I don’t recall being as excited and engrossed about the outcome of the American film box office as much as I was on Sept. 29, 2004. The historical day marked the debut of “The Passion of the Christ, a small independent film shrouded in heated controversy.
The $125 million “Passion generated in its first week was simply dumbfounding.
Its success was a great underdog story, which was the main reason for my anticipation. I was also certain that the film’s success would incite Hollywood to bring religion back to mainstream cinema.
With “Chronicles of Narnia, “The Nativity Story, “Evan Almighty – among many others – religion was front and center in cinema again. What many observers overlooked, however, is that religion never really abandoned film.
Religion and Biblical stories were the staples of the earliest form of cinema. Unlike the case in America and Europe, Egyptian cinema remained secular for the first three decades of its existence.
The intrinsic conservative nature of Egyptian society and the strong influence of religion always shaped the core of the most freethinking stories. For example, audiences tore down a theater showing of an early film starring screen siren Aziza Amir in the 1930s because they couldn’t accept that the morally incorrect heroine would go unpunished.
For decades though, the Islamic institution in Egypt strongly opposed the production of any Islamic films. Islam forbids the portrayal of Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) or any of his sahaba (companions) but that wasn’t the only motive behind the scholars’ hardline stance.
Cinema and actors were looked down upon by a considerable portion of society and the majority of religious scholars deemed film to be a dangerous fad borrowed from the West. It wasn’t surprising when the dean of Arabic theater Youssef Wahby was forced by King Fouad to make a public apology – who threatened to strip him of Egyptian citizenship – after Wahby attempted to play the role of the Prophet in a film to be directed by Wedad Orfi in 1926.
Several Egyptian films continued to carry Islamic themes in their heart, conveyed in a subtle fashion, depicted as general codes of ethics in order to appeal to the hybrid community of the time.
The one director in Egyptian film history that – judging by the bulk of his work – can easily be branded as an Islamic filmmaker is Hussein Sidky.
Born in 1917 to a deeply religious family, Sidky rejected playing any characters whose moral principles contradicted his faith. In 1935, he famously rejected the role of a man who engages in an adulterous affair with his stepmother in Youssef Wahby’s play “Ragol Al Saa (Man of the Hour).
His success in the Kamal Selim masterpiece “Al Azeema in 1939 enabled him to set up a production company dedicated to films with significant social and religious messages.
Sidky’s home was located in Hilmeya, the unofficial headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. His friendship with the brotherhood members, including Sayyid Qutb (whose ideas were allegedly adopted by radical, violent Islamist groups) influenced his work.
Underneath notions of social responsibility and strict opposition to any behavior deviating from his beliefs; a deep-seated urge to punish wrongdoers and a sense of divine justice, occasionally implemented in the form of vengeance, is at the heart of his movies.
His 1952 film “El Sheikh Hassan remains his most divisive work to date. The film revolves around a Muslim preacher who marries a Christian woman belonging to one of the expatriate communities against the will of both families.
The film failed to conceal its clear favoritism for Islam over Christianity, and was banned for some years. It is never broadcast on local Egyptian TV and is rarely shown on satellite channels.
The 1950s witnessed the birth of the first official Islamic film with “Zohor Al Islam (The Birth of Islam) in 1950 followed by “Intisar Al Islam (Victory of Islam), “Bilal Muezzin al Rasool (Bilal, the Prohpet’s Muezzin), “El Sayed El Ahmed El Badawy and others.
Critics link the flood of such pictures in that particular period to political objectives, namely the government’s fear of the spread of communism and the desire to boost public morale after the Arab defeat in 1948. A film like Hossam El Din Moustafa’s 1972 “Al Shiamaa – the best and most accomplished of them – capitalized on the dominant anti-Israel sentiment in its portrayal of Jews.
Nearly all 12 Islamic films released between 1951 and 1972 were classified as historical flicks that scarcely delved into Islamic ideology.
Despite the stereotypically negative portrayal of Muslims and Arabs in American and European cinema, few non-Arab films try to discuss, defend or explain the Islamic faith.
Moustafa Akkad’s “The Message is one exception. Akkad’s masterpiece, which was banned in most Middle East countries for portraying Hamza, the Prophet s uncle, is a powerful and engaging epic about the early beginnings of Islam and its establishment. Nevertheless, it remains another historical picture not worlds apart from similar Egyptian productions set in the exact same period.
However the finest films with Islamic premises so far were produced by unlikely sources.
El Sheikh Hassan of Atef Salem’s 1954 “Gaaltouny Mogreman (You’ve Made Me a Criminal) is the essential embodiment of the Muslim faith. “Criminal, penned by actor Farid Shawky and inspired by Michael Curtiz’s 1938 “Angels with Dirty Faces, tells the story of Sultan (Shawky), a hoodlum drawn into the criminal world as a result of overwhelming social inequality.
Sheikh Hassan (Yehia Shahin), Sultan’s only friend, struggles throughout the course of the film to save him from this path. A deeply spiritual man and a marvel of a character, Hassan refuses to judge Sultan or his singer/prostitute girlfriend (played by Hoda Sultan). Instead, he offers her shelter, helps her land a decent job and defends her from the accusations of his neighbors. Hassan is an almost flawless personification of the Islamic faith, a character very few pictures succeeded in capturing.
François Dupeyron’s lovely 2003 “Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran starring Omar Sharif is another film of the same ilk. “Ibrahim charted the friendship of a Muslim grocery store owner and a Jewish kid called Momo in Paris during the 1960s. Drenched in Sufi philosophy, Ibrahim teaches Momo about the road to happiness through the teachings of the Quran. This irresistible joy and peacefulness is seldom found in Arabic religious film.
Youssef Chahine’s “El Naser Salah El Din also exhibits the teachings of Islam through the actions of its protagonist, Saladin, played by Ahmed Mazhar.
The one well-known film that took a direct stab against Islam is Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh’s 2004 “Submission: Part 1. The disreputable short film led to van Gogh’s murder the same year at the hands of a Muslim extremist.
“Submission was written and narrated by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born refugee and a former member of the Dutch parliament. The film is a collection of fictional, simplistic anecdotes about women subjected to rape, physical abuse and circumcision in Muslim countries.
The film, which features a woman in a burqa (niqab) wearing a transparent dress with Quranic verses scripted on her body, is blasphemous in parts and offensive in others. Van Gogh, known for his bigotry, was a radical writer/filmmaker who frequently affronted Islam in his work.
All things aside though, the man was a gifted filmmaker. Despite its improper approach and falsehoods, “Submission is an impulsive, livid movie written by a woman subjected to circumcision at the age of five. Later on, she suffers from physical assault at the hands of her husband. For years, she is enraged by God’s silence over the pain inflicted upon her and thousands of others.
Controversial films like “Submission and Saad Arafa’s banned stab at the hypocrisy of the new conservative Islam surfacing in the 1970s in “Al Ghoraba’ (The Strangers) and “Al Mala’ka La Taskon Al Ard (Angels Don’t Inhabit the Earth) – should have provoked M
uslim intellectuals to clarify the numerous misconceptions surrounding the religion instead of prohibiting substantial works that could make a difference.