Words Of Wisdom From Young Adult Authors: Jason Reynolds

Aug 7, 2016
Originally published on August 7, 2016 8:14 am
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Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad have led to violence, most recently last year when Islamic radicals killed 12 people in attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. So imagine trying to make a movie on the life of Muhammad. Yet, it was done. "Muhammad: Messenger Of God" was released 40 years ago in both English and Arabic versions. It was condemned at the time, but is now considered a classic. And the filmmaker's son is restoring it for a new release. Reporter R. H. Greene tells us the story of how it got made.

R H GREENE, BYLINE: In 1962, Moustapha Akkad saw "Lawrence Of Arabia." He was riveted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOUSTAPHA AKKAD: To me, the scene that I admire most of my life is David Lean's scene when Omar Sharif was introduced.

GREENE: Omar Sharif emerged from swirling sands like a wraith on horseback, an Arab-screen hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOUSTAPHA AKKAD: I was so moved by that scene, and I tried to really kind of do similar.

GREENE: Akkad was a Syrian-born, Hollywood-based filmmaker. He began a quest to create a truly Arab-screen epic. "Muhammad: Messenger Of God," a spectacle about the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the birth of Islam. In a 1976 interview, Akkad explained his motive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOUSTAPHA AKKAD: Being a Muslim myself who lived in the West, I felt that it's my obligation, my duty to tell the truth about Islam.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUHAMMAD: THE MESSENGER OF GOD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Arabic).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOUSTAPHA AKKAD: I thought I should tell the story that will bring this bridge.

GREENE: With money raised from Middle Eastern sources, Akkad set to work on a Quranic film on the scale of Bible spectacles like "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur." Filming began in late 1974 to make "Muhammad: Messenger Of God" accessible to both the Islamic world and the West. The movie was shot simultaneously in two versions. The Arabic version featured some of the biggest stars of Muslim cinema.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUHAMMAD: THE MESSENGER OF GOD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Arabic).

GREENE: The English version starred Irene Papas and Anthony Quinn.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MESSAGE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Muhammad is a fraud.

ANTHONY QUINN: (As Hamza) I am for my nephew's religion, and I say what he says.

GREENE: In accordance with Muslim custom, Muhammad was not shown. Actors spoke to the camera directly as if to a vision of revelation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MESSAGE")

QUINN: (As Hamza) Muhammad, when I hunt the desert at night, I know God is not kept in the house.

GREENE: Akkad's close friend, Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl.

KHALED ABOU EL FADL: To figure out a way to have the prophet to come in person without even showing him - it was brilliant. It's genius. He wanted people to feel the prophet as a human being, but respect the fact that most Muslims don't want the prophet to be personified by an actor or another.

GREENE: London-based actor Garrick Hagon played Ammar, a revered figure in the Islamic faith.

GARRICK HAGON: At that time, we didn't know much about Islam. Muhammad was a name, and that was about all. So it was all pretty much of a revelation.

GREENE: Moustapha Akkad's vision is of Islam as a great world religion in harmony with other spiritual traditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MESSAGE")

NEVILLE JASON: (As Jaafar) God has spoken to us before through Abraham, Noah, Moses and through Jesus Christ.

GREENE: In a key scene, Muhammad's followers are interrogated by the Christian king of Abyssinia and must justify their beliefs under pain of death.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MESSAGE")

JASON: (As Jaafar) Muhammad teaches us to worship one God, to speak truth, to love our neighbors as ourselves.

GREENE: Moustapha Akkad's son, Malek Akkad.

MALEK AKKAD: That was definitely the scene that he would point to most often as his favorite scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MESSAGE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As King Negus) What Christ says and what your Muhammad says is like two rays from the same lamp.

MALEK AKKAD: What he was trying to achieve in that film is that we're really not far apart in these beliefs.

GREENE: But Akkad knew he faced critics. The script was vetted by Cairo's Council for Islamic Research. The word Muhammad was eventually removed from the title, but the Saudi government turned against "The Message," as "Muhammad: Messenger Of God" came to be called. Saudi political pressure cost Akkad his expensive Moroccan sets and locations. He resumed filming with the controversial support of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

MALEK AKKAD: My father was of one mind that he was going to finish this film. And so where he could get assistance from, he did.

GREENE: The controversy mounted. The Cairo scholars who had approved the shooting script withdrew their support, calling the completed film an insult to Islam. More backlash followed. Khaled Abou El Fadl.

ABOU EL FADL: He was confounded by the controversy that exploded right about the movie. It was banned all over - banned in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, banned in Egypt.

GREENE: In America, things turned tragic. Members of the Hanafi movement, a militant black nationalist Muslim group stormed several buildings in Washington, D.C., taking a hundred hostages and killing two. Their demands included banning the message on grounds it was sacrilegious.

ABOU EL FADL: I'm sure they have not seen the film. As Moustapha described it, it's a sign of the tragedy of our cultural weakness.

GREENE: Tragedy found Akkad again in 2005. Akkad and his daughter Rima were injured at a wedding in Jordan during a wave of al-Qaida bombings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The suicide bombers who killed dozens in Jordan this week also injured Moustapha Akkad, and today he died of his wounds. The attacks also killed Akkad's American-born daughter.

GREENE: A surviving bomber had no idea who Moustapha Akkad was.

ABOU EL FADL: It's as if some demonic power was mocking all our dreams because Moustapha represented a hope.

GREENE: In the West, Akkad isn't remembered for "The Message." He's known as the executive producer of the "Halloween" slasher films, a mantle his son Malek has now assumed. But 40 years on, "The Message" is now a touchstone in the Arab world, where it has circulated widely in pirate editions.

ABOU EL FADL: I think Moustapha is going to enter the history books as a hero and a pioneer. If we could fast forward a hundred years from now, we would be amazed.

GREENE: "The Message" is currently being restored by Moustapha Akkad's son for a high definition re-release. For NPR, I'm R. H. Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.