Depicting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) without showing him

Bilal Yorulmaz


The Prophet Muhammad has served as a model of exemplary behavior since the earliest period of the tradition, in some contexts even referred to as the perfect human being (al-Insan al-Kamil).' Muhammad’s example shapes the everyday lives of Muslims in numerous ways, including devotional practices, pious behaviors, sartorial norms, and ways of speech.2 The mediums through which Muslims have encountered Muhammad over the generations have shifted but several threads remain strong across these differences. Muslim visual culture is one of the most important forms for circulating Muhammad as a representative framework for social and spiritual life. In this chapter, I argue that there are important but obscured aesthetic continuities between historical artistic forms and contemporary popular cultural productions focused on the representation of Muhammad. More specifically, I draw out the genealogy between premodern textual icon and illustrated manuscript traditions with contemporary films about Muhammad, including Moustapha Akkad’s The Message (1976) and Majid Maji-di’s Muhammad: The Messenger of God (2015). While the legitimacy of depictions of Muhammad remains tendentious within different communities, there is a rich artistic heritage revolving around his portrait. Overall, across these visual forms we see that Muslim artists have found creative ways to depict Muhammad without showing him.

Prophet Muhammad as model

God informs his believers in the Qur’an, Prophet Muhammad is sent as a mercy for all creatures (Qur’an 21:107), a bearer of glad news and a warner to the whole of mankind (Qur’an 34:28) and He has a good example for whosoever hopes for God and the Last Day (Qur’an 33:21). God also orders the believers to love, follow, and obey His messenger (Qur’an 3:31-32). As the first believers, Muhammad’s companions (sahaba) were eager to take him as a model for every aspect of their life. They behave just as the prophet when loving their kids, living together with their neighbors, selling or buying something, even eating, drinking, speaking, and walking.

The second generation of Muslims, the successors of the companions (tabi’un), did not see Muhammed but were also eager to imitate him. They asked a lot of questions about his characteristics, including his physical appearance. For example, Muhammad’s grandson ITasan asked his uncle Hind ibn Abl Halah about the Prophet’s appearance and he explained:

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was neither tall nor short, his face was shining like the full-moon on the 14th night, his hair was slightly curly, his head was moderately large, his eyes were black and eyebrows were long, his joint bones were strong. His chest and tummy were not hairy, just a line of hair from chest to tummy. He used to walk with strength. When he paid attention toward left or right, he moved his whole body (not just face).3

There were a lot of hadiths on Muhammad’s appearance and behaviors. Hadith collections had sections named fada’il (virtues), manaqib (excellences), adab (ettiqutte), libas (clothing), “Et’ima” (food), dhikr (remembrance), and “Dua” (prayer). Since reports were narrated from a second person perspective hadiths described the physical appearance or outward behaviors of Muhammad rather than his internal experiences. Within a few generations after Muhammad’s death specific books that focused on his appearance began to emerge, named shama 'il (features).

Visual representation of Prophet Muhammad

The most famous shama 'il book was written by Al-Haklm al-Tirmidhi’s (824-892) Shama'il al-Nabawiyya (The Characteristics of Prophet Muhammed).4 al-Tirmidhi collected 424 hadith and divided them into 56 sections, such as noble features, hair, dressing, shoes, and walking.5 Other famous Arabic shama'il books include Farra’ al-Baghawi’s (d. 1116) al-Anwar ft Shama'il an-Nabiyyi al-Mukhtar (The Illumination of the Appearance of the Chosen Prophet), Ibn Kathir’s (1300-1373) Shama'il al-Rasul (The Appearance of Prophet Muhammad), and Yahya Ibn Abl Bakr al-‘Amiri’s (1413-1488) Bahjat al-Mahdfil wa bughyat al-Amdsthil ft Talkhts al-Siyar wa al-Mu 'jizdt wa al-Shamd 'il (The Gladness of Gatherings and Searching of Examples in Summarization of Muhammad’s Life, Miracles and Characteristics).6 However, Najm al-Din Abu Bakr Mahmud b. Ali al-Ravandi wrote a shama'il-like book named Sharaf al-Nabi (The Nobility of the Prophet) in Persian in 1211. Al-Ravandi’s book helped spread knowledge in Persian lands about the Prophet’s physical features and illustrations of Muhammad flourished in Persian and Mongol lands, especially during the Ilkhanid (1256-1353), Timurid (1370-1506), and Safavid (1501-1722) reigns.7 Mongols were familiar with religious paintings because they lived together with Man-ichaeists and Buddhists in Central Asia. Therefore, religious illustrations spread in Muslim world by means of Mongols.8

