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The Missing Image

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First shown in cinemas in 1976 and remastered for high definition video in 2016, Moustapha Akkad’s The Message depicts a part of the standard life story of the Prophet Muhammad. As a visual document, it recalls grand spectacles of self-righteousness created earlier to represent biblical stories in films such as the Ten Commandments (1956). Additionally, the costumes and sets cite Western cinema’s long investment in orientalist representation in films such as the much celebrated Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

While locatable in various cinematic genealogies, The Message is also unique on several counts. The film was shot in two versions, with the same locations but two different sets of actors. This quite cumbersome plan accommodated Akkad’s desire to have the film be available in both English and Arabic, without dubbing or subtitles. Moreover, to not offend millions of Muslims who object to physical representations of the Prophet, the film is a highly emotive glorification of a protagonist who never appears on screen.

Based on advance guidance from Islamic institutions, the film contains no images of the Prophet or his close companions and immediate successors (save for a partial sword of ‘Ali in one scene). This applies equally to bodies, voices, and even shadows. Its visible lead is Muhammad’s uncle Hamza (played by Anthony Quinn in the English version and Abdullah Ghaith in the Arabic). Here Hamza is shown as an extraordinarily brave and devoted follower of Muhammad.

The choice of Hamza as the dramatic hero likely follows from the fact that he is the subject of premodern epics, in multiple languages, that emphasize his magical and supernatural abilities. Centuries before the making of the film, the Mughal court in India under Akbar (d. 1605) sponsored the creation of large and elaborate paintings depicting scenes from the Persian epic of Hamza known as the Hamzanama. In Southeast Asia, the Menak Amir Hamza is a vast epic preserved in what is considered the largest Javanese manuscript in existence (MS ADD 1230, British Library, London, 1,500 folios). The tale is also a prominent part of the Javanese tradition of rod puppet theater.

While never visible, the Prophet is present in The Message through being made a viewer. This happens prominently in places where the camera simulates what his eyes might see, recalling the cinéma vérité style used often in documentary films and reality television. Where relevant, his speech is provided through reportage by an invisible narrator, other characters, or repetition for emphasis that might occur during a conversation. In the words of one reviewer, these techniques create a “truly bizarre viewing” experience that is not helped by the fact that “three hours is a long time to spend hinting at a hero” (Chahine, “Keeping the Faith,” 56).

[The Prophet] is a member of the audience placed in the modern world. When the camera simulates his vision, our eyes look upon the set through his eyes.

Changing the camera’s point of view to create cinematic or narrative effects is a common technique in filmmaking. Deploying it to tell the purportedly historical account of the Prophet’s life has special consequences. By never bringing the Prophet into view, the film subverts viewers’ customary expectation to see the film’s central figure on screen. But how we interpret the situation changes if we understand viewers as an integral part of the viewing situation.

Discernible as a viewpoint but not himself on view, the Prophet becomes more like us than one of the characters we can see on screen. He is a member of the audience placed in the modern world. When the camera simulates his vision, our eyes look upon the set through his eyes. And in scenes that do not have him, he is entirely like us, seeing images manufactured to depict a past time that he, like us, would not have been privy to when the events occurred.

Whether intentionally or as an unexpected consequence of the religious restriction, Akkad’s art in The Message provides a poignant commentary on films meant to depict real occurrences in the past in an accurate way. What one sees in such artifacts are depictions meant as actual events that must, simultaneously, be understood as manufactured reenactments not to be considered the same as real events. In The Message, the first condition works through the Prophet’s viewpoint, which makes him present one part in the film and the remainder with viewers in the modern audience. Conversely, the fact that he and all his closest companions remain invisible ensures that the film is a weak simulacrum of his real physical presence in the world centuries ago.

Colorful puppet made of metal (brass?) wearing an intricate skirt and a face-painted white. He also has on an elaborate hat with pink and yellow pom-poms hanging from it. His hands are connected to thin sticks used to control the puppet.

Amir Hamzah, uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, spreader of Islam, and hero of the Serat Menak, by dalang Otong Rasta (Indonesian, 1933–). Wood, cloth, and mixed media.


Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, From The Mimi and John Herbert Collection, F2000.86.62. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco


The Missing Image

Prophet Muhammad in Moving Images

As a mediatic form, the moving image provides especially effective tools to rearrange passages of time. The amount of media produced along these lines in Islamic societies is stupendous and should put to rest any notion that Islamic expression is lacking when it comes to deploying the human body or other forms. When it has mattered, the antipathy toward images has had to do with representing a very small group of people, including the Prophet and some of his companions. As in the case of The Message, even for such cases, the restriction on the representation of some bodies has been generative with respect to complicating how we imagine the relationship between image and viewer.

To extend this topic, I would like to present the case of a reality show on Saudi Arabian television that is focused on the Prophet Muhammad. Entitled Law kana baynana (What if He Were among Us), this show ran for two seasons in 2007–2008 and is now available on YouTube. Its premise is to consider how one should live if one could be guided by the Prophet’s physical presence in the world today. In the opening to each episode, we are shown a series of vignettes alternating between the same actions occurring in staged ancient past and a modern city, often emphasizing nuclear families. For example, a kitten is saved from being trampled by a horse in the ancient setting, while the same happens with respect to a car on a modern city street. The show’s signature tune is a song in praise of the Prophet with the first verse “what if the beloved were among us.”

Law kana baynana, season 2, episode 10 (2008).

