In the past century, the life stories of Moses, the Buddha and even Mormon founder Joseph Smith have been told in film. Jesus Christ is such a prolific thespian that there are top-10 lists of his movies.
But a prophet of one of the world’s largest religions, a man with a fascinating life story and 1.5 billion adoring followers, has never had his star turn.
“Innocence of Muslims,” the film that fueled violence and anti-American sentiment around the world, is notorious for bad acting, leaden dialogue and ham-handed production values overseen by a two-time felon from Cerritos. But in the annals of cinematic history, it marked an exceptionally rare portrayal of Muhammad by an actor on film.
Overshadowed in the debate over the film and its controversial producers is an ancient prohibition on the depiction of the prophet Muhammad, one that has been sacrosanct for centuries but now is likely to be increasingly challenged.
Undaunted by the outcry over a YouTube trailer for “Innocence of Muslims,” two ex-Muslim filmmakers are trying to develop separate feature-length biopics that would offer critical takes on Muhammad’s life. Experts predict that those projects will trigger further anger and violence, as has accompanied nearly every attempt to portray the prophet in any media in recent decades. But some believe that the faith will inevitably embrace showing Muhammad on film as the best and most effective way to get his message to the masses.
“Multimedia is the language of the day,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It might be another 100 years, another 50 years. At this point, I would rather we do not do it in a way that shocks people.”
Although depicting Muhammad is not specifically prohibited by the Koran, Islamic law bars the practice.
The prohibition, scholars say, is an extension of the idea that the faithful should worship only God and not an idol. That ban even covers the prophet’s grave in Medina, Saudi Arabia, where pilgrims are not allowed to kiss the ground at the site.
Under that paradigm, an actor playing the role of Muhammad — even in the most flattering of lights — would be unacceptable to most Muslims, experts said. “The Message,” an Arab-financed 1977 film about Muhammad’s life, worked around this prohibition by stationing his character off camera or behind the lens, and was preceded by a disclaimer explaining that the prophet would not appear.
Experts on film history and Islam said “Innocence of Muslims” marked the first time they could recall of an actor’s actually playing Muhammad, though it was impossible to verify if it had ever happened before.
Born in Mecca, Muhammad received his first revelation at about age 40, and in just two decades unified the Arabian peninsula behind his new religion before he died in Medina.
Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian who moved to Los Angeles several years ago, said he sees a compelling narrative film in that story and has already cast a “prominent Hollywood actor” in the title role of his film “Muhammad,” which has a proposed budget of $30 million.
The film will tell the story of the prophet from age 12 to his death, and will have the look and feel of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” Yousef said. “My goal is to create this big mirror to show the Muslim world the true image of its leader,” Yousef said.
While Gibson used the film to glorify his subject, Yousef’s project is likely to have a different take.
His book, “Son of Hamas,” tells the tale of his progression from terrorist to Israeli spy to born-again Christian. And though he says he is not anti-Muslim — and notes that his mother still practices the religion — he acknowledges that his religious awakening was sparked by the preaching of Father Zakaria Botros Henein, a radical Egyptian Christian who has for years critiqued Muhammad as a pedophile and buffoon.
Botros is closely associated with several of the individuals behind “Innocence of Muslims,” and the filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is a devout follower.
A second film in preproduction is the work of Ali Sina, an atheist raised Muslim in Iran. A prominent critic of Islam, he maintains websites that promote what he calls “the truth” about the religion.
To date he says he has raised $2 million from Southern California investors for the film, which does not yet have a title but will portray the prophet as a cult leader in the vein of David Koresh or Jim Jones. He hopes to raise a total of $10 million, he said, and begin filming next year.
Now a resident of Canada, Sina began contemplating a biopic about Muhammad a decade ago, but stepped up his effort in the last two years as technological advances made it feasible to circumvent government censors and wary exhibitors.
“We can bypass theaters completely and sell the movie online with a profit to a large number of people, especially Muslims,” Sina said. “They can download it and watch it even if they are living in Karachi or Mecca or Medina.”
Among anti-Muslim activists, these two projects are fairly well known and the two filmmakers at one time discussed collaborating. But Muslim scholars and activists said they were not aware of either movie and dubious about their prospects of shaking the faith of believers.
“That strategy has been tried and hasn’t worked,” said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, noting centuries of Christian missionizing in the Muslim world. “It’s certainly not going to persuade people who believe in Muhammad as a religious figure because these issues have to do with something that transcends reason or rationality. It has to do with questions of faith and salvation.”
Reactions to the films, if they are ever finished, are likely to be severe.
“This is crossing a line,” said Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United Kingdom and now professor of Islamic studies at American University. “If there is an actor physically portraying Muhammad, there will be a violent reaction.”
He said that would likely be true even if a devout Muslim made a movie about the prophet, because most people in the religion are just not ready to see Muhammad on screen. But it’s doubly the case for works that aim to provide unflattering views of the religion.
After a Danish newspaper published cartoons ridiculing Muhammad in 2005, three Muslims hatched an ultimately foiled plot to murder the artist.
In 2006, Comedy Central refused to air an episode of “South Park” because it depicted Muhammad, and four years later New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art acknowledged that it had removed all paintings and sculptures with images of the prophet — some centuries old — from public display for fear of inciting protest.
Both filmmakers are closely guarding details of their productions due to security concerns. They decry “Innocence of Muslims” as historically inaccurate, offensive and of poor quality.
In the wake of its release, Yousef has been scrambling to meet with his investors — whom he describes as a mix of Egyptians and Americans — and ensure that they’re still on board.
Sina, for his part, said he had been exploring ways to hide the identities of the producers and actors in his movie and said he would not reveal the planned location for the movie shoot. He described his investors as a handful of Persian atheists who live in Los Angeles.
“I’ve become more secretive,” said Sina, who insists that his goal is not to incite Muslims but to persuade them.
Some Muslim activists said anti-Islam depictions of Muhammad might lead, ironically, to an eventual relaxation of the prohibition. However offensive, “Innocence of Muslims” showed the long reach and emotional punch of videos in the Internet age and suggested a highly effective way for religious leaders to conquer barriers of language, literacy and youth apathy.
“There’s a whole industry that is intent on defaming and misrepresenting the prophet and his teachings. It becomes difficult to counter that campaign with books, stories and sayings,” said CAIR’s Ayloush.
“To compete and remain relevant, eventually some of these religious opinions will have to be revisited,” he said. “I think it’s going to happen.”