Reclaiming the Prophet Muhammad in Iran

Figure 1, Mi'raj Mural Tehran 2008
Figure 1: A five-story mural depicting the Prophet Muhammad’s celestial ascension, in Tehran, Iran, in 2008. Christiane Gruber

A new film about the Prophet Muhammad is slotted to have its debut this Sunday at the Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran. Directed by Majid Majidi, the biopic's cost has exceeded $30 million, making it the most expensive Iranian movie shot to date. Well before its release, the film was the subject of criticism due to the physical presence of Muhammad on screen. Although the Prophet's facial features are camouflaged through light and shade strategies, the Sunni clerics at al-Azhar in Cairo nevertheless attempted to halt its release so that "an undistorted image of the Prophet can be preserved in the minds of Muslims."

This latest disagreement over filmic portrayals of Muhammad reveals ongoing anxieties regarding visual representations of the Prophet in the Islamic world. However, such divergences do not appear to be based on sectarian grounds, as the movie covers Muhammad's childhood until the age of 12. Sunni and Shi'i debates over the life of the Prophet tend to revolve around the events of his adulthood, especially whether he appointed 'Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as his rightful successor. As Majidi himself has noted, the film purposefully skirts these sectarian debates over the life of the Prophet in order to present a positive and united presentation of Muhammad to international movie audiences.

This new Muhammad film does not emerge out of thin air. In addition to earlier movies (like Akkad's The Message) and others still in the making (by Qatar), Majidi's large-scale project is part of an effort to visually reclaim the Prophet and his legacy in Iran that has been under way since the Danish cartoons of 2005. While reactions to the cartoons in some Arab, Sunni and especially Salafi quarters included issuing of decrees stipulating that "images of prophets are disrespectful and caricatures of them blasphemous," a vastly different response has unfolded within Iran over the past decade. Indeed, Iran has launched a number of artistic, educational and public relations projects since 2006, itself dubbed by Ayatollah Khamenei "The Year of the Noble Prophet." As a result, celebratory depictions of the Prophet have emerged in full force, with Majidi's film the latest outcome of these officially sanctioned endeavors.

Among them, one of the most visible Iranian responses to the Danish cartoons is a colorful mural depicting Muhammad's celestial ascension, which was painted in 2008 on a five-story building located on a major thoroughfare in central Tehran (Figure 1). Sponsored by Tehran's municipality, the mural beautifies the capital city's urban space much like the vibrant and sometime surreal compositions by Iranian artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo. Notably missing here are portraits of ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, as well as Palestinian and Iranian martyrs. In their stead appears a pictorial eulogy of the Prophet based on a 15th-century manuscript painting. While the original illustration shows Muhammad's facial features, the contemporary mural renders his face as if a blank slate. This erasure of the Prophet's facial features most likely is because the image is in the public domain instead of tucked inside a private manuscript. It is also a likely result of the more reactionary and intransigent Muslim responses to images of Muhammad in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy.

Besides this mega-mural, a number of other Prophet-centered products have been made for the Iranian market since 2006. Targeting a juvenile audience in particular, a series of illustrated books written in simple prose and verse aims to teach children about Muhammad's life and miracles. These books include images of the Prophet, who often is depicted with a veiled face and solar halo, as can be seen in one image in which he is shown extending his arms to receive revelations at Mount Hira (Figure 2). The text that accompanies the colorful illustration informs its young readers that Muhammad was like the summer sun and the full moon, emitting both light and enlightenment into the world.

Figure 2 Salam Gol-e Mohammedi, page 18, like the sun, low res
Figure 2: The Prophet Muhammad receives revelations on Mount Hira in an illustration from the children’s book “Greetings, Rose of Muhammad,” Tehran, 2006. “Greetings, Rose of Muhammad”

Just like these Iranian children's books, Majidi's film takes up the question of childhood. The film's major scenes indubitably will reiterate some of the more famous episodes of the Prophet's youth, including his highly auspicious birth and his being recognized as a prophet by the Christian monk Bahira. Visually depicting these pivotal moments of Muhammad's early life is by no means a new phenomenon in Persian lands. Indeed, from 1300 CE onward a number of manuscript paintings represent Muhammad's birth as a luminous, angelic event (Figure 3). The texts that buttress these images inform us that, when he was born, Muhammad illuminated the entire world with his cosmic radiance, which rose upward to set the heavens and stars alight.