Shamâ'il and dalâ'il al-nubuwwa (proofs of prophethood) books influenced Muslim artists and became the main source of veristic and realistic depictions of Muhammad. The earliest paintings of the Prophet depict him as a fully visible corporeal figure, whose facial features are neither hidden beneath a veil nor engulfed by flames. These sorts of realistic depictions of the Prophet are included in the earliest illustrated manuscripts produced from the period of Anatolian Seljuk (1077-1307), Ilkhanid, and Timurid.9 During Ilkhanid and Timurid times, depictions of Muhammad were included mostly in illustrated histories and biographies. In these manuscripts, including the Timurid Mirajnama (The Book of Ascension), Muhammad is represented with his facial features on full display and his prophetic attributes, such as his turban, black tresses, and a flaming gold nimbus.10

The oldest full description of the prophet is found in Ayyuqi’s illustrated Persian manuscript titled Warqa and Gulshâh (Warqa wa Gulshâh), completed in Konya around 13th century. The Prophet was depicted in at least four other manuscripts dating from the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th century. They are a Shahnameh (Book of Kings) manuscript, a copy of a Persian translation of the Târtkh al-Rusul wa al-Mulük (History of the Apostles and Kings) by al-Tabari (839-923), a copy of the al-Athar al-Bâqiyah ‘an al-Qurün al-Khâliyah (Chronology of Ancient Nations) by Al-Bîrünî (973-1050), and a copy of the Jami ’ al-Tawârtkh (The Compendium of Chronicles) by Rashid al-Din (1247-1318).11

Not only books of history and biography but also other genres included veristic portrayal during 13th—15th centuries. For example, Sa d al-dln al-Varâvïnï’s collection of didactic fables written in Baghdad in 1299, Marzubânnâma (Book of the Margrave), the Prophet sits cross-legged and enthroned. Two flying angels hover above Muhammad and the companions of the prophet sit or stand around him. Another example of an anthology of stories is Kalîla and Dimna written in Arabic around 750 by Ibn al-Muqaffa‘(d. ca. 756). It is translated into Persian by Nasrallah Munshi and produced as an illustrated manuscript in Iran between circa 1350 and 1400. Nasrallah Munshi added a translator’s preface, and he praised God and the Prophet in this section. The preface illustration portrayed the ascension (mi ’râj) of the Prophet. In this painting Muhammad’s slightly round face, his black eyes and long eyelashes, his beautiful wheat-colored complexion and radiant color, his long and very dark hair, his full and dense beard are depicted much as they are described in the shamâ'il texts composed by al-Tirmidhl and others. These kinds of portraits of the Prophet faded around 1500, nevertheless a few later paintings exist that continued veristic traditions of depiction. One of them is the copy of Sa'di’s (1210-1257) Büstân (The Orchard), in which painting was added in 1550 in Bukhara. The composition depicts Muhammad’s ascension, and he is depicted in a realistic manner: his beard, his two long tresses, and his eyes are fully visible.12 Another example is an Indian miniature titled Muhammad and his Companions, painted circa 17th century. This miniature represents a mosque, Muhammad on a raised throne, with his grandsons Hasan and Husayn one on each side of him, the first four caliphs and the first muezzin Bilal around him.13 Another similar example is a 1468-9 Herat edition of Sa'di’s Gulistan (The Rose Garden) with paintings added in India around 1645 depicting a similar scene.14

