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Iran’s lavish Mohammed biopic draws Sunni scholars’ outrage

Iran’s lavish Mohammed biopic draws Sunni scholars’ outrage
Shia Iran’s 171-minute epic film depicting the early life of Islam’s founder Mohammed opened this week to nearly full movie houses, but it has attracted censure from the rival Sunni branch of Islam.

With a $40 million budget, Muhammad: Messenger of God is reportedly the most expensive film ever produced by the Iranian film industry. Filmed over seven years by Oscar-nominated director Majid Majidi, it features a set that faithfully recreates Mecca, Mohammed’s base 14 centuries ago.

But while the Prophet himself is not depicted – other than hands, feet and other incidental details in line with Muslim tradition – the film has been criticized by Sunni Islam’s most authoritative institution, the Al-Azhar University in Egypt.

“This matter is already settled. Sharia prohibits embodying the prophets,” said a statement from Professor Abdel Fattah Alawari, dean of the Islamic theology faculty at the Cairo based center of learning.

“It is not permissible in Islam that someone, an actor, has contradictory and conflicting roles; sometimes we see him as a blind drunk, sometimes as a womanizer ... and then he embodies a prophet ... this is not permissible.”

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Nevertheless, Majidi says he did not make the film to create a controversy mixing politics and religion, but rather to bring an end to another geopolitical conflict.

“I decided to make this film to fight against the new wave of Islamophobia in the West. The Western interpretation of Islam is full of violence and terrorism,” he said ahead of the international premiere of the film at the Montreal Film Festival.

READ MORE: Mohammed Cartoon Exhibit cancelled over ‘real possibility’ of violence

“Unfortunately at this time the impression of Islam is of a radical, fanatical, and violent religion, which is not what it’s about… The barbaric acts of terrorism conducted by terrorist groups under the guise of Islam are not related to Islam,” Majidi added as quoted by AFP, apparently alluding to atrocities committed by the likes of Islamic State (IS, aka ISIL/ISIS).

The film has opened in 143 cinemas in Iran, and while no box office figures are available as of yet, journalists have reported nearly full houses during the initial screenings.

Only one other full-length film featuring Mohammed has been made – the 1976 biopic The Message.

Majidi, whose work has been heartily endorsed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says he plans to shoot two sequels.

READ MORE: No more Muhammad cartoons, Charlie Hebdo editor says