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Noah…And The Art of Getting Offended

by | 28 March 2014

The new movie 'Noah' opens in theatres - Should Muslims take offense when Prophet's of G-d are depicted in films?



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The whole history of the interpretation of the arts of letters has moved and been transformed within the diverse logical possibilities opened up by the concept of mimesis. —Jacques Derrida

There has been much discussion on different media outlets about Darren Aronofsky’s epic movie Noah. Directors and actors of the movie have received a plethora of harsh criticisms from different parts of the world, especially from the followers of the Abrahamic faiths. Many within my own close circle have expressed mixed opinions about the movie ranging from excitement, disappointment to outright disapproval. Based on theological and literary considerations, Muslims may choose to look at the movie Noah as follows:

A traditional view-point that inclines towards prohibition

There is a traditional Islamic view that says all Prophets of God (peace be upon them all) are M’asum (sinless/inerrant) and that any human portrayal of Prophets of God is prohibited. As human beings, we simply cannot live up to the virtues of the Prophets of God. An actor may do a masterful job in portraying a Prophet in a film. The same actor may/will have taken part in unbecoming acts such as murder or sexually explicit roles in another film. Some will consider watching a human being acting out as a Prophet of God in one film and taking part in sexually explicit, violent, or other unbecoming acts in another film to have very negative psychological and spiritual effects.

The problem lies in the fact that there is no direct text in Islam that prohibits making films about Prophets. So in this case, according to the fundamentals of jurisprudence, when there is no clear text, two basic rulings apply: that the Asl (origin) of things is allowed until proven otherwise, or the Asl in things is to take caution until the matter is further investigated. One thing that is incomprehensible and contradicts the methodology of reaching a juristic ruling on something is to issue a fatwa (Muslim legal opinion) to ban the film without even seeing it or sitting with the scriptwriter and director and hearing their point of view before reaching their final verdict. Allowing space for the other opinion to be heard is kindergarten Usool (fundamentals of jurisprudence) and should have been applied before different religious voices issued a fatwa on banning the film from being shown in their respective countries.

A second opinion that regards the film as a fictitious artistic rendering

Artistic rendering implies elements of imagination that may not necessarily be true. Sir Philip Sidney’s view of poetry as being, "an art of imitation…that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth —to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture—with this end to teach and delight" illuminates the particularities of the Noah film. This opinion inclines towards the notion that the enactment of the story of Noah is not real but an artistic adaptation of the spirit of the story—a mimesis. This opinion even goes as far as to state that the whole thing being viewed is not real but a reflection in a glass (i.e. lens of the camera) and thus cannot be treated as an actual embodiment or personification of Prophets.

The 10th century Islamic scholar Al-Farabi, one of the earliest commentators, distinguishes between two kinds of mimesis: actual, achieved by doing something; and verbal achieved by saying something. He further divides each of the two into two further sub-classes. Actual mimesis can either be achieved through the making of an object that represents an original—e.g. a statue of a person—or by a direct embodied imitation of the original—e.g. acting as someone in performing arts. Verbal mimesis, on the other hand, can either be direct imitation of the original object—e.g. onomatopoeia, or words that evoke the same feeling they describe—or an indirect imitation by evoking the presence of the original in a third. In sum, for Al-Farabi, there are four kinds of mimesis: immediate actual, mediated actual, immediate verbal, and mediated verbal. As mentioned above, for Al-Farabi, mimesis is an imaginative act, not a mere representation of the world, nor of any ideals that constitute it. Rather, it is an act of re-construal and re-construction of the world as the poet lives and perceives it that evokes similar images in the hearer’s mind. The stress here is on conviction, rather than truth or falsehood—i.e. the relation between word and world—for successful mimetic evocations can be either true or false (Al-Farabi Kitab al-Shi’r, 94-95).

Meanwhile, others will argue that irrespective of where the story is adapted from, watching modern day rendering of righteous historical figures make them want to be better human beings.

The year of the Biblical epics and the art of getting offended

The talk in Tinseltown is that 2014 is the year of Biblical epics: Hollywood entering the religious realm, presenting Biblical figures on the big and small screen to audiences who regard them as their superheroes.

Forthcoming Biblical films in 2014 include:

  • Son of God (Story of Jesus) – Released on:  February 28th, 2014
  • Noah - Release Date: March 28th, 2014
  • Mary, Mother of Christ - Release Date: December 2014
  • Exodus, (Story of Moses) - Release Date: December 12th, 2014
  • Day of War (Story of King David) - Release Date: December, 2014

It has been reported that some American Muslims and Muslim organizations have taken exception to the news that Muslims were not included in the pre-screening of the movie, even though they regard Noah (peace be upon him) as one of the Prophets of Islam. If this is true, then one ought to ask the director of Noah, Darren Aronofsky, and its producers whether or not they were being socially/politically discriminant about who they invited to the pre-screening.  It was a bad business decision when we consider just how large the Muslim population is. However they are within their rights to pick and choose who they invite and leave out. The second point to consider for the “offended” Muslims is that even though the story is purported to be about Noah (peace be upon him), it is an adaption of the Biblical text and not the Qur’an or any other Islamic sources. Therefore, inviting or consulting with the Muslims was perhaps rightfully deemed as unnecessary by the directors. Had they utilized the Qur’an or any other Islamic sources as the basis of the Noah (peace be upon him) story, it would have made more sense to get offended if Muslims were not consulted. Even those who are offended will firmly distinguish the versions of the narratives found in the Qur’an and Bible.

In conclusion, from a broader point of view, Noah and Hollywood’s Biblical films should direct us to critically evaluate the currents of American filmmaking itself. With the influx of apocryphal films; larger than life figures plastered across the big screen; mythical fantasy films with wizards and dragons flying, not only across our screens, but also in our imaginations; and now this move to religious figures, a crucial question must be asked: "What direction is the film industry taking us in as a society?"

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