By the 16th century artistic patterns of realist depictions of Muhammad were waning and abstraction became the predominant form of prophetic representation.15 Sufi thought, which developed the belief that God’s divine word (kalima) manifested itself in the person of Muhammad rather than just through the Qur’an, spread across both Ottoman and Safavid lands. Those inspired by this Sufi understanding created inscribed kalima portraits of the Prophet. In these portraits Muhammad’s facial features were removed and replaced by the vocative statement “Ya Muhammad” (O Muhammad). Muhammed was depicted with a body but without facial features in most of these portraits. Similarly, in Nizami Ganjavi’s (1141-1209) poem Makhzan al-asrdr (Treasury of Secrets) angels and other people had full bodies and faces but the Prophet was portrayed only as a gold disk ascending through the heavens.16

The other source of abstract depictions of the Prophet is the notion of the “Light of Muhammad (nur Muhammad).” The Qur’an defines Muhammad as a “luminous lamp” (sirajun munir) that can lead people out of darkness (Qur’an 33:46). There are also many hadiths saying Muhammad’s face shines like a full moon.17 Paintings produced after the 16th century frequently portrayed the Prophet’s face covered by a gold or white veil and flaming halo around his head.18 From this point on, we find that “linked to the growth of mysticism and sectarianism, these prophetic light metaphors in the painterly arts no doubt reflected - and further enhanced - Sufi and Shi’i modes for expression in Persianate lands.”” Prior to that time, there were not significant differences regarding prophetic portraiture across Turkic, Arabic, or Persian manuscript traditions. For example, al-Darir’s book Sirat al-Nabi (Biography of the Prophet), illustrated in 1596 by the order of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III (1546-95), portrayed Muhammad with his veiled face and flaming halo around him.20

However, by the 17th century, artistic conventions and norms took shape along sectarian lines that were situated in Ottoman and Safavid political domains. In Sunni communities of West Asia textual icons (hilye) became the predominant form of prophetic representation while Shi’a artists in Persianate lands focused on visual depictions of Muhammad that were composed of veiled and luminous motifs for his visage. Ottoman calligraphers inscribed the Prophet’s physical beauty in textual forms and the hilye (ornament) tradition was born. The text of hilye is a verbal image of Muhammad describing both his personality and appearance. Calligraphers transformed the text into an ornamented calligraphic image eventually perfected by Hafiz Osman (1642-1698) in the late 17th century.21 It is still common in modern Turkey and can be found easily on calendars, postcards, or walls at homes and small mosques.

On the other hand, portraying the Prophet is complex in the Shi’a world. From the 16th century until the last quarter of the 20th century, Persian artists both show the Prophet with his facial features exposed or provided with a veil. Figural imagery of Muhammad increased after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. From the revolution until the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005-2006, a variety of posters, postcards, stickers, and carpets depicting Muhammad could be purchased in stores and are found in private homes, shrines, and cemeteries.22

One widely circulated image in Iran between the 1990’s and the 2006 cartoon controversy was that of Muhammad as a young boy. It is a modern print of an adolescent male in a sensual pose, his head bent down toward his shoulder, his lips are parted in a smile.2’’ However, this image was based on a photograph titled “Young Arab Boy” or “Muhammad” taken by two Orientalists in North Africa around 1905-1906 showing a young Arab boy named Muhammad.24

After the Danish cartoon controversy, Iranian officials wanted to control figural representations of the Prophet. Muhammad was portrayed in children books with a veiled face and solar halo. The Ministry of Endowments and Charitable Works had issued an internal memo requiring that all shrines remove their pictorial icons in 2008. Despite increasing official restrictions, pictorial representations such as postcards representing the Prophet can be sold in supermarkets, placed on walls in private homes, and appear as framed icons in shrines. In fact, the famous “young Muhammad” image can be found side by side with Ayatollah Khomeini’s photo on martyr’s tombstones.25

The history of these prophetic images developing over time and space shape the visual landscape in which our directors, Moustapha Akkad and Majid Majidi, were socialized. In what follows, I show that the dominant practices governing artistic norms in Sunni and Shi’a communities are reflected in the ways each director depicted Muhammad. Akkad’s The Message employs strategies similar to those developed in Ottoman visual icons, while Majidi’s Muhammad: The Messenger of God mirrors visual practices of illumination and abstraction derived from miniature portraiture. These vernacular cultural conventions are certainly just one of many artistic stimuli, but they should be recognized as a powerful structure shaping the cinematic aesthetics in each film.

