Iran’s ‘Muhammad’ Sparks Ire in Sunni Muslim World But Scores at Box Office

Origin tale of the prophet Muhammad likely to be Iran's candidate for foreign Oscar consideration

Muhammad The Messenger of God
Courtesy of Noor-eTaban Film Co.

Iranian director Majid Majidi’s “Muhammad: The Messenger of God,” the lavish epic lensed by multiple Oscar-winner Vittorio Storaro about the birth and rise of Islam, that recently prompted a fatwa from a Muslim group in India – angered about its alleged depiction of God – is reportedly doing strong box office on wide release in roughly half of Iran’s cinemas.

The partly government-financed “Muhammad,” which cost some $40 million and is considered the Islamic Republic’s most expensive film, is playing on more than 140 of Iran’s 320 screens and in many cultural centres in remote cities across the country after opening the Montreal Film Festival on August 27.

Box office receipts for “Muhammad” have hit 30 billion Iranian Rials, roughly $1 million, in two weeks, according to the government-controlled Tehran Times. If that figure is accurate, it’s a nice haul.

The incendiary issue that Muslims are not allowed to depict God in images certainly caused concern in Iran during the seven year gestation of the religious blockbuster, which depicts the future prophet from birth through the age of twelve.

Variety critic Alissa Simon in her review of “Muhammad” wrote that “Majidi respects Islamic convention by never showing Muhammad’s face and shooting him mostly from the back.” Simon also reported that at a Montreal presser Majidi explained that with Storaro they customised a Steadicam especially to show the prophet’s point of view.

Pic’s score is by Indian composer A.R. Rahman, winner of two Oscars for “Slumdog Millionaire.”

A Sunni Muslim group called the Raza Academy recently issued a fatwa against Majidi and Rahman and asked the Indian government to ban “Muhammad.” A fatwa is an Islamic legal opinion and is not tantamount to a death threat per se.

The Gran Mufti of Saudi Arabia, also a Sunni, who is the country’s most influential religious and legal authority, has also reportedly stated that the film displays “enmity toward Islam” and should be banned.  Neither are likely to have seen the film.

Iranians belong to the predominantly to the minority Muslim Shiite sect.

The Tehran Times reported that the Iranian embassy in New Delhi has issued a statement calling any opposition to the film before watching it “wrong, illogical, and inaccurate.”

“Muhammed,” which is likely to be Iran’s candidate for foreign language Oscar consideration, “is currently being dubbed into Arabic and English in hopes it will go onscreen in Muslim and non-Muslim countries,” the Tehran Times said.

Majidi was nominated for a foreign language Oscar in 1998 for “Children of Heaven.”