(RNS) Worried there weren’t enough quality retellings of Muslim stories for children, Adiba Ataeva decided to start her own publishing company. But rather than printed books or videos, Ataeva went with audio books in part because the medium offered the least hassles with fellow Muslims.
“I thought, this is a fantastic way of telling Islamic stories, because I don’t have to deal with the problem of portraying images,” said Ataeva, a former BBC newsroom producer who started Miraj Audio in July.
The problem of visual representation was evident with the release of “Noah,” the $125 million film based on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. A similar version of the story appears in Islam’s holy book, the Quran, where Noah is known as Nuh.
Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates banned the film in early March, citing Islamic prohibitions on showing images of prophets. The Film Censorship Board in Indonesia, home to roughly 215 million Muslims -- more than any other country -- banned the film last week.
Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, a historic center of Islamic learning, issued a fatwa against the film urging Muslims not to see it, and also citing a prohibition on depicting prophets.
Yet most Muslim-majority countries have not banned “Noah,” and many observant Muslims in America saw the film when it debuted Friday (March 28).
Ataeva released her version of the Noah story, “Nuh and the Great Flood,” on March 18, just as the controversy was peaking.
She seeks the guidance of three religious consultants and the approval of the United Kingdom’s Shariah Council for all her audio productions.
Although nothing in the Quran forbids representations of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, the hadith, a collection of sayings and actions attributed to Muhammad, explicitly condemns such depictions. Scholars feared that pictures of Prophet Muhammad could become objects of worship, and thus a form of idolatry.
Aside from Muhammad, the prohibition on portraying other prophets is neither in the Quran nor the hadith, but was developed by Islamic scholars over the years.
“To rule out any possibility of abuse, the scholars went to the extreme, and decided to prohibit these drawings,” said Imam Talal Eid, executive director of the Islamic Institute of Boston, and a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Yet even conservative scholars say there is room for individual responsibility.
“The depiction of the Prophets is impermissible in any form of art,” wrote Hatem Al-Hajj, dean of the Shariah Academy of America, at OnIslam.net, which considers religious questions. But, he added, “If a discerning adult saw such a work for a certain expected benefit, while being alert to the negative aspects of such depiction, and the possible inaccuracy of the content, then there may be room there for permissibility, given the work doesn’t have other violations.”
Eid agrees, saying that if a follower asked him for advice, he would say: “It’s up to you.”
Personally, Eid draws the line at disrespect and blasphemy. For example, he didn’t want to see “The Last Temptation of Christ” after having read about the plot, because it struck him as blasphemous.
As for "Noah," Eid said, “I may go see the movie, but I need to see the reviews. If there is an abuse, I will not see it. If there is no abuse, this could be exciting for people to see.”
Hesham Hassaballa, a blogger on Muslim issues from Chicago, has seen “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Ten Commandments,” and other films with prophets, but not without a little trepidation.
“Technically you shouldn’t depict a prophet because if you do it wrong you’re doing a great disservice and great disrespect,” said Hassaballa. “If I were a screenwriter for 'Noah,' I’d be putting my words in Noah’s mouth. So without divine or scriptural guidance, it would be tricky, trying to be faithful to who Noah was, and trying to write a good story.”
To avoid controversies, artists have found creative ways to tell stories about Muhammad and other prophets. For example, medieval painters would blot out Muhammad’s face in manuscripts, while others represented him with gold leaf silhouettes.
Moustapha Akkad, the late Syrian filmmaker and observant Muslim perhaps best known for producing the "Halloween" series of horror films, did not show Muhammad's face in "The Message," his 1976 film about the prophet. Instead, he shot the film from Muhammad's perspective, so at times it seems as if characters are addressing the viewer.
Ataeva’s version of the Noah story is told from the animals’ perspective.
“We try to keep the dialogue that involves the prophet to a minimum because then we might be accused of falsifying the dialogue or coming up with things the prophets didn’t say,” she said.
Muslims aren’t alone in demanding bans on films with religious figures. “The Messiah,” a 2007 Iranian film about Jesus was shown in several Islamic countries, but not in Lebanon, where it was banned because Christians there said the film offended their belief that Jesus is the son of God. In 1988, a French Christian fundamentalist group threw Molotov cocktails in a Paris theater that was showing “The Last Temptation of Christ,” injuring 13 people.
Would Ataeva see "Noah"?
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable making images of the prophets,” she said, but added, “I would see it, because that’s my job, to see how others are tackling these stories.”
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