Cinematic representation of Prophet Muhammad

A cinematograph was brought to the Ottoman Palace a couple of months after the Lumiere brothers’ first public show in the Grand Café in 1895. Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918) and his officials embraced the cinematograph and accepted it as “an important device for mankind.”26 Istanbul, Anatolia, the Balkans, and West Asia became acquainted with the cinema for the first time during the Ottoman period.27 After the Ottomans, local cinema industries emerged in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey etc.28

Inevitably Muslim filmmakers imagined producing a movie on the Prophet as cinema industries progressed in Muslim countries. Turkish-Egyptian filmmaker Vedat Orfi Bengii wanted to produce a movie on Muhammad’s life that was financed by Turkey. He offered the role of Muhammad to Yusuf Wahbi, famous Egyptian actor who was of Turkish origin. Wahbi announced his intention to take the role in 1927 but scholars of al-Azhar University in Egypt protested. They objected again in 1930 for similar reasons insisting on a prohibition against portraying Muhammad.29

The message

In 1973, the film Jesus Christ Superstar was shown in cinemas all over the world and made a deep impression on audiences, inspiring Muslims to produce a similar film about Prophet Muhammad.30 Director Moustapha Akkad, Syrian-born Hollywood filmmaker, would be the one to fulfill this desire among audiences. Akkad was influenced by classic Hollywood cinema, such as the epic film Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean in 1962. Akkad said “the scene that I admired most in my life is David Lean’s scene when Omar Sharif was introduced. I was so moved by that scene, and I tried to really kind of do similar.” He was determined to create a film spectacle about the life of the Prophet Muhammad.31

Akkad faced resistance from Hollywood to make a film about Muhammad and had to go outside the U.S. to raise money for the film production.32 Moroccan and Libyan leaders King Hassan II and Muammar Gaddafi, sponsored the movie.33 Akkad wrote the screenplay in cooperation with writers and scholars from Al-Azhar to restrain any controversies. The script was scrutinized and approved page by page by scholars from Cairo. The Prophet’s name was eventually removed from the original title Mohammad, Messenger of God and the film was renamed simply as The Message. The members of the Shi’ite Council of Lebanon also gave the film their approval. In cooperation with scholars, Akkad decided that the Prophet himself would not appear on screen at all, only his cane and camel would be visible.34

After production had started in 1974, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia put pressure on Morocco’s King Hassan II and forced him to expel the filmmakers. The Muslim World League in Mecca, Saudi Arabia rejected the project and the Muslim scholars who had initially approved the shooting script withdrew their support and called the completed film “an insult to Islam.” Akkad moved filming to Libya, with the support of Gaddafi, which presented a whole new set of political problems for the filmmakers.35 The problems were not yet over, however. When the film was scheduled to premiere in the U.S. Black Muslim extremists occupied the building of the Jewish B’nai B’rith organization in Washington, DC, threatening to kill everyone unless the American premiere of the film was cancelled.36 They assumed mistakenly that Anthony Quinn played the prophet in the film. The problem was resolved without injuries but the film’s American box office never

Depicting Muhammad without showing him 129 recovered from the controversy.37 Moreover, Western film reviewers were not impressed and made negative comments about the film.38

The Message released first in London on July 30, 1976, followed by screenings in the USA, France, West Germany, Sweden, Philippines, and Colombia. One of the first Muslim-majority countries showing the film was Turkey on October 1979.39 Because of the controversies many Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, and Egypt, banned the movie. Interestingly, al-Azhar repeated its opinion about the film in 2004 by declaring that “The Message was not allowed to be screened in any cinema on Egyptian territory, or to be broadcast by any television company transmitting from Egyptian soil.”40 However, in spite of the debates about it permissibility, The Message circulated within Muslim communities by means of DVD’s, CD’s, the internet, and TV broadcasting. For example, one can watch The Message on television during Ramadan every year, even 41 years after its release. Many people learned about the Prophet’s life by watching The Message more than reading books in Turkey.