Each episode presents anywhere between one and four topics with the host, Ahmad al-Shughairi, providing information, giving advice, conducting interviews, and talking to people after capturing them in candid camera-like situations. The topics range widely, from broad concerns, such as the imperative toward mercy and knowledge, to ills that inconvenience people today, like double parking and letting taps run when not in use. Through all that is covered, the host keeps asking himself, his guests, and the audience about how to bring the Prophet’s opinions about daily life to bear on today’s social and individual concerns.

What may seem like a trite formula in this show is a sophisticated discourse aimed at collapsing the temporal extension between the past and the present in a sophisticated way. In modern, mediatized form, the show accomplishes the same task that Muslim scholarly classes have undertaken for centuries by emphasizing the importance of preserving the Prophet’s sayings (known as hadith) through attaching chains of human transmitters to texts and then using these to argue for proper ways to act. The key is that the Prophet is ever-relevant for all concerns, no matter how big or small. Feeling his presence requires cultivating knowledge of his acts that transmit instructions to the present despite having occurred in times long past.

To convey a concrete sense for the program’s method, I will go through the contents of a seventeen-minute episode that was broadcast in 2008. Concentrating on “public places,” the first section of this episode consists of Shughairi interviewing a woman identified as Ms. Nur in a supermarket. She describes herself as the head of a women’s-only association called “Prophet Muhammad, You are Always in My Heart.” The organization aims to create a constant awareness of the Prophet through selling merchandise like t-shirts and stickers with its name (which includes the Prophet’s name) and other slogans.

At one point, Shughairi asks her, “If you had the chance to meet the Prophet, what would you do?” She tears up and responds, “I would kiss his feet.” The emotion then transfers to the questioner, as his eyes well up too and he talks about the Prophet’s quality of forgiveness. The two people in the scene register the Prophet’s presence in their lives through both words and emotions while also affirming that a hypothetical real meeting with him is impossible and would likely be overwhelming.

In the episode’s second section, Shughairi interviews Peter Sanders, a British photographer who became Muslim in the 1970s and has dedicated his life to documenting Muslim lives around the world. When asked what he would say to young Muslims, he responds by quoting an old statement that life is but a moment and should be lived with an attention that matches its preciousness. Given Sanders’s profession, the moment seems to refer to the split second in which a camera shutter captures an image.

Shughairi asks Sanders what he would tell the Prophet if he were present in the contemporary world. His response is that he would just sit in his company and look at him. He says too that whenever he is in Jeddah, he makes a point of going to Medina even for a couple of hours. Knowing that the Prophet lived there has endowed the place with a special aura that is not available anywhere else.

In the episode’s third section, Shughairi reminds people that the Prophet gave proper names to all physical things he used during his life. For example, he named his mule Duldul, the plate from which he ate was Gharra’, his satchel was named Kafur, and so on. This practice was an aspect of his mercy for all beings, animate and inanimate, and indicated a quality that should be cultivated by all Muslims. The program’s final section is a short comment on a book that lays out the Prophet’s political theory. Shughairi ends by saying that what is described in this book is a guide for political conduct in the twenty-first century.

This brief description of a short media piece should make clear that Muslims’ avoidance of Muhammad’s images does not indicate a lack of intimacy with the Prophet’s bodily presence. In fact, the very opposite seems to be true since proximity to him is available dispersed through the phenomenal world. People readily imagine themselves kissing his feet and sitting in his shadow. Places where he had lived and the names of objects he would have touched are like relics conveying his presence centuries later.

Matching the effect of The Message, people’s conversation in the reality TV program project the Prophet as a viewer who cannot be seen but has eyes that look upon the world. The spectacle to be viewed is not an image of his body but the world that is shared across eyes past and present. Within the experience of the world, the Prophet’s lifetime was a special temporality whose universal implications continue to be mined through verbal and imagistic means without the necessity of representing his form.

Roaming in the Past

I end this section with a virtual trip to an amusement park. The Quranic Park is the latest addition in Dubai’s extensive array of options meant to entice tourists. Created and maintained by Dubai municipality, the park allows visitors to experience elements of the Quran’s contents. The facility includes twelve orchards and greenhouses for growing the fifty-one types of plants mentioned in the Quran; a structure made like a cave in which one encounters electronically simulated versions of miracles described in the Quran; a lake that refers to the story of Moses’ staff becoming a serpent; and interactive screens throughout the site that explain the exhibits’ relationship to the Quranic text.

The Quranic Park is part of a global phenomenon concerning the mediatization of religion that can be documented for Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism as well. Its design and overall logic seem to work similarly to amusement parks that consist of exhibits and rides connected to what visitors may have seen on screens when watching popular films. The script here is the Quran, from which elements have been selected carefully to be materialized and made tactile for visitors.

Importantly, the experiencing subject in the story here is the park visitor, similar to when visitors are placed in the situation of characters when visiting a film ride in an amusement park. The Quranic Park has no religious restriction on attendance, so visitors do not have to be Muslim. The objects and miraculous narratives from the Quran project a universality that requires a willingness to see and try and not believe or declare allegiance.

Ultimately, the Prophet Muhammad is the heroic character embedded within the text of the Quran as its first speaker. In religious understanding, the text was conveyed to him via an angel and was then enunciated from his mouth for others. The ultimate guarantee for the truth of what is at the Quranic Park is the Prophet’s accepted life. What one may experience at the park is therefore an effect of a part of the Prophet’s life story, materialized in a modern pedagogical and entertainment form. Like The Message and Law kana baynana, the Quranic Park uses new mediatic forms creatively to make the Prophet present. These examples indicate that the relationship between the prophetic past and the modern age, flooded with images, is a topic richer than the much discussed iconophobic interdiction.

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