Islam, Disney style
The first Islamic cartoon? But what's it all about, asks Amina Elbendary
It caused quite an uproar when it was in the early stages of production, which makes the non- existent reaction, on its Egyptian release, to Muhammad (Pbuh) The Last Prophet -- the first full-length Islamic animated feature film -- rather conspicuous. But given that it is the Holy Month after all, brave souls venturing to deserted movie theatres in the middle of a Ramadan week could well have thought the religious cartoon an appropriate choice. And it was not an altogether bad choice to judge from the enthusiastic post- film reactions of nine-year-old Zeina and 11- year-old Mohamed and their aunt, my equally enthusiastic friend.
The film begins several years after the Prophet's death when a Muslim family in Mecca find a poor, sick man on the streets begging for help. The parents, Malek and Arwa, decide to help him but their little girl Siham is anxious to get to the market to sell her sheep's wool. Malek starts explaining to his daughter the story of Islam and how the Prophet cared for the poor.
Pre-Islamic Mecca, where Malek lived as a young man, was full of cruelty and injustice. The weak, the poor and slaves were treated harshly by the rich and powerful magnates, the chiefs of the tribe of Quraysh, who made huge profits by controlling prices and taking advantage of pilgrims who came to pray to the idols at Mecca's shrine, the Ka'ba. Quraysh's leader, though, Abu Taleb, who was also Muhammad's uncle, is seen to be kindly and wise and tries to dissuade the other chiefs from their harsh behaviour, though his advice falls on deaf ears.
Each year Muhammad would go to meditate at a cave above Mecca and on one such occasion the angel Jibril (Gabriel) appeared to him teaching him the first revelations of the Qur'an. The filmmakers circumvented this potentially tricky scene by drawing circles of blinding light representing the whole spiritual experience. Soon after, the Prophet began secretly preaching his message of belief in the one and only God, Allah, and Islam developed into an underground movement that attracted the poor and the disempowered, including Malek and his elderly parents.
As Muhammad started preaching his message publicly Quraysh resented his verbal attacks on their idols and retaliated by persecuting weaker Muslims. Bilal, an Ethiopian slave, is tortured by his master, Umayya, until a Muslim, the Prophet's close friend and companion and later first Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq, intervened and bought the slave for an exaggerated sum. Persecution leads some Muslims to migrate to Abyssinia where a just Christian king ruled. And when Quraysh sent one of its men, Amr Ibn Al- Ass, to the king to bribe and induce him to withhold protection from the Muslims, he refused. In an attempt at preaching religious tolerance the king is depicted accepting the Qur'an's declarations on Eissa, son of Maryam, as consistent with the teachings of Christianity despite Amr's attempt to cause tension. He compares the two religions to two windows in his palace bringing in light from the same source.
Persecution reaches new levels with the introduction of a total boycott on the Muslim community -- Quraysh considered them all pariahs and refused to deal with them socially or economically, which meant no buying, no selling and no jobs. The terms of the boycott were written in a document and hung in the Ka'ba for three years and the Muslims were forced to live out on the hills on the outskirts of Mecca. As conditions worsened and Muslims were running out of savings, insects ate up the boycott document save for the first lines: "In Your name, O God" which was greeted as proof of the Prophet's prophecy. The boycott was lifted. In the meantime two of Muhammad's main supporters, his wife Khadija and his uncle Abu Taleb, die. Abu Taleb had ensured that Muhammad received clan protection and that his life was safe. After his death, Qurayshi leaders headed by Abu Sufyan and Abu Jahl plan Muhammad's assassination by a man from each clan so that his blood would be divided amongst the clans, making revenge difficult. God saves Muhammad from the conspiracy and eventually Muslims are allowed to migrate to the oasis of Yathrib. There Malek and his family participate in the building of the first mosque and Muslim children, boys and girls, are ordered to study and learn at the hands of an elderly woman.
Yathrib becomes Medina and the Muslims fight several battles against their Qurayshi opponents. After victory at the battle of the Ditch Muhammad's arch enemies start converting, men like Amr Ibn Al-As and Khaled Ibn Al-Walid join Islam. The Muslims enter Mecca unopposed and even the Qurayshi leader Abu Sufyan repents and converts. The Muslims return to their abandoned homes and clear the Ka'ba of idols.
The story then returns to the little girl Siham who, after having heard about the Prophet's achievement, is inspired to help the poor man; she offers him the wool of her sheep so that he can weave a carpet and sell it.