Muhammad: the messenger of God

In 2006, Majid Majidi’s film The Willow Tree was about to premiere at the 17th annual NatFilm Festival in Copenhagen. However, Majidi backed out the screening of the film citing the controversy over cartoon depictions of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. He thought, “while there are 250 films on Jesus Christ, 120 films on Moses, 80 about the other prophets and 40 films on Buddha, there is only 1 movie on the life of Prophet Muhammad. Unfortunately, we fail to introduce our Prophet to the Western world. What can we do to make them to love Prophet Muhammad? We have to show who the Prophet Muhammad is.” This realization and challenge led him to the idea of making a film about Muhammad.41

Majidi had consulted with both Sunni and Shi’i scholars from Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, and Iraq.42 He researched using sources from hadith and prophetic biographies (sira) for four years.43 The film’s set, which depicted 7th century Mecca, began production in the city of Qum, Iran in 2011. However, this was also triggering some of the controversies over the film.

Scholars from al-Azhar opposed the movie before its release, stating “we demand that Iran refrain from releasing the movie, so that an undistorted image of the Prophet can be preserved in the minds of Muslims. We call upon all filmmakers to respect religions and prophets.”44 After the production, Al-Azhar officials said that “portraying the Prophet Muhammad was tantamount to belittling his spiritual status.” Abdel Dayyem Nosair, adviser to Al-Azhar head Ahmed al-Tayyeb, pointed out another concern that “the actor who plays this role may later play a criminal, and viewers may associate these characters with criminality.”45

Reinforcing al-Azhar’s position, the mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, criticized, “The movie tarnishes and antagonizes Islam. It should not be shown if Sharia is to be respected.” That same day, the Muslim World League issued an announcement and called on Iran to “stop showing the movie and ban it because it disrespects the Prophet.” It also advised Muslims worldwide to “boycott the movie because it insults the position of prophecy.”46

Finally, the Mumbai-based Raza Academy exaggerates the criticism. They have issued a fatwa against Majid Majidi and the Indian composer A. R. Rahman. The non-binding legal opinion accused Majidi and Rahman of sacrilege and called for them to re-read the testament of faith (kalimat al-shahddah) in order to be a Muslim again. They also wrote a letter to the Indian Government calling for them to ban Majidi’s movie.47

On the other hand, Majidi criticized al-Azhar and Saudi Arabian scholars. He said that “I ask the opponents to let people announce their own opinion after watching the film. I also invited the officials of Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar University that banned this movie to watch it, but, they condemned it without watching this film.” According to Majidi, the Sunni scholars in other countries like Russia watched the film and not only did they not ban the film but they also encouraged people to watch it. For example, before screening the film in Turkey, Majidi watched the movie along with Hayrettin Karaman, Turkish Sunni scholar, and he approved of the movie, saying that the film was an appropriate model for youths and young adults.48

Visual continuities in depicting Muhammad

Akkad’s The Message and Majidi’s Muhammad: The Messenger of God share similar objectives. Both films seem to be produced for a wider non-Muslim Euro-American audience more than general Muslim publics. Akkad and Majidi were both personally motivated to show Muhammad and Islam in a more nuanced and positive light for these audiences. Both also attempted to stop any potential controversy among Muslim viewers by consulting Sunni and Shi’i scholars. Ultimately, they could not manage to prevent their movies from being banned in many Muslim-majority countries. Some objections to the films from Muslim audiences are rooted in the modern disapproval of any representation of Muhammad but others are embedded within the visual grammar of different cultural traditions. The Message’s visual logic is based on the Ottoman hilye tradition while Muhammad: The Messenger of God’s representational patterns use techniques popularized in Persianate miniature portraits of Muhammad after 16th century.

Similar to Ottoman hilye, which does not show the Prophet’s physical features, Akkad does not show Muhammad’s body in his film. The hilye is the verbal image of Muhammad describing both his personality and appearance. In The Message Akkad only uses camera movements to give his point of view. When the Prophet needs to speak, one of his companions voices his sentiments as if he ordered him to inform the others. In this way, the companion says “The Prophet said that.. .”

This type of verbal imagery is operative in the opening scenes of The Message where delegates are sent to deliver Muhammad’s invitation to Islam to neighboring leaders. Like the hilye, Muhammad’s personal identity is embodied through the words on these letters. The Byzantium king Heraclius respectfully welcomes Muhammad’s communication while the Persian ruler Khosrow II insults the delegate and rips up Muhammad’s words.

