A film on the life of Prophet Mohammad, Iran’s most expensive in its cinematic history, was set to be released in about 140 theaters nationwide last week, before being postponed and scheduled to premiere at the Montreal Film Festival on Thursday.
Following the release, however, some Sunni Muslim clerics in the Arab world are demanding that Tehran ban it. The brief postponing of the biopic - which cost around $40 million to make - was explained by Iranian authorities as being due to “technical issues.” But this was not the first time it was postponed.
It was previously pulled out of the Fajr International Film Festival last January, which coincided with the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, also due to “technical” difficulties. Another Iranian premiere called, “Hussein, Who Said No,” was also previously also postponed for “technical reasons.”
The lingering question in the mind of many is whether Iran’s postponement of these particularly expensive films which pack a powerful religious message, is solely due to “technical issues”, or whether there were other reasons behind the delay. And now, following the release of “Mohammad,” what kind of backlash can be expected?
Iran’s religio-political scene
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has publicly demonstrated his support for the film. The religious and political philosophy of Iran’s Supreme Leader suggests the “Rahbar (leader)” or “Imam” of Iran is not only the leader of the Shiite community but the leader of the Ummah - the Islamic world.
Since Iran views itself as forerunner of Islam and the leader of the Ummah - the Islamic world - any religious opposition is seen by Tehran as an undermining of its legitimacy. The release of the movie on the scheduled, eagerly-awaited date had raised concerns with Iranian leaders. It could have stirred up a major protest and unrest in the region from prominent religious figures and schools. This could damage Iran’s religious and political legitimacy and undermine its projection of leading a united Ummah in the Middle East and beyond.
Depiction of the Prophet
The central reason behind the risk of a potential uprising has been the depiction of Prophet Mohammad has one who often incited protests, unrest and anger in the Muslim world. In addition, sneak peeks of the Iranian film had already showed signs of inspiring protests and opposition from powerful religious figures and well-known institutions in the Islamic world.
For example, this week, Al Azhar, one of the Muslim world’s leading Sunni institutions, reiterated its opposition to the film due to the film’s depiction of Prophet Mohammad. In Islam, the depiction and portrayal of the Prophet Mohammad is considered taboo for many.
"This matter is already settled. Sharia (Islamic law) prohibits embodying the prophets," said Professor Abdel Fattah Alawari, dean of the Islamic theology faculty at Al-Azhar.
"It is not permissible in Islam that someone (an actor) has contradictory and conflicting roles; sometimes we see him as a blind drunk, sometimes as a womanizer ... and then he embodies a prophet ... this is not permissible."
To eliminate the concerns of the prominent religious leaders, Iranian authorities previously visited Al Azhar to discuss the film. The postponement of the film twice could have been another effort to ease concerns, and console any influential Sunni religious leaders to prevent widespread protests and subsequently the religious de-legitimization of the Islamic Republic.
Although in Sunni belief, the depiction of prophets in any way is prohibited due to their divine message, Shiite schools of thought are much more flexible about the depiction of holy figures, with the imitation of their voice or physical appearance. For example, Ayatollah Khomeini was believed to have kept pictures that look similar to the early ages of the Prophet Mohammad. The images of Mohammad's son-in-law Ali can be seen in Iran on posters, keychains, and jewelry.
The film has also projected concerns about the neutrality of its message. Although its Oscar-nominated director Majid Majidi and Iranian authorities made the argument that the film originates from both Sunni and Shiite perspectives, the narrative of the film raised concerns in the Islamic world regarding its neutrality. It was later revealed that Majidi consulted with mainly Shiite religious leaders including Ayatollah Sistani, Amoli, Khoarasani, and Khamenei. The question is whether the film promotes one particular narrative of Islam, Shiism.
“I decided to make this film to fight against the new wave of Islamophobia in the West. The Western interpretation of Islam is full of violence and terrorism," Majidi was quoted as saying by Hezbollah Line, a conservative Iranian magazine, according to Reuters news agency.
Iranian leaders attempt to create an image that they are not promoting Shiism over Sunni ideology, that they are not spreading religious sectarian agenda, and that they are not competing with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries over religious issues.
But it is also feared the premiere of the film could now prompt geopolitical repercussions for Iran. At present Iran openly plays military, advisory, intelligence, and financial roles in several Arab countries including Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
The powerful film has raised further questions about the spread of a religious agenda and promotion of a Shiite philosophy over a Sunni one. Khamenei himself had visited the movie set during its filming, in a strong sign of support for the production.
Ultimately, the upshots of the film may be seen in the coming days. It has been released in 143 cinemas in Iran on the same day as it opened at the Montreal Film Festival.