Figure 3 Muhammad's birth
Figure 3: A radiant Muhammad is born and held aloft by angels in Hafiz-i Abru's “Quintessence of Histories.” Freer/Sackler, Smithsonian Institution

Persian illustrated manuscripts also depict Muhammad's foretelling as a prophet at the tender age of 12, when he visited the city of Busra in Syria. It is at this time that the Christian monk Bahira recognized the signs of the young boy's future prophethood through a series of natural phenomena, like the bending of a tree's branches and/or a cloud providing him with shade, as well as the "seal of prophecy" mark imprinted on Muhammad's body (Figure 4). The latter episode belongs to a corpus of Islamic narratives that relate that the Prophet was announced and foretold as a prophet by a Christian holy man, who had read about his coming in the Bible.

bahira 4
Figure 4: The young Muhammad is recognized as a prophet by the Christian monk Bahira in Rashid al-Din's “Compendium of Histories.” University of Edinburgh

The story of Muhammad's youthful "seal of prophecy" recognition is a popular one across Islamic lands even today. Over the course of the 20th century, a number of mass-produced images of the young Muhammad—composed in a wide array of creative variants—were made in Iran. These appeared in banners, posters (Figure 5), postcards, carpets and stickers until they started to be suppressed in 2008.

Figure 5, Young Muhammad poster, Iran, 1990s, V&A
Figure 5: The young Muhammad, identified as “Muhammad, the Messenger of God,” on a poster made in Iran in the 1990s. Victoria and Albert Museum

While the recent Iranian suppression of these images is certainly a response to the Danish cartoon controversy, it also emanates from the discovery of its original pictorial source: an early 20th-century Orientalist photograph of a young Arab boy. Along with the anxieties brought about by this borrowed image, "severe security" concerns in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo caused the Victoria and Albert Museum to attempt to dissimulate its possession of one of these modern Iranian images of the young Muhammad.

Not shying away from depicting this pivotal moment in the Prophet's youth, Majidi in his biopic shows the young Muhammad arriving at Bahira's monastery (Figure 6). In this film still, the adolescent protagonist walks down the main aisle of a church as a burst of sunlight streams in from the open doors. This radiance symbolic of Muhammad's future prophecy floods into the interior space and overwhelms his facial features. This carefully designed visual strategy allows the Prophet to be both visible and invisible—represented and unrepresented—all at once.

Figure 6 Young Muhammad at Bahira's Monastery, Majid Majidi, Muhammad Rasul Allah, Iran, 2015
Figure 6: In a still from the film "Muhammad, the Messenger of God," the young Muhammad enters a monastery, where he is recognized as a prophet by the Christian monk Bahira. "Muhammad, the Messenger of God"

These paintings, murals, children's books and films about the Prophet that have been made in Iran since 2006 are illuminating in several ways. First, they show that traditions of representing Muhammad are still well and alive in some areas of the Muslim world. These still and moving images aim to commemorate the Prophet, present his status and legacy in a positive light, and teach a variety of audiences about his life and miracles.

Unlike in Sunni-Salafi spheres, in which recent responses to the Danish and Charlie Hebdo cartoons have largely comprised a flurry of obdurate injunctions, the response in Iran has been markedly different. Indeed, rather than shying away from or banning images of the Prophet, Iranian leaders, artists and filmmakers have harnessed the creative arts to recover and restore the image of Muhammad in the public domain.

Such images serve as powerful reminders that there is no universally accepted ban on the figural arts in Islam and that traditions of prophetic representation still continue to flourish in Iran today. Above all, they highlight the fact that in Islamic lands there exist two diametrically opposed reactions to defamatory European cartoons: While some actors engage in censorship and suppression, others actively seek the promulgation of the Prophet Muhammad by reasserting the positive power of picture-making.

Christiane Gruber is associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Michigan. Her primary field of research is Islamic book arts, paintings of the Prophet Muhammad, and Islamic ascension texts and images, about which she has written two books and edited a volume of articles. She also pursues research in Islamic book arts and codicology, having authored the online catalog of Islamic calligraphies in the Library of Congress as well as edited the volume of articles, The Islamic Manuscript Tradition. Her third field of specialization is modern Islamic visual culture and post-revolutionary Iranian visual and material culture, about which she has written several articles. She also has co-edited two volumes on Islamic and crosscultural visual cultures. She is currently writing her next book, titled The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images.