Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Why Banning The Movie ‘Muhammad - Messenger of God’ is Nonsensical

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
28 July 2020

Muslim fundamentalists have done it again. They have won a decisive victory by coercing the Maharashtra government to prevent the release of Muhammad: The Messenger of God, a film by the Iranian director Majid Majidi. The movie is first part of a proposed trilogy depicting the life of Muhammad from childhood to his final days. The first part largely concentrates on the social context of the times in which Muhammad was born, the relationship of child Muhammad with his two ‘mothers’ Amina and Halima, the love, trust and care that he received within his clan the Banu Hashim, especially by his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib and later by his uncle Abu Talib. This movie was to release on the 21st July on an online media platform in Maharashtra. But before that, a group of Muslims, led by Raza Academy in Mumbai successfully petitioned the Maharashtra government to ban the release of the movie. Not just that, the home minister of Maharashtra, Anil Deshmukh, wrote to the union government to see to it that the movie is banned nationally across all streaming and other platforms as it will hurt the ‘religious sentiment of Muslims’ and might lead to ‘religious tension’ in the country. It remains to be seen what decision the union government takes on the issue but, in the meanwhile, the Raza Academy has definitely won a victory over all those, Muslims or otherwise, who would very much have wanted to see the movie.
 Prophet Muhammad sits with the Abrahamic prophets in Jerusalem, anonymous, Mirajnama (Book of Ascension), Tabriz, ca. 1317-1330
Credit: Topkapi Palace Musuem, Istanbul, Turkey.
Raza Academy is one of the many Barelwi organizations in India. The Academy has organised protests against Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen and even A R Rahman, all for ‘hurting’ the religious sentiments of Muslims. This should have some impact on those who have argued that Barelwis are an inherently tolerant group who should be cultivated for the promotion of moderate Islam. The Barelwis understand Prophet Muhammad as more than a model human being. They have consistently argued the prophet had qualities which bordered on the divine. Within the Barelwi theology, the Prophet did not cast a shadow as he was made of light (Nur), that he could see the whole world in the palm of his hand, thus having the ability to see and hear the whole world while being at one place. The development of Barelwi prophetology has necessarily been against a perceived diminution of such extraordinary powers of Muhammad by groups like the Deobandis. This level of identification with the prophet has meant that Barelwis have been at the forefront of any perceived affront on the personae of Prophet Muhammad. It is not surprising therefore that the ban on Satanic Verses was first demanded by a Barelwi organisation in Bradford.
However, the Raza Academy certainly does not represent the full spectrum of Barelwi thought in India. Moreover, there are many different Sufi organization who have at various times called out the Academy for doing ‘politics’ and indulging in extremism. The speed with which the Maharashtra government accepted the Academy’s request to ban the movie only proves that the state is invested in portraying Muslims as conservative and regressive. Muslims must oppose this demand of Raza Academy in their own interest. After all, being a minority, they should be at the forefront of advancing democratic rights and free speech, rather than demanding such bans. Through their myopic politics, they give legitimacy to Hindu right-wing political discourse that any critique of their politics is equal to criticising the Hindu religion. If things go on like this, then very soon, Hindu and Muslim communalism will hardly leave any liberal moderate space in this country.
However, there are other reasons why the ban on the movie is nonsensical, even from a religious point of view. The movie in question shows the child Muhammad. There is theological consensus that Muhammad was anointed prophet at the age of forty. If the argument is that the prophet should not be represented through images, then certainly this principle should not be applied before he attained prophet-hood. Sunni imagery of Muhammad at times depicts him with his face either veiled or represented by light. The movie does not show the face of child Muhammad and therefore conforms even to this Sunni principle. The objection of the Raza Academy therefore does not make sense, either politically or even in terms of religious principles.     
Representing of Prophet Muhammad has not always been a taboo in Muslim society. We do get evidence till the 15th century that his sketches were used throughout the Islamicate world, at times even as aids to focus on religious rituals. However, this does not mean that the practice was widespread; it was only used in select religious and political circles. The Shias of course have been representing the Prophet through various means including images and certainly it is not a taboo within their interpretation of Islam. In the Sunni world, however, whatever little imagery of the Prophet existed gradually ceased to the point that people have forgotten that such practice even existed. It is the Sunni world which now has this peculiar problem of understanding any representation of Muhammad as a Shia heresy. Part of the reason for Raza Academy’s posturing is that the director of the aforementioned film is a Shia.
Muslim theologians, including Sufis, have always argued that while certain practices can be legitimate for the elite, the same cannot be allowed for the masses. There has always existed this doubt in the capacity of Muslim masses to comprehend the abstraction of monotheism which Islam demands. So, while images of the Prophet were tolerated and at times even allowed within the Muslim elite; for the masses, the practice was completely prohibited. Images were thought of as having the potential to corrupt the fundamental tenet of monotheism and lure them to relapse into polytheism.
This fear of the masses is completely unfounded. Even after several centuries, Muslim masses, despite experiencing Islam in myriad ways, have shown an acute understanding of monotheism and have remained true to their religion. Muslims continue to practice Islam despite living in age of moving images and consuming them. If the combined might of Bollywood and Hollywood have not been able to lead the Muslims astray, why will a movie on the life of Prophet Muhammad make their belief weak? There is no sound reason to believe that using images of Muhammad will in any way lessen the belief of Muslims. On the contrary, it can well be an educative experience to know about the life and times in which their religion was born and how the Prophet navigated social challenges to bring Islam to his people. As it is, Muslims, especially the Sunnis, know very little about the history of their religion. The movie might actually do them some good in this regard. It is thus in the interest of Sunni Muslims to condemn the Raza Academy and demand the release of the movie.
Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist

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