(Originally published at www.firstthings.com)
On Thursday, August 27, 2015, the first part of Iran’s most expensive movie trilogy, “Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah,” opened nationwide in Iran. It took more than eighty months for this movie to be completed. Its primary goal, according to its director Majid Majidi, “is to reclaim the rightful image of Islam, which he said extremists have distorted.”
The Iranian state has partly funded the film, most likely in an attempt to promote a Shiite understanding of the narrative of Muhammad’s life. This, of course, triggered controversy among Sunni Muslims. Al-Azhar University demanded that “Iran refrain from releasing the movie, so that an undistorted image of the prophet can be preserved in the minds of Muslims.”
The movie is packed with miracles performed by Muhammad. This is odd because it goes against the Quran, which clearly rejects the performance of supernatural miracles by Muhammad. His only “miracle” was receiving the revelation of the holy Quran from Allah. In the Quran, Allah, of course, has the power to send down miracles, signs, and wonders, but, it appears, that he did not send any to Muhammad, and thus people wondered: “Why has no sign been sent down upon him from his Lord?” (Q 6:37). Some have even compared him to Moses, questioning “Why has he not been given the like of that Moses was given?” (Q 28:48). Indeed, Allah supports Muhammad in the Quran, but identifies him as only “a warner” without a sign (Q 29:50). This was in response to the unbelieving people who rejected Muhammad’s teaching and wondered: “If only a miracle could come down to him from his Lord (we will then believe)” (Q 13:7; see also 11:12).
In truth, the Quran uses Muhammad’s lack of supernatural miracle working as a condemnation of unbelievers, affirming that the Quran is the miracle: “Is it not enough of a miracle that we sent down to you this book [the Quran]?” (Q 29:51). This verse appears in response to Muhammad’s opponents questioning in doubt: “If only miracles could come down to him from his Lord?” (Q 29:50), and seems to establish that, in Quranic terms, metaphysical miracles are not given to the Muslim Prophet. The Quran actually indicates one of the reasons why Allah refrained from supporting Muhammad with miracles: “What stopped us [Allah] from sending the miracles is that the previous generations have rejected them” (Q 17:59). Thus, the Quran clearly and explicitly denies any association of Muhammad with heavenly supernatural miracles, signs, and wonders. If other later religious texts, nonetheless, seem to suggest that Muhammad did perform miracles, they stand in direct opposition to these verses, among many others, in Islam’s scripture.
Of course many Muslims, past and present, still assume, claim, insist, or at least wish that Muhammad did actually perform miracles, especially when they debate other faiths. In so doing, they rely on later sayings attributed to Muhammad or works written about him centuries after his death. Not only the reliability of these sources is questionable, but also their emphasis on supernatural miracles goes against the clear Quranic witness. The recent affirmation of Iran’s most expensive movie is not the first, and undoubtedly will not be the last, such advancement of a more supernatural prophet.
In the classical Muslim period, for instance, Muslim authors decided to write the Biography of Muhammad, a century or two after his death, and added various miraculous elements, such as him feeding crowds after the multiplication of food, healing sick people, and even manifesting authority over nature. The similarities with pre-Islamic sacred writings are evident. There was a need (as Islam presented itself in a multi-religious context in the conquered lands) of a specific depiction of Muhammad with certain characteristics that appealed to that era.
In fact, four centuries after Muhammad’s death, some Muslim writers, like Abu Nu‘aym al-Isfahani and Ahmad al-Bayhaqi, expanded a genre of Muslim writing, Dalā’il al-nubuwwa (The Signs of Prophethood), detailing extensive accounts of metaphysical miracles attributed to Muhammad as proofs of his prophethood. This genre in particular aimed at expounding and defending his prophethood by adducing selected incidents and specific references from Biblical (apocryphal and canonical) books. Apparently, the milieu of the writing of these texts involved apologetic and polemic discourses with rival religions that existed long before Islam. If Jews had Moses splitting the sea and Christians had Jesus raising the dead, Muslims needed a miraculous Muhammad—never mind that the Quran seems to insist that the only miracle brought by Allah to Muhammad is a religious book.
Not only in the Classical Muslim period, but also today, it appears, the political situation and the requirements of contemporary religious discourse dictate a new reality. With the rise of militant and extremist groups claiming to follow clear Islamic tenets supported by Muslim sacred texts, there is a need for an alternate depiction of the early years of Islam and its major figures. The goals of the filmmakers determine their portrayal, even if it goes against Islam’s scripture and “historical” Muslim accounts. It all comes down, as the film director posits, to their insistence of depicting that “Islam is a religion of peace, friendship and love.” While radical Muslim groups like ISIS use ancient religious texts to support their horrific deeds, others violate historical and scriptural witness to promote a more appealing version of Muhammad.
Ayman S. Ibrahim is Post-Doctoral Fellow of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University and Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and Senior Fellow for the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Follow him on Twitter: @al2ostaz