Sunday, November 13, 2005

COMMENT: Moustapha al-Akkad - Sharing the Prophet in name and in film

Every life lost to terror is precious. Whether it be Sydney footballers or an anonymous London travellers, terror always claims innocent victims. But one recent terrorist incident should have really shaken the few Muslim left who only reluctantly condemn the terrorists.

Moustapha al-Akkad was no small fish in Hollywood. He was executive producer of the successful Halloween series of movies, from which he made millions. Halloween was released in 1978, and has regularly featured in lists of all-time great horror movies. The film had 7 sequels, the most recent of which was released in 2002.

Akkad was an American national. He had decided to move to Lebanon, taking advantage of the Mediterranean surrounds and the relative peace following decades of civil war and occupation. He was in Amman with his family to attend a wedding.

Akkad was born in the city of Aleppo in Syria, a Muslim town which provided shelter to thousands of Armenian refugees fleeing persecution during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. He moved to the United States at 18 years, and is said to have had only $200 and a Qur’an in his pocket when he arrived in Los Angeles.

Akkad studied film at UCLA, graduating in 1958. He completed his Masters from the University of Southern California where he focussed his attention on documentary making. Akkad went onto make documentaries for CBS across the world.

Despite being held captive to the American dream, Akkad never forgot his roots to his Syrian homeland or his Islamic faith. He used his directing skills to produce two movies regarded as classics across the Muslim World.

In 1976, Akkad produced and directed “The Message”, a film about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. He gathered actors of the calibre of Anthony Quinn, who played the Prophet’s uncle Hamza. Quinn also played the lead role in Akkad’s 1981 film “Lion of the Desert”, which portrayed the life and death of Libyan anti-colonial fighter Omar al-Mukhtar.

In a 1977 interview about “The Message”, Akkad described his reasons for making the film and his vision of his Islamic faith.

I did the film because it is a personal thing for me. Besides its production values as a film, it has its story, its intrigue, its drama. Beside all this I think there was something personal; being a Muslim myself who lived in the West, I felt that it was my obligation, my duty to tell the truth about Islam. It is a religion that has a 700 million following, yet it's so little known about, which surprised me. I thought I should tell the story that will bring this bridge, this gap to the West.
Akkad’s vision of Islam was as a faith which built bridges between hearts and civilisations. Like most Muslims, Akkad wanted to use his faith to be a source of peace, not conflict. The only terror (if one could call it that) Akkad wanted people to experience was from his horror movies.

Akkad was attending a wedding in Amman, Jordan when terrorists struck. He was standing outside the hotel where the wedding was being held. His 34 year old daughter, Rima Akkad Monla, was inside the hotel and was