Published November 25, 2008
If film producer Oscar Zoghbi has his way, Americans will be soon be flocking to movie theaters to see a film about the Prophet Muhammad and his followers that Zoghbi hopes will clear up misconceptions about Muslims, including what he says is "the understanding that all Muslims are terrorists."
Zoghbi says he hopes to shoot some scenes for his movie in the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, and he predicts his film, "The Messenger of Peace," will rival Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ."
But some critics predict Zoghbi's movie, which is scheduled to begin production early next year, will be a whitewash, and that it won't tell the whole story about Muhammad or Islam.
Nonie Darwish, the author of the upcoming book "Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law," said the film will likely try too hard not to offend.
"The movie will probably avoid or justify Muhammad's violent and unprovoked battling years in Medina, where assassination and mass murder were done by Muhammad … in order to spread the religion, take control and silence his critics," Darwish said.
"We will probably see the image of Muhammad that most Muslims were spoon-fed in their religious education."
Robert Spencer, director of JihadWatch.com, said Western audiences looking to learn more about a religion tangled in stereotypes of suicide bombers will be disappointed by "The Messenger of Peace."
"They're already taking a stand on a controversial issue with the title alone, denying and downplaying the manifest fact that numerous Muslims around the world have justified acts of violence by invoking Muhammad's words and example," Spencer said.
But Zoghbi says his film will very deliberately take a moderate approach.
"We are trying to depict the values and teachings of the Prophet. It's not a historical film in any way," he said.
"And it's not a Muslim propaganda film. This film is also for Muslims, and I hope it will encourage them to condemn violence."
One thing Zoghbi hopes to avoid is the violence and outrage in the Muslim world that has followed some recent depictions of the prophet Muhammad.
Islamic conventions forbid the showing of Muhammad in any form, and violence has often followed the release of newspaper cartoons, books and films that criticized or simply depicted the Muslim prophet.
In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran a cartoon depicting Muhammad wearing a turban with a bomb in it, sparking riots that killed more than 30 people throughout the Islamic world. This year, protests began on news of "Fitna," a film critical of Islam, and Random House cancelled distribution of the widely anticipated book "Jewel of Medina" out of fear of such a reaction.
Zoghbi said that he will make every effort to ensure that "The Messenger of Peace" is in line with Islamic traditions.
"Islam itself doesn't stop you from showing the Prophet," Zoghbi said. "But it is convention and tradition, and we will abide by that. We do not want to offend anyone."
The film will also follow tradition by not portraying various close companions of Muhammad in human form. And the Dubai-based Dar Al Sharia Legal and Financial Consultancy, a branch of the Dubai Islamic Bank, has been hired to make sure the film is in keeping with Islamic standards.
"The Messenger of Peace" has a $130 million budget and is being funded by individual investors located throughout the Middle East -- especially in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Zoghbi said that a list of investors is expected to be released next month, unless those involved object.
Cast and crew decisions will also be finalized soon, and Zoghbi plans to use casting agencies in both Los Angeles and Britain. Much of the filming will be done in the United Arab Emirates.
Many have drawn parallels between Zoghbi's film and "The Message," a 1977 film starring Anthony Quinn that also told the story of Islam. That film was directed by Moustapha Akkad, who, along with his daughter, became a victim of Islamic violence in 2005 when they were among the 60 killed in an Al Qaeda bombing of a hotel in Amman, Jordan.
Zoghbi, who worked on "The Message," is trying to distance his film from Akkad's. He said "The Messenger of Peace" will tell a common story, but that's where the similarities end. "It's not a remake at all, and will be totally different in content, story and production," he said.
He'll also want to avoid the controversy that followed "The Message." When that film opened, a group of extremists, demanding that the film be destroyed, took 149 people hostage in Washington, D.C., in what became known as the Hanafi Muslim Siege. The hostages were eventually released, but a police officer and a journalist were killed in the confrontation.
Tickets sales to the 1977 film also flagged when it was discovered that it had been partially funded by Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Zoghbi says he hopes his new film will bring people together.
"Nothing has been done on this for 30 years, and I decided it was time to build some bridges."