In a later scene, Muhammad’s presence is conjured before the Abyssinian King when Muslims were seeking asylum from Meccan polytheists who wanted to recapture and punish them. The Muslims recited some Qur’anic verses about Jesus and Mary, which appealed to the Christian king, and Muhammad was embodied as the deliverer of wisdom through the Qur’an. The king said there was no difference between these verses and the Bible so he refused to Meccans request and hosted Muslim asylum seekers in his country.

In other scenes, Muhammad is corporealized through his visual point of view as represented by the camera’s gaze. For example, when his followers are protecting him on the way to the Ka‘ba, Hamza shows up, saves Muhammad and his companions from Meccan pagans. While he declares his belief to Muhammad, we see Hamza’s face from Muhammad’s point of view. In another scene, when Hamza and other Muslims are building a wall on the first mosque in Medina, the audiences view the scene from Muhammad’s perspective. Hamza walks toward the camera, takes a big stone from Muhammad, and says, “Give me that. You are doing too much. Please go and sit down.”

In the scenes entering Medina and conquering Mecca, the audience sees Muhammad’s camel’s head, his stick, and the crowd around him from his point of view. People salute him and the camera frame gestures to looks at them, giving the viewer the impression of following Muhammad’s line of sight. We see Muhammad enters Ka‘ba and view the many idols. The camera follows along as Muhammad is depicted as knocking down an idol with his stick.

These camera movements are also used when Muhammad consults Hamza about the Battle of Badr, when he talks to a Meccan delegate about the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, when he turns away from a Meccan leader when they break the peace, and when he witnesses Abu Sufyan and Halid b. Walid declare their conversion to Islam. As I have demonstrated, very often Akkad’s film, like the hilye, depicts the Prophet Muhammad without showing him.

In Muhammad: The Messenger of God, Majidi uses the same types of techniques that miniature portraits have traditionally employed to show Muhammad. As noted earlier, later Persianate representations of the Prophet showed his whole body, including his feet, legs, hands, arms, chest, and turban. However, they portrayed his face covered by a gold or white veil or illuminated with a flaming halo around his head. Throughout the film, Majidi uses these techniques to obscure Muhammad’s direct image, hiding his face subtly by using veils, lights, and hands.

On the night Muhammad is first born, his grandfather looks up to see a big star like a shiny medal in the sky. He heads home and when he approaches the house, it is full of light and pouring out of every opening. He enters the home and sees the newly born Muhammad wrapped in a white blanket, showered in bright light, with only his hands and feet visible to the viewer. In the following scene, his grandfather gives Muhammad his name outside in front of a group of Meccans. He puts his hand on the baby’s face to protect it from the sun, through which the viewer can see his whole body except for his face. As he raises the child in the air, he is illuminated by the sun in a silhouette. In a later scene, Muhammad returns to Mecca to visit his wet nurse, or milk-mother, Halima, and covers his face with his hands in order to avoid seeing victims of the plague lying on the streets. The audience can only slightly see his eyes.

Majidi also used hair and a turban to cover the Prophet’s face. For example, when the young Muhammad goes to a poor fishing town, or later when he goes to a waterfall to fill his water bottle, his face is covered and obscured for the viewer. However, in both scenes the audience is able to see his body in full view except for his face. In the film, there are many scene that employ these techniques that allow the viewer to see Muhammad’s hair, hands, feet, turban, and full body but conceal his face.

Three other scenes are very similar to traditional miniature portraits and echo methods from this artistic genre. In the first, Muhammad has a fever during a journey. His nanny lays him in a pond and puts a wet white cloth on his face in order to break the fever. This frame replicates many portraits where Muhammad’s full body is displayed but his face is covered with in white. In another scene, the Prophet slowly enters Monk Bahira’s monastery through the front doors. At the entrance, dense light from the door covers his whole head and makes a halo around his body. As he moves forward toward Bahira, light pours in from outside illuminating his back, making it look as if he is glowing. In the last scene, Muhammad’s followers gather by candle light to listen to him recite the Qur’an. They all gather side by side looking up the mountain side at Muhammad. His body is never pictured but as he starts to recite verses the crowd begins to be showered in bright light. Here, his body is visualized as pure light that totally engulfs him.

