“An Iranian’s vision of Jesus’ life stirs debate,” (from 29 April) brings some thoughts to mind. Firstly, it tends towards treating the presentation of the Islamic view of Jesus (عيسى,`Issa) as if it were any different than presenting the Christian view of Jesus. In what way is this film different than Passion of the Christ? Few Westerners will probably see this movie, though this has not stopped some Christian writers/bloggers from angrily commenting on it, where as many thousands of Muslims saw Passion of the Christ with little controversy. The Catholic version of Jesus’ story is in direct conflict with the Muslim one; Muslims nevertheless watched the film where ever it was available, as it depicted the life of a Muslim prophet albeit from a different perspective. There was at least one Muslim actor in the film. Since Christians regard Jesus as the Messiah, many of them will probably take this view as an insult, as is mentioned in the article. The article presents the film’s sense of Jesus as if it were novel. It is not. It has been the view of Jesus for millions, and now about a billion or so, Muslims for a thousand odd years. It is an interesting perspective on the Muslim Jesus.
Secondly, it seems rather surprised that an Iranian film would make use of a rather “Western” physical template for the appearance of Jesus. There is no discussion of the theological views of the depiction of prophets, a quite lively debate among Muslims and between them and non-Muslims. All Muslims agree that depictions of Muhammad, the messenger of God, should not be made, though they disagree on to what extent this should be followed. Some Muslims, especially conservative Sunnis, go further and take issue with the depiction of any prophets, including Muhammad’s companions. During the Cartoon crisis, I recall hearing more than one interviewed protester stating that he was not only opposed to the depiction of Muhammad, but “all prophets” as well, including Jesus specifically. I wonder how these men would react to this depiction Jesus. Shias tend to disagree with Sunnis on issues of iconography and quite often display prominently depictions of such figures as the Imams`Ali, Husayn, and so on. Muhammad is never depicted in the iconographic manner that these fellows are. I bring this up because, as the film is an Iranian production, it is fair to presume that it will follow Iranian Shia religious cultural norms. The depictions of Islamic historical figures seem to always follow a similar template: long hair, excessively fair skin, and angular Caucasian features. These are identified with purity, piety, beauty, and other desirable traits in most Middle Eastern cultures. The cast of actors in the excellent 1977 film Al-Risala (“The Message,” known in English as Mohammad, Messenger of God) consists of actors generally following this template, excepting of course Bilal bin Ribah, who was portrayed by Johnny Sekka in the English language version and by a Sudanese actor in the Arabic language version. The Iranian actor playing Jesus in Jesus, Spirit of God has redish hair and very European features. The Western interpretation of Jesus has currency the world over, largely due to the dominance of Western popular culture (through conquest and resultant missionary efforts, and popular culture). In any event, the article reminded me of this post at the Angry Arab:
It should be remembered that many Arabs and Iranians look quite Western. While giving a Power Point on the Ba`th in Syria, a classmate asked, quite seriously, “How did a white guy get to be the President of Syria?” She was referring to Hafiz al-Assad. I responded that this happened in the way that a black man became president of Egypt (Anwar Sadat): by purely undemocratic means.