animated biography of Muhammad (SAW)

AICN reports that an animated biography of the Prophet Muhammad SAW is in the works, with the actual animation and CGI embellishment to be done by RichCrest Animation in Burbank CA. There's a detailed look at the project as well as background historical material. The producer, Badr International Corporation[1], has plans to introduce further topics of Islam as well beyond this project once it is completed:

It is Company�s vision to become the major provider of high quality Islamic animated stories, episodes, and series for distribution to Islamic countries and people worldwide. Such stories will be produced in Arabic, English and other significant languages in the Muslim world.
The Company�s primary mission is to convey knowledge and cultural values through the medium of animation in an entertainment format, targeted to the entire family as a single audience.

I note that the intended targets for marketing of the movie is to an Islamic audience as well as an American one. The impact at home doesn't interest me as much as the foreign - is the goal here to try to "reprogram" the masses towards moderate Islam, by using the moral lessons and example for humanity that was Muhamad SAW? Or just to be a Disneyfied package of history like Liberty's Kids? Perhaps I am reading too much into it - or it could be a combination of identifying a market niche and performing an experiment in social engineering .

The MessageThe definitive project in film to narrate the early history of Islam was the powerful movie, The Message (1976). The director, Moustapha Akkad, actually shot each scene twice, with different sets of actors for the English version and the Arabic version, because he felt that subtitles would mar the film. Anthony Quinn played Hamza in the English version. Akkad also introduced the cinematic equivalent of the Islamic tradition of not representing the Prophet SAW visually, by framing scenes involving Muhammad SAW from his point of view. Thus, when other characters address the Prophet SAW, they are actually addressing the viewer of the movie. Some scenes had the Prophet SAW off-screen, and Akkad used a haunting musical theme to indicate Muhammad's presence. Muhammad's SAW spoken words are never heard by the audience but are heard by the other characters. The net effect is to convincingly establish the presence of the Prophet SAW but yet never actually violate the tradition against representation. It's partly a brilliant statement about perception and cue within movies in general as well as a merely functional device to circumvent offense. I consider Akkad's use of this device to be the opposite of Jar Jar Binks - rather than visualize an artificial person, the character has enormous impact upon the film and the mportance of the character is underscored, by their absence (visually speaking. But in cues from other actors and the music, the character exists. With even more realism than the jarring artifice of a CGI construct).

To say that there was controversy surrounding the making and release of The Message would be an enormous understatement :) But the film was vetted by established Islamic scholars, notably those at Al-Azhar University in Cairo [2], and garnered enormous acclaim. The video is worth purchasing for the appended "maing-of" documentary alone.

However, while I purchased a copy of The Message for my family, it bore the marks of having been "sanitized" to reflect a cohesive vision of the early history that probably was decided by calculated compromise rather than historical accuracy. While I don't seriously expect the political machinations that gave rise to the Shi'a-Sunni schism to be highlighted (what purpose would it serve, except for disunity?), it's still somewhat jarring to be see certain personalities portrayed in ways opposite to what you've been taught. I have a feeling that this animated version will also bear the same marks, but I cannot fault them for it. The core message of that early history is the story of Muhammad SAW, and the details of the supporting players are not the main narrative. How Islam came into being, the environment that preceded it, the principles that it was founded on (which any denizen of the West would easily recognize), these are what is important. I highly recommend The Message to non-Muslims and I cautiously recommend it to Muslims.

The animated film adopts Akkad's pioneering approach to non-representation, by also using camera point-of-view and thematic music to convey the presence of the Prophet without direct portrayal:

William Kidd has created a thrilling epic score that illuminates this most important moment and man in history. Mr. Kidd helped solve on of the film�s greatest challenges. According to tradition, the Prophet (pbuh) is not physically portrayed in the film. How then does the filmmaker convey his presence in a powerful way? Cinematically, Mr. Rich used the camera�s point-of-view to indicate the comings and goings of the Prophet (pbuh). But this technique is completely brought to life by an unforgettable melody created by Mr. Kidd. The effect is stirring.

To be honest, I am not sure how I feel about this. The problem is that by using entertainment media as a vehicle, the message is inherently commercialized. That's not necessarily bad, but it does undermine the authority of the film. It's easier to dismiss something because it's a movie than if it were, say, a book or even a play. A variant of this "dismis-by-association" theme is what makes it so difficult for Japanese anime to gain any kind of foothold in the movie industry here in the US, because the primary reaction of most adults is, "it's a cartoon". The concept that animation can be used for adult-oriented information (I'm using "adult" in its more general sense, not merely a pornographic context) is one that is dofficult for most adults.

The movie The Message had impact because it was live actors. I think that animation might be the wrong vehicle for this kind of project. But of course, I am highly interested in how it turns out, and I do want to see the outcome.

There is an interesting and moving anecdote related to the making of the film, related to the voice actor for the role of Muhammad's SAW uncle, Abu Talib.

Early on in the casting it became clear that the voice of Abu Talib would be crucial. Though not an adherent to Islam, Abu Talib was a loving uncle to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). His was the responsibility to support his nephew but also to lead, placate, and sometimes stand up to his peers of Quarysh. The voice needed strength, majesty, but also kindness and a gentle quality. It was found in Eli Allem, a veteran actor of stage and screen. With each recording session it became clear that Eli was creating a unique and powerful performance. Finally, his job was done. On the day after his final recording session, he passed away.

[1]It is interesting to note that the company is named after the Battle of Badr, in which Muhammad's followers defended themselves against a Meccan army three times larger. Badr was the first great victory of Islam in its struggle to survive the machinations and entrenched power brokers of pre-Islamic Arabia.
[2] Most assuredly, these Islamic scholars and authorities were not contacted by Osama bin Laden for validation of his religious interpretations. Most likely because it would have been pointless.

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