By Abbas Moussa
No film about Islam and the Prophet Mohammed has had as much of an impact on the viewers as Mustafa Al-Aqqad’s ‘The Message’, which delivered the story and message of Islam to the whole world 14 centuries after its appearance. The film, released in 1976, was Al-Aqqad’s first cinematic feature film. He experienced many difficulties in getting the film produced, but in the end he released one of the best movies on Islam of all time. The film met with great success in the Arab world and globally, and is recognised as the most prominent visual document on Islam and Prophet Mohammed.
One of many films made on the subject of Islam during the 50s, 60s and 70s, ‘The Message’ is about the Prophet Mohammed and the Qureish tribe (the famous Arab tribe into which Mohammed was born). It takes place during the pre-Islamic era, which was marked by much injustice and corruption, when Mohammed wanted to deliver the message of Allah and bring about social justice. The film shows the first people of Islam, and the pain and obstacles they faced, as well as the wealthy and powerful people of the Qureish tribe, who fought against the rise of Islam and tortured its followers. It tells the story of that era, the birth of Prophet Mohammed, his early life and the message he received from Allah. It continues on, telling of the spread of Islam, Mohammed’s migration from Mecca to Al-Medina Al-Monawara, the establishment of the foundations of the Islamic State, and other events up to the death of the Prophet.
The film was made in Arabic and in English. The Arabic version featured Abdulla Gaith as Hamza Bin Abdulmotaleb and Mona Wasef as Hind Bent Otba, while the English one featured Anthony Quinn and Irene Pappas, respectively, in the same roles. The film cost $10 million US and was translated into 12 languages. It was scripted by six authors, including Harry Craig, and the music was by Morris Jar, whose score was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Music.
Three main themes of discussion here are the directorial form, the film’s content and religious aspects, and its spiritual side and the social values of Islam. Al-Aqqad succeeds in merging these three aspects to present a comprehensive picture of early Islam.
The director hired international production companies and had significant resources to employ major actors and have impressive costumes and props, as well as for other logistics. The film used massive studio sets, and a realistic approach. its well-written screenplay excellently serves the depiction of the historical events. The film is reminiscent of epic war films, and derives much of the beauty of its impact from that genre, with battle scenes that are visually thrilling. This effectively attracts the audience and compels them to engage with the overall content in an emotional way.
Since Islam forbids showing the image of the Prophet and the other major personalities of Islam, the director used non-visual methods to express the presence of those characters. He used voice-over narration and dialogue among the Muslims to tell what the Prophet says – a creative and effective way of compensating for the absence of the image of the Prophet, even though the film centres on him.
Since the film is made for a Western audience as well as for the Eastern Islamic world, the director included various messages within the film, both explicit and implicit. He showed the true essence of Islam through the collaboration and teamwork of Muslims, the equality among social classes, respect for women and all their social role, advocating for the abolition of slavery (as for Bilal), spreading values of tolerance, and the humane treatment of prisoners of war (as when the Muslims entered Mecca).
Another important message is delivered in the discussion between Hamza and the King of Habasha (Ethiopia), which indicates civilised dialogue between Islam and Christianity, and highlights their common values.
In terms of faith and spiritual life, the film features many aspects that show the faith of early Muslims and their ties to Islam, in spite of the pain, torture and lack of means that were the daily life of these people. It also expresses the high spirits of Muslims as they work hard for their religion and their Prophet.
Al-Aqqad made a film that is capable of delivering the message of Islam in a distinguished way. He succeeded in doing what other communication tools failed to do – to spread the reality of Islam. ‘The Message’ remains an extremely important film – a work of art that still deserves to be seen.