establishment of a just and peaceful society, it would be easy to use the movie to highlight and discuss Islamic values and some of the central teachings. Clearly movies, and animation, appeal highly to children, and that makes the movie all the more valuable in the classroom.

Also, to be fair, I should mention that the production values are excellent. The animation is superb, clearly the work of professional, skilled artisans; the characters are appealing, the backgrounds complex, the colors vibrant. And while I might wish for a greater emphasis on the beauty of Islam, the portrayal of Muslims is a far cry the usual Hollywood stereotypes of Arabs; Aladdin this is not. There is no casual acceptance of corruption and greed, no leering at sensuous, dancing women in see through veils, no dirt or vulgarity, and, thank god, no phony Arab accents. Furthermore, the film was obviously well-researched. The producers consulted with a variety of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, and got seals of approval from both Sunni and Shi�i scholars, a move that is refreshingly inclusive.

Finally, I have to admit I�m not sure how non-Muslim audiences will receive the film. The director might have been well-advised to take a cue from the makers of The Prince of Egypt and the King of Dreams � I suspect a movie titled Amir of Arabia would have attracted a larger audience than Muhammad: The Last Prophet. And I wonder whether the repetition of the shahadah (I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Messenger) over and over again as people join the ranks of Muslims will be perceived as an accurate depiction of historical fact or as a form of proselytizing. I wonder how much of the history they will not pick up on. For instance, one scene shows Salman the Farsi suggesting that the Madinans dig a trench to protect their city from assault by the Meccans. Salman is not identified, nor is the rejection of tribalism implicit in the acceptance of his advice mentioned. I worry that the level of conflict could reinforce stereotypes about the supposedly violent nature of Arabs.

On the other hand, the movie presents a wealth of information that is not generally known in non-Muslim society. Similar films, such as The Prince of Egypt, and Disney classics like Peter Pan or Mulan, are rife with violence; Muhammad may seem tame in comparison. There are clear attempts to point out the similarities between Islam and Biblical religions and to make the story appeal to a Western audience � there are several references to Biblical prophets, the Christian king of Abbysinia is portrayed positively, and the Muslim characters are presented such that non-Muslims can identify with them.

Theater chains in the US and Canada, according to the Fine Media group�s press materials, have also questioned whether there is a general audience for the film. Fine Media had to rent theaters and sell tickets on its website for the opening week, November 14-18, which was timed to coincide with Eid ul Fitr. Still, according to the listing on their site, the movie will be showing in 100 theaters in some 40 cities across North America. Some shows � in Toronto, Chicago, Houston, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Fairfax, VA, Portland OR, Bellevue WA, and other cities � are already sold out, despite a rather steep ticket price of $15 a seat, adult or child, or a group rate of 50 tickets at $10 each. If attendance is strong, Fine Media group plans a wider release, according to Jammal, who hopes Muhammad will be like Fahrenheit 911 or The Passion of Christ both of which had limited openings, but then were picked up by major theater chains due to audience demand.

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