The producers, obviously in an attempt to project a positive image of a modernist Islam, appeared keen on presenting female figures positively throughout the narrative. There are women all over the film, taking part in many stages of the storyline save the battles, although even that could have provided opportunities for the heroics of such women as Umm Umara who defended Muhammad at the battle of Uhud. Khadija is mentioned with admiration for her continuos support of the Prophet till her death. One of the earliest martyrs, Sumayya, is depicted as she suffers extreme torture at the hands of Quraysh and refuses her son Ammar's pleas to give up.
The landscape of the Arabian peninsula does not provide for much visual stimulus yet the filmmakers attempted to make optimum use of mountains and desert. The migration to Abyssinia offers a chance to draw water and ships and Yathrib, being an oasis, is furnished with some greenery. Interestingly enough colour, in relation to dress, is restricted to the unbelievers of Quraysh with the Muslims depicted wearing shades of beige and grey. Indeed the scene in which Abu Sufyan announces that he is joining Islam is followed by another in which he puts on white robes to signify his conversion. That could be historically accurate and obviously neutral colours are more subdued and symbolise piety and asceticism. Yet dress colour remains the chief marker of characters in this film and they are easily confused. I had trouble remembering who was who, probably a function of how little developed the characters in the film are. The script might have benefited from more focus on the character of the narrator, Malek.
The musical soundtrack by William Kidd and the general atmosphere provide for a Disney-like feature. Yet unlike its Hollywood parallels the film does not have a title song. The score is international for the most part though with two notable exceptions: the traditional chant with which Muslims greeted the migrating Muhammad in Yathrib and the takbirat (now part of the Eid prayers) which soldiers chant during the battles. These are among the few elements of cultural specificity in a feature that remains close to Western models. Despite the Arabic dubbing this is an international feature. It is not an Arab film.
Muhammad is produced by a British company, Badr International, and Muwaffaq Al- Harithi. Badr International aims to become "the major provider of high quality Islamic animated stories, episodes, and series for distribution to Islamic countries and people worldwide". With this goal in mind the company aims to utilise "the successful formats of the American film industry, and its expertise in producing animated films. By combining cultural material from Islam with a Hollywood-style production, the company will produce entertaining and educating films unlike those available in the Islamic marketplace today."
The director, Richard Rich, worked for 14 years at Disney studios and is the director of such features as The Fox and the Hound. He is also the founder of RichCrest Animation Studios where Muhammad was made. Kidd is responsible for the soundtracks for such films as Star Trek VI , Christopher Columbus and Karate Kid III. The script was written by Brian Nissen and supervised by Firdosi Wharton-Ali and professor Khaled Abou El-Fadl of UCLA. Professors John Esposito and John Voll of Georgetown University were also consulted on the script. This makes Muhammad largely an American-British project.
The makers of Muhammad had to negotiate a great many restraints in making the film. Consistent rulings by Muslim 'ulama forbid the representation of Prophet Muhammad and some major figures in early Muslim history, particularly the Prophet's companions. This was at the heart of the controversies surrounding the film. The filmmakers got around that and in fact the first scenes in the credits announce the approval of both Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy and the Supreme Shi'ite Council of Lebanon. To circumvent the obstacles the Prophet never appears on screen and his voice is never heard -- a weird situation for a film that purports to be about the life of the Prophet. Some boards use the camera's point of view to indicate the Prophet's movements. Throughout, the Prophet's dialogue is related through the narrator of the film, Malek. One of the Prophet's uncles, Hamzah, who was an early convert and a martyr of the Battle of Uhud, is allowed a voice but only his bow is shown on screen. These constraints also meant that other major figures who could provide dramatic input to the story are left out as are many humane anecdotes from the Prophet's biography, incidents concerning his dealings with his family and with the poor which might have added to the dramatic content of this animated film and provided moral lessons for the youngsters who are its primary targets. The Prophet's birth, for example, a logical beginning for a biographical feature, is not mentioned. Neither is there much mention of his family life.
As it stands the film is not really about the life of Muhammad, its putative peg, but a history of the rise of Islam. As such the film -- there is also an English-speaking version -- comes at a sensitive time in which misconceptions about Islam are gaining ground in many corners of the globe. With its attempt at a politically correct reading of early Muslim history and its stress on humanistic values of piety, justice and charity -- essential parts of the story -- the film offers young audiences the world over a more humane encounter with Islam. That is, of course, provided that its producers can guarantee it the type of propaganda and distribution reserved for big-studio productions. Whether or not this turns out to be the case the film has undoubtedly opened unchartered territories and more Arab-Muslim inspired animated features are probably on their way. Badr is already working on three future films Before the Light: From Zamzam to the Year of the Elephant, Salman The Persian, and Great Women of Islam at the Time of the Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh). And Zeina and Mohamed, my two little friends, seem eager for more, though Mohamed confided after the film that the classical Arabic had been a bit difficult. He wants to see the English version too.