Understanding the deep divisions between Eastern and Western cultures since the breakup of the Western Roman Empire, it is still remarkable how little is known to Hollywood audiences of the story of Islam. It may be true that many people are not familiar with the sequence of stories in the Old Testament, but the movies are there for those who are interested. It amazed me as I watched the few movies I have found on Islamic tradition that I knew so little about the significance of Mecca, the function of the Kaaba, the importance of Medina, or the life of Muhammad (c. 570 – 632).
From the Caravan Journals: In the city of Kairouan, ancient center of Islamic culture in Tunisia, we were invited to meet with an imam. Our local guide stressed that the guidebooks were wrong in saying that Kairouan (roughly translated, it means caravan camp) is the fourth holiest site of Islam, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. He said every Muslim country has a mosque it wants to declare as the fourth holy site. We went to the Great Mosque of Kairouan where an old and wise imam was waiting to answer our questions about Islam. He strongly urged that we understand the commonality in the three monotheistic religions, and that Islam respects all of the prophets. I asked about Buddha and the imam took time to discuss the fine points of this question with our guide in their own language. Finally, the guide turned to our group and said, “No.”
In this time of exacerbated tensions between Islam and the West, it seemed a worthwhile effort to start on the ground with the assumption that the majority of people in the world want only what is best for their families and their nations. Each side in this conflict has demonized the other. This was a small and personal search for understanding.
I have been able to find only three movies in Western popular sources that attempt a respectful account of the origins of Islamic tradition. They were not typically released by Hollywood studios, but they partake very strongly of the Hollywood model for moviemaking.
The Message; or, Muhammad: Messenger of God (1976)
Also called The Message: The Story of Islam, the making and showing of this film endured controversy from the Islamic community. It is clear, however, that the filmmaker’s intention was to create understanding and to respect to Muslim strictures. Anthony Quinn, plays Hamsa, Muhammad’s uncle, whose on screen presence is a surrogate for that of Mohammed.
Muhammad: The Last Prophet (2001) – Animated
This full-length animation was directed by a man who began his career at Disney Studios. It is a lighter and somewhat more international treatment of the story, meant for the instruction of children.
Omar Mukhtar: Lion of the Desert (1981)
Both the first and third of these films were made by Syrian/American producer/director, Moustapha Al Akkad, who died in a 2005 suicide bombing in Jordan. Anthony Quinn plays the title role, a teacher of the Koran who leads the resistance to Mussolini’s occupation of Libya. He becomes the culture hero of his country. See North Africa
A full version of the animated story of Muhammad is available on YouTube as I write this in 2014. A search for trailers for the two films by Moustapha Al Akkad has been less satisfying.