Mullah-Backed Movie Rebrands Islam & Muhammad

What's behind Iran's promotion of a fabricated history of the Prophet.

Some influential Iranian leaders, clerics and mullahs are attempting, as they put it, to alter Islam’s violent reputation and image. According to them, they are trying to show the true, nice, and genuine face of Islam. 

What steps are they taking to accomplish this?  They have produced a movie called “Muhammad.”  The movie is a completely reinvented narrative of the life of Muhammad. The film does not draw on many historical events, but in fact totally fabricates history in order to promote the Shiite Islamist agenda of the ruling clerics in the Islamic Republic.

This is considered to be Iran’s most expensive and lavish film in its cinema history. It was released in about 140 theaters throughout the country. It premiered at the Montreal Film Festival as well. "Muhammad," which is the second biggest-budget film about the prophet after Moustapha Akkad’s 1976 film “The Message,” cost roughly 40 million dollars to create and has the attention of many people. 

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has demonstrated his support of the film, and his institution, Bonyad Mostazafan, even financed the film. Iran’s Supreme Leader surprisingly attended the shooting of the film from the behind of the scenes. The film is said to be released in Arabic, Persian and English.

The film, sponsored by the Iranian government, has won the vote of the Iranian clerical establishment and is directed by the leading pro-government director Majid Majidi, who is favored by the Supreme Leader. Majidi invested well over 7 years to create the film and succeeded in keeping it a secret from the prying eyes of news outlets and journalists. The majority of the scenes were shot within 100 acres of the city of Qom, near Tehran. There the film crew constructed a structure that resembled sixth-century Mecca and Medina. 

Some scenes were also filmed at Bela-Bela in the Limpopo Province of South Africa after India declined to give filming authorization to Iranian authorities. The storyline depicts the childhood of the Prophet Muhammad during his teen years when he makes a trip to Sham (Syria) and meets Bahira, a Christian monk. This film is part of a larger trilogy about the prophet’s life.

The accusations of fabrications throughout the movie have created many controversies regarding how the story was told and how it was produced. These accusations run so high that even prominent members of the Sunni branch of Islam criticized the film. 

For example, when the news about the Iranian film broke, Al-Azhar, one of the Muslim world’s leading Sunni religious institutions, said in a statement: “We demand that Iran refrain from releasing the movie, so that an undistorted image of the prophet can be preserved in the minds of Muslims. We call upon all film-makers to respect religions and prophets.”

But director Majid Majidi, who seeks to gain the favor of the Ayatollah and supports the Islamic Republic, insists that the film gives a correct impression of Muhammad’s life and it improves Islam’s “violent image.” 

But is improving Islam's “violent image” by fabricating stories and creating an unsubstantiated narrative the way to go forward? The director of this movie was selected mainly due to his loyalty to the ruling clerics in Iran. He was not chosen based on talent or his ability to create a valid, honest depiction of Muhammad's life. Some film critics have raised questions about Mr. Majidi’s abilities to direct and produce such an expensive and large project that will have a global impact on the view of Muslims. An Iranian critic pointed out that “Majidi was selected to direct the film not necessarily due to his skills but because of his work as a filmmaker during the period of the Islamic revolution and because he is favored by the Supreme Leader. Majidi has created important low-budget movies such as 'Baran' and 'Children of Heaven,' but I am not sure if he is at a level to direct expensive, large budget movies such as Muhammad.” 

Instead of spending the vast amount of money invested in this purely fictional movie to create jobs or help the impoverished of Iran, the ruling mullah are lavishing money on a government-approved movie in order to spread their ideological and Islamist agenda. 

It amounts to little more than propaganda. On the one hand, the Islamic Republic is behind acts of major terrorism in the region by supporting, funding, arming and birthing terrorist Islamist groups. On the other hand, ironically, the Islamic Republic is attempting to parade around a cordial Shia image of Islam and Muhammad for worldwide viewers to see, in particular Europe and the West. Will such invented narratives and fabrications of historical evidence change the view of the rest of the world on the real truth about Islam and Muhammad? Not likely.