Overall, throughout the film Majidi represents the Prophet Muhammad in ways that draw on visual patterns found in traditional miniature portraits, showing hands, feet, hair, turban, and his full body but always obscure his face. It is clear that Majidi shares the same understanding about the representation of Muhammad as traditional portraiture artists. Moreover, Majidi uses exactly the same visual techniques as traditional miniature portraits, depicting Muhammad as a shiny medal and pure light. When they portrayed him as a human, they showed his full body with a veil on his face and an illuminating halo around him. Majidi inherited all of these techniques and used them frequently in his movie.


Through the analysis of visual patterns in two contemporary biographical films about Muhammad, I have tried to demonstrate that filmmakers are drawing upon different historical genres of prophetic representation. Shama'il and dala'il al-nubuwwa books influenced Muslim artists and became the main source for depictions of Muhammad. The earliest paintings of the Prophet from 13th century depict him as a fully visible corporeal figure, whose facial features are completely visible. By the 16th century, abstraction became the predominant form of prophetic representation, frequently portraying the Prophet’s face covered by a gold or white veil and flaming halo around his head.49 In the 17th century, artistic conventions took shape along sectarian lines. In Sunni communities textual icons (hilye) became the predominant form of prophetic representation while Shi’a artists focused on visual depictions of Muhammad that were composed of veiled and luminous motifs for his visage. These two approaches can be seen in Akkad’s The Message, employing strategies similar to hilye, and Majidi’s Muhammad: The Messenger of God, using visual practices of traditional miniature portraiture.

In The Message, Moustapha Akkad follows the hilye tradition which does not show the Prophet’s physical features and only uses camera movements to give his point of view. When the Prophet needs to speak, one of his companions voices his sentiments as if he ordered him to inform the others. In this way, Muhammad’s personal identity is embodied through the words just like the hilye. In Muhammad: The Messenger of God, Majid Majidi shows Muhammad’s figure, extremities, hair, or turban but like traditional miniature portraits his face is kept hidden from view. Majidi imitates many of the same techniques as miniature portraits to cover Muhammad’s face, such as using a veil, light, curtain, hand, or hair. He even reproduces traditional ways of depicting the Prophet by showing him as a flaming disk or as pure light. Overall, we find that contemporary filmmakers are relying on a vast and varied tradition of Islamic visual culture to address new challenges and heightened sensitivities to the representation of Muhammad. They have creatively adapted long-established artistic strategies into a new medium of cinema in order to picture the Prophet without showing him.


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M. Ya§ar Kandemir, “§email,” Diyanet Islam Ansiklopedisi XXXVIII (2010): 498-499, 2=c380303#l.

Christiane Gruber, “Between Logos (Kalima) and Light (Nur): Representations of the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Painting,” Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World XXVI (2009): 235.

Zeren Tamndi, Siyer-i Nebi, Islam Tasvir Sanatmda Hz. Muhammed’in Hayati (Istanbul: Hiirriyet Vakfi Yayinlari, 1984), 9; F. Banu Mahir, “Minyatiir,” Diyanet Islam Ansiklopedisi XXX (2005): 118, index. php?klme=minyat%C3%BCr.

Gruber, “Between Logos (Kalima) and Light (Nur),” 234.

Christiane Gruber, “Images of the Prophet Muhammad In and Out of Modernity: The Curious Case of a 2008 Mural in Tehran,” in Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East, eds. Christiane Gruber and Sune Haugbolle (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013), 20.

Freek L. Bakker, The Challenge of the Silver Screen, An Analysis of the Cinematic Portraits of Jesus, Rama, Buddha and Muhammad (Boston: Brill Publication, 2009), 207.

Gruber, “Between Logos (Kalima) and Light (Nur),” 236-239.

T.W. Arnold, “An Indian Picture of Muhammad and His Companions,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs XXXIV, no. 195 (1919): 250.

Abolala Soudavar, Art of the Persian Courts: Selections from the Art and History Trust Collection (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 332.

Bakker, The Challenge of the Silver Screen, 209.

Gruber, “Between Logos (Kalima) and Light (Nur),” 240-246.

Schimmel, And Muhammad Is His Messenger, 123-143.

