As Moustapha Akkad’s biopic of the Prophet Mohammed’s life premiered in the US on March 9, 1977, 12 extremists armed with machetes and shotguns laid siege to three buildings in Washington DC. The deadly 39-hour stand-off ended when their demand was met, bringing screenings of the The Message to a halt mid-reel in New York cinemas.
The siege was an ignominious portent of the controversy and false rumours surrounding the ambitious film, which charted the life of the Prophet and the birth of Islam but was banned from much of this region for years.
Now, 42 years on and after being digitally restored, Akkad’s $17 million masterpiece will finally be shown across the Middle East this Eid.
Unfounded religious objections meant that The Message never drew the audiences it deserved. Yet it holds timeless lessons, which speak to both the ambition of its Syrian-American filmmaker and the power of his medium. As a compelling and universal art form crossing boundaries and cultural divides, cinema has the power to explain and disseminate complex and philosophical ideas to mainstream audiences.
In a religion where interpretations are typically laid down by clerics and imams, films like The Message can educate young Muslims about their faith and demystify it for the rest of the world. The film’s ability to do both while upholding the tenets of Islam – notably by never depicting the Prophet – is its greatest achievement.
The care the late Akkad took is reflected in the fact that he shot simultaneously in Arabic and English. In an interview in 1976, he said: “Being a Muslim myself who lived in the West, I felt that it was my obligation, my duty, to tell the truth about Islam.”
He would no doubt be pleased to learn his film is still having an impact around the world; just one example is the Indian army showing it to schoolchildren in Jammu and Kashmir to improve relations with Muslim communities.
Their importance surpasses mere entertainment. Cinema is vital to spurring dialogue and fostering cultural understanding.
The release of The Message across the region will usher in a new era for the masterpiece and go some way to redeeming the tragedy of its original reception. Its ambitious aim to visualise a 1,439-year-old religion and its achievement in conveying that message is as breathtaking as it was 42 years ago.