Twelve years ago, I was invited to receive an award for Sound Vision's production of the children's series Adam's World. I almost didn't go. I almost didn't meet Mustapha Al-Akkad.
I thanked the organization that wanted to give me the award and asked if they could kindly mail it to me. I always want to save every penny for more Islamic productions instead of public relations. They insisted I come to New York. Then they mentioned that famed Muslim director Mustapha Al-Akkad of The Message movie, would also be receiving an award at the event.
That got my attention. I told them I would come on the condition that we would both be sitting together at the event so we could talk. They kept their promise.
During four hours of ceremony, food and speeches, one of the greatest Muslim filmmakers and I talked. I found him to be a gentleman, a very passionate person who cared deeply for Islam as well as for his adopted home, America.
Al-Akkad was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1930. He arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1950s to study filmmaking with only two things his father gave him: a copy of the Quran and $200. It was the first step to fulfilling his dream.
"It was my passion in life," he said in an interview with IslamOnline.net in September 2004. "Gradually I started dreaming of becoming a moviemaker. When I turned 18 I started announcing my enthusiasm to become a film director, and not just any director; a Hollywood director. The whole Aleppo neighborhood used to laugh and make fun of me."
Al-Akkad worked as a producer at various studios before starting his own production company in the early 1970s. From there, he produced the epic movie The Message, which was about the early history of Islam, in 1976, then The Lion Of The Desert in 1981.
I wanted to encourage him to produce more films that dealt with Islamic themes as The Message and The Lion of the Desert had. He said he wanted to work on a film about Salahuddin Ayyubi. Considering that he had made his money in Hollywood by producing the famed "Halloween" movies, I asked him why he didn't produce more Muslim-themed films on a regular basis as he produced horror movies. His answer was: extremism.
The Message was released in 1976. It was a three-hour film about the early history of Islam. Taking into account Islamic teachings, Al-Akkad was careful about not showing the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, in the film. Rather, he showed other characters interacting with him by looking into the camera and addressing it directly to indicate they were talking to the Prophet. Even the Prophet's voice was not heard.
One of those other characters was the late Anthony Quinn, who played the Prophet's uncle Hamza. This was the first movie about the Prophet's life to be shown in America. The project cost $17 million, a fortune when it was released in the 1970s.
Today, the movie can easily be found in many mosques and Islamic centers. Showing the film has become a staple activity of the annual Islam Awareness Week organized by chapters of the Muslim Students' Association across North America. The Message is considered a powerful Dawa tool. But the film was hardly received warmly when it first came out.
Al-Akkad faced angry demonstrations by Muslims in New York against the movie, who had not seen it, but assumed that it must be depicting the Prophet. The filmmaker received death threats despite the fact that Al-Azhar University had given the film their seal of approval. The film was banned in several countries.
At the height of the opposition, a group of American Muslims put the Islamic Center of Washington, DC under siege as a show of anger. They were arrested and some are still in prison.
What Al-Akkad faced was a conservative response in the American Muslim community, many of whom were probably against filmmaking, considering it Haram or forbidden according to Islamic teachings. The community was possibly also motivated by the rumor that the Prophet was depicted in the movie, although he was not.
I, as a producer of Adam's World, have also faced the conservative onslaught in terms of using the media. When I first printed a photo in a religious magazine in Pakistan, I was grilled for hours by a number of its influential readers. When I invited a filmmaker to attend a religious program, I was almost thrown out of that group. But that was Pakistan a long time ago. Nowadays, I am told, maulanas don't start their speeches until the camera is set up and ready to record.
Here in the US, after creating a puppet and naming it after the first human being, a name common to Muslims and non-Muslims, I received a death threat, describing me as the Salman Rushdie at Sound Vision. In Atlanta, at its largest mosque, the Imam, who was of Tablighi Jamaat persuasion, devoted a whole sermon criticizing Adam the puppet and Sound Vision. As a result, 100 more people showed up to our fundraiser in the city than we had planned for. Many people called our puppet an "idol", and thus Haram, although they could have considered it a doll, which is halal.
Of course, hundreds of other Tableeghi Jamaat mosques and individuals in the city and across the US did not speak against our puppet and Sound Vision. They chose to maintain their group?s policy of non-confrontation with others.
The problem is not holding conservative or liberal views on the issue of art and filmmaking. Such views have been part of Islam from its earliest days and remain so. The problem is when people impose their views through verbal and physical assaults and extremism.
I experienced one example of civil discourse on this issue during an ISNA convention over a decade ago. I was giving a presentation about Sound Vision and Adam's World, when a young, white man stood up with a tense face, very angrily stating that, "you cannot teach children Islam with plays and puppets. You have to sit in front of a teacher with respect." Before I could answer, a white woman stood up with smiles all over her face, and said that her son had learned from Adam's World what he never could have learned about Islam from his mother. I later learned that the young man was Hamza Yusuf. The woman was Amina Assilmi. This is not extremism. This is the difference of opinion and its civil expression which Muslims have cherished as a hallmark of Islam.
Hamza Yusuf later changed his position when he saw his own children watching Islamically inappropriate TV programs. He bought them a set of Adam?s World himself so they could watch acceptable videos.
But what Mustapha Al-Akkad faced was far greater. That made him very reluctant to produce more Muslim-themed programs. Pioneers have to face difficulties, opposition and yes, death threats and riots. During our four-hour long conversation, half of it revealed Al-Akkad's bitterness of his experience with the Muslim reaction to The Message.
It is a sad irony that his first effort to serve Muslims and the message of Islam through film resulted in violent demonstrations and his death was at the hands of extremists who bombed three hotels in Jordan. He was there to attend a wedding and meet his daughter Rima Akkad Monla. The Californian mother of two young children died on the spot. Her father passed away the next day of excessive bleeding.
These terrorists who allegedly came from Iraq to blow up these hotels, were apparently aiming to attack Muslims, not Westerners who were present in the same hotel in large numbers. In this case, Muslims were not collateral damage, they were the primary target of an extremist agenda. And one of these victims was Mustapha Al-Akkad.
I wonder if Al-Akkad ever thought of making a film about people who use their twisted interpretation of faith as an argument to kill others. He faced extremism with his first film about Islam and he died in a Muslim country at the hands of another set of extremists. It seems the first set of extremists were better: they limited themselves to protest, compared to those who killed him.
I don't know about his practice of Islam. That is between him and his Creator. I personally don't care for his horror movies, which are not healthy family entertainment. But I know that his father was proud that his son, who he sent off to America with a copy of the Quran and $200 dollars, had achieved something in the United States for himself, for his adopted country and for Islam. Al-Akkad was very proud of being an American and started his speech at the function I attended with him by mentioning what an immigrant can achieve in this country.
During our meeting, Al-Akkad said that his son Tarek was thinking of establishing a studio to develop films and programs with Muslim themes. I hope his children will carry out this desire he shared with me so long ago.
Today, there are many aspiring new Muslim filmmakers in North America. I hope at least some of them will pick up what Al-Akkad started, by pushing the bar of quality of Islamic productions higher and higher.
As Al-Akkad and I left the auditorium after exchanging business cards, a gentleman volunteered to give me a ride. While in the car, he confessed that he had been one of those people who had demonstrated outside a theater in New York so long ago against the film The Message. I could see regret on his face and hear it in his voice.
May God have mercy on Mustapha Al-Akkad, his daughter and the rest of the victims.
May He grant them Paradise for their suffering.
May He give patience and comfort the hearts of their families at this time.
May God guide these wrongdoers who kill in His Name to the Straight Path and help them mend their ways before they destroy their future in this life and the Hereafter through their murderous deeds.
May God guide Muslims back to the Straight Path, the one He describes as the Middle Path.
May He cure the disease of violence and extremism that continues to plague humanity whether through its state institutions or through non-state entities.