Faithful representation: a round up of films that positively depict Muslims and Islam

To Muslims everywhere, the name Bilal is very familiar, as is his place in the history of Islam. He was the first muezzin (prayer caller) and the first slave convert.

He was known for his melodious voice and his courage, and as someone who endured torture for his devotion to God. The calls to prayer we hear today are echoes of the first calls chanted by him in 622-623 AD, almost 1,400 years ago.

In a world in dire need of heroes, and positive representations of, a religion that has been tarnished in the eyes of many around the globe by the extreme actions of terrorists – and with Muslims routinely depicted negatively in film and on TV – the release in the region last Thursday of the film Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is refreshing.

The first animated feature film produced in the region, from Dubai-based studio Barajoun Entertainment, it brings the story of Bilal Ibn Rabah, also known as Bilal Al Habashi (the one from Ethiopia) to a new generation of Muslims. And if its positive reception during film-festival screenings around the world this year is anything to go by, it could also spread a more positive image of Islam internationally when it is released globally next month.

Barajoun Entertainment founder, and the film’s producer and co-director, Ayman Jamal, from Saudi Arabia, says he always wanted to share the story of “a forgotten hero”.

“I chose to tell Bilal’s story for many reasons,” he says. “On one hand, it recounts the beautiful, admirable tale of Bilal, one of the most prominent figures in our history to have called for justice and equality.

“It also teaches us an important lesson in history about emancipation and egalitarianism.”

Set in the Arabian Peninsula, the film recounts the adventures of Bilal, an African child who, at the age of 7, is abducted into slavery with his younger sister. He faces unimaginable challenges that help him to develop the strength, bravery and determination to set himself free, along the way building a timeless legacy.

The animated film is not the first time the story of Bilal has been told on screen.

One of the most famous portrayals of Bilal was by Senegalese actor Johnny Sekka in The Message. Despite some controversy – not least the fact that it was funded by the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi – the film is considered by many to be one of the best movie portrayals of Islam, and it is regularly broadcast during Eid.

The international co-­production, which featured Hollywood stars Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas, was the first major film about the origins of Islam. Two versions of the epic historical drama were shot – one in Arabic (in 1976) and the other in English (1977). They were directed and produced by the renowned Syrian-American filmmaker Moustapha Al Akkad. He consulted religious leaders to make sure it remained respectful to Islamic values.

There was a fatwa issued as early as 1926 by Egypt’s Al Azhar University stipulating that Islam forbids the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed on screen.

In The Message, the Prophet is never seen or heard – instead his presence is suggested with light organ music and by occasionally framing the shot in such a way that it is from his point of view as he observes the actions of his ­followers.

Al Akkad, who faced resistance from Hollywood and so ended up shooting the film in Morocco and Libya, said he wanted to bridge the gap between the western and the Islamic worlds.

“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 once said. “It is a religion that has a 700 million following, yet it’s so little known, which surprised me.”

The film’s music, by French composer Maurice Jarre, was nominated for the Oscar for best original score, but lost out to the score from Star Wars by John Williams.

Al Akkad, 65, and his 34-year-old daughter, Rima Al Akkad, were killed when an Al Qaeda bomb went off at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Amman, Jordan, one of three hotels attacked by the terrorist group on November 9, 2005.

At the time of his death, he was in the process of producing a major film about the Muslim leader Saladin (1137–1193), the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, and the Crusades, which would have starred Sean Connery.

“Saladin exactly portrays Islam,” Al Akkad said. “Right now, Islam is portrayed as a terrorist religion. Because a few terrorists are Muslims, the whole religion has that image.”

The same year that Al Akkad died, Saladin was portrayed as an honourable figure in Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven.

While there have been numerous films about Islamic figures in the Arab world, on TV there tends to be a special focus on them during Ramadan in soap operas, including the controversial 2012 series, Omar.

This portrayed the life of Umar Ibn Al Khattab, the second caliph, and one of 10 who was promised the heavens.

Iran regularly releases relatively big-budget films based on the history of Islam, including last year’s Mohammad: The Messenger of God, based on the childhood of the Prophet. The film was Iran’s entry for best ­foreign-language film at the 88th Academy Awards.

Bilal is not the only animation to tackle Islamic history. In 2002, the story of the Prophet was told in the traditional animated film Muhammad: The Last Prophet. Produced by Badr International and directed by Richard Rich, the Prophet was not shown on screen and his words were paraphrased by a narrator. Other historical figures, including Bilal, do feature.

There have also been portrayals of more obscure Islamic ­characters.

The Hollywood film The 13th Warrior (1999) stars Antonio Banderas as Ahmad Ibn Fadlan in a fictitious story based on the real-life 10th-century Arab ­traveller.

Then there are the stereotypical, quite fictional takes on the lives of real figures, such as that of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam in the eponymous 1956 movie, on which the 11th-­century figure (played by Cornel Wilde) romances a shah’s bride (played by Debra Paget) and foils a plot by assassins.

Hollywood is currently ­preparing a movie about the 13th-­century Persian poet Jalal Al-Din Rumi, with rumours of Leonardo DiCaprio playing the lead. However, such tales from the history of Islam remain rare in western cinema.

“The best films about Islam’s history are yet to be made, and I don’t think they will be made in Hollywood,” says Alia Yunis, filmmaker, writer and an associate professor at Zayed University, where she teaches video ­production.

“Hollywood is focused on Islam in the present, in its interpretation of it as the ‘bad guy’ that the good guys have to fight – and when Hollywood does try to give an explanation about why Muslims are the bad guys, it is, needless to say, inaccurate.

“But action films need clear-cut good guys and bad guys – and sadly today the bad guy is the Muslim. Once it was the Russians, once the Arabs – the 1970s are full of films about bad Arabs, rather than bad Muslims, once it was native Americans, paralleling the political winds.”

She says films about the histories of religions “aren’t really Hollywood’s speciality”, and so the movies that will capture the true essence of Islam will come out of the Middle East or Europe.

“I think the refugee crisis will make a difference, and Europe is not so focused on formulaic films,” she says. “Hollywood is neither prepared for nor views itself as a hub for religious ­debate.”

Yunis discovered The Message in her early 20s and in it, she says, her own history – and it remains a pivotal film in her life.

“For me, the part of The Message that stayed with me the most was the scene when Bilal does the athan for the first time,” she says. “So I’m not surprised someone was moved to make a film about him.”

Published: September 11, 2016 04:00 AM


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