Is Sami Yusuf Sunni or Shiite

“Muhammad: The Messenger of God”, the most expensive film in Iranian history, recently hit cinemas. The film, made with unprecedented government funding, is intended to present “the true face of Islam” and to ensure unity among Muslims. However, there is no sign of that. Critics are also skeptical.

At the end of August, the highly anticipated film “Muhammad: The Messenger of God” by the internationally known, non-government-critical Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi premiered - after more than seven years of production.

The first part of a trilogy about the emergence of Islam begins with the events before the birth of the Prophet and depicts Muhammad's life up to the age of 13. The project is the most expensive product in Iranian film history with production costs of officially over 16 million euros - twenty Times more expensive than the most expensive Iranian film to date.

The performers are internationally prominent: the film music comes from the world-famous Indian composer and Oscar winner A. R. Rahman, who won the Golden Globe Award and the Oscar in 2009 for the film music for Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire". The three-time Oscar-winning cameraman Vittorio Storaro from Italy was also hired for the film. Among other things, he is known for his work on award-winning works such as "Apocalypse Now" (Francis Ford Coppola). His recordings for "Muhammad" were edited by the Italian editor Roberto Perpignani. The legendary author and film director Orson Welles commissioned Perpignani in 1962 for his film "The Trial". Oscar winner Scott E. Anderson provided visual effects and the Iranian-born British singer Sami Yusuf sang part of the film music.

State prestige project

The film "Muhammad: The Messenger of God" is therefore certainly not an ordinary film project in Iran. The previously unknown production company "Noure Taban" (in German for example: "Helles Licht") bore the production costs. It is subordinate to the economic giant "Foundation of the Oppressed" ("Bonyad-e Mostazafan"). This foundation is one of the economic institutions controlled by the spiritual leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. Khamenei even paid a surprise visit to the film set near Tehran. That was the first and so far last time that the Ayatollah saw the production of a cinema project on site.

In terms of content, the film should also please those in power in Tehran. According to the spokesman for the parliamentary commission for culture, Ali Taheri, Khamenei is said to have already seen the film and is satisfied with its content.

"Muhammad" is now shown in 120 cinemas across the country. Large advertising spaces invite viewers to watch the film. Films by "independent" filmmakers have had to give way to prestige films. At the beginning of September, the media showed pictures of the young director Ali Molla Gholipour, who was promoting his new film on the street and in the middle of a league game on the lawn of the country's largest football stadium in Tehran. Some of the cinemas that were supposed to show his film had instead been assigned “Muhammad: The Messenger of God”.

"True Islam"

"The Messenger of God" is the second film adaptation of the life of the Prophet after "The Message", filmed in 1976 by the Sunni and Syrian-American director Moustapha Akkad, who has since died in the meantime. Akkad's film only shows “Jihad and War” and presents an “unfair picture” of the life of the Prophet, Majidi said at the end of 2013: The image of Islam in “The Message” - filmed with Anthony Quinn - is “the image of the sword”. His film is now supposed to show "the true face of Islam".

The Iranian regime sees itself as the flagship of Shiism in the Sunni-dominated region. The spiritual leader of the country is even called "leader of Muslims all over the world" by his followers. However, the film met with strong criticism from Sunni Muslims because of the sometimes different religious views of Sunnis and Shiites - although the director emphasizes that he wrote the script in consultation with scholars of both faiths from all over the Islamic world. In addition, the film deals with the early years of the Prophet's life, which Sunnis and Shiites agree on.

But the respected Islamic seminar Al-Azhar in Cairo called on Iran not to show the film, "so that there is no distorted image of the prophet in the minds of Muslims." In the film, however, only the body of the young actor and his hands can be seen from behind. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al Sheikh, also considers the film forbidden from a religious point of view and called it "sacrilege". The Sunni organization of Muslims in India "Raza Academy" even called for a boycott of the film in a fatwa (religious legal opinion).

According to the Guardian, the small Sunni state of Qatar on the Persian Gulf announced in March 2013 that it would make preparations for a project worth a billion dollars. There are several films about the life of the Prophet Mohammed. For the project, the production company, which is funnily called "Alnoor Holdings" (for example, Licht Holdings), wanted to hire the producer of the Hollywood cinema trilogy "Lord of the Rings", among other things.

Little prospect of success

In view of the broad support from those in power in Iran, the few professional reviews in the Iranian press were limited to the technology of the film, which premiered for critics and filmmakers in spring 2014. The nationally renowned film critic Masoud Farsati called the film “bad”, “confusing” and “defaced”. Costumes, lighting and scene designs did not match the culture of the time. For these reasons, the film will not have a major impact on the audience. The critic Mehrzad Danesh, who studied “Islamic Education” at the university, finds the miraculous power attributed to the young Mohammed in the film exaggerated and unrealistic. However, some critics see the film as a trailblazer for further major investments in national art and further collaboration with world-renowned crews. This will increase audience demands and raise the bar for domestic productions.

Director Majidi, whose film “Children of Heaven” was the first Iranian film to be nominated for an Oscar in the category of best foreign language film in 1999, is nevertheless convinced of the success of his latest work. He predicted last week that his film would bring in ten times the cost: "Although it was not shot for commercial purposes," said Majidi.

According to the Iranian media, the film is said to have grossed more than one million euros.