Gruber, “Images of the Prophet Muhammad In and Out of Modernity.”

Christiane Gruber, The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2019), 18.

Christiane Gruber, “Kur’an-i Kerim Hz: Muhammed’in resmini yapmayi yasak-lamaz.” T24 (2015),, 187.

Oleg Grabar, “The Story of Portraits of the Prophet Muhammad,” Studia Islam-ica (2003): 33-34; Mustafa Uzun, “Hilye,” Diyanet Islam Ansiklopedisi XVIII (1998): 47, 2=cl80021#2.

Christiane Gruber, “Images,” in Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Prophet of God (Oxford: ABC Clio Publications, 2014), 292.

Grabar, “The Story of Portraits of the Prophet Muhammad,” 35; Bakker, The Challenge of the Silver Screen, 209.

Gruber, “Images of the Prophet Muhammad In and Out of Modernity,” 22.

Christiane Gruber, “Prophetic Products: Muhammad in Contemporary Iranian Visual Culture,” The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief (2016): 1-35.

Bilal Yorulmaz, Sinema ve Din Egitimi (Istanbul: DEM Yayinlari, 2016), 55.

Bilal Yorulmaz, “The Early Life of Cinema in Turkey: Religious, Moral, and Social Problems Arising Between 1896-1923 and Solutions in the Light of the Ottoman Archive Documents,” Journal of Islamic Research (2012): 186.

Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema, History and Cultural Identity (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998), 2.

ibid., 49.

Freek L. Bakker, “The Image of Muhammad in ‘The Message’, the First and Only Feature Film About the Prophet of Islam,” Islam and Christian - Muslim Relations XVII (2006): 78.

R.H. Greene, “40 Years On, a Controversial Film on Islam’s Origins Is Now a Classic.”

Ika Dewi Oktavianingrum, “Martyrdom of Prophet’s Uncle in the Message Movie Directed by Moustapha Akkad (1976): An Individual Psychological Approach.” (M.A. Dissertation, Muhammadiyah University of Surakarta, 2011), 2.

Kevin Smets, “Connecting Islam and Film Culture: The Reception of the Message (Ar Risalah) Among the Moroccan Diaspora,” Journal of Audience and Reception Studies IX (2012): 76.

Greene, “40 Years On”; Bakker, “The Image of Muhammad,” 78.

Bakker, “The Image of Muhammad,” 78; Oktavianingrum, “Martyrdom of Prophet’s Uncle,” 6; Greene, “40 Years On.”

Bakker, “The Image of Muhammad,” 78.

Oktavianingrum, “Martyrdom of Prophet’s Uncle,” 4.

Anton Karl Kozlovic, “Islam, Muslims and Arabs in the Popular Hollywood Cinema,” Comparative Islamic Studies (2007): 217.

The Message,

Bakker, “The Image of Muhammad,” 88.

Remarks from Majid Majidi at workshop on Biography and Visuality at Meridyen Foundation, April 15, 2013.

Carmel Kilkenny, “Montreal World Film Festival 39th Edition Opening with ‘Muhammad: Messenger of God’,” Radio Canada International, www.rcinet. ca/en/2015/08/13/montreal-world-film-festival-3 9th-edition-opening-with-muhammad-messenger-of-god/.

Phil Hoad, “Muhammad Biopic Director Calls for More Movies About the Prophet’s Life,” The Guardian, muhammad-biopic-director-calls-for-more-movies-about-the-prophets-life.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iranian Film on Prophet Muhammad Set for Premiere,” The Guardian,

Frederick J. Brown, “Iranian Biopic on Prophet Muhammad Sparks Anger,” France 24,

Ahmed Fouad, “Is This the Next Movie to Be Banned by Egypt?” Al-Monitor,

Ben Child, “Indian Clerics Issue Fatwa Against Makers of Muhammad: The Messenger of God,” The Guardian, fatwa-muhammad-the-messenger-of-god-majid-majidi-ar-rahman.

“Majid Majidi Criticizes Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar A Report on Interview of Majid Majidi with Anadolu News Agency,” Islamic Development Organization,

Gruber, “Images of the Prophet Muhammad In and Out of Modernity,” 20.

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