A Sad Message
Mustapha Al-Akkad, famed director of the film The Message, was among those killed at the hands of extremists who bombed three hotels in Jordan recently. He was there to just meet his daughter, Rima Akkad Monla.
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 production instead of public relations. They insisted I come to New York. Then they mentioned that famed Muslim director Mustapha Al-Akkad of The Message film, 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 to the media 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 Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) 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. 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 Dawah 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 (Pbuh). 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.
What Al-Akkad faced was a conservative response in the American Muslim community, many of whom were probably against filmmaking itself. The community was possibly also motivated by the rumour that the Prophet (Pbuh) 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.
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 equivalent of Salman Rushdie. 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 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. (Hamza Yusuf later changed his position when he saw his children watching bad TV, he bought them a set himself so they watch the clean videos).
But what Mustapha Al-Akkad faced was far greater. That made him very reluctant to produce more Muslim themed programs. It is saddening that his first effort to serve Muslims and the message of Islam through films resulted in violent demonstrations and his death was at the hands of other extremists who bombed three hotels in Jordan. He was there to just 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 allegedly aiming to attack Muslims, not Westerners who were present in the same hotel in large numbers. So in this case, Muslims were not collateral damage, they were the target of an extremist agenda. And one of these victims was Mustapha Al-Akkad.
During our meeting, Al-Akkad mentioned 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.
May God have mercy on Mustapha Al-Akkad and his daughter. May He grant them Paradise!
VCDs of the film The Message available in Islamic Voice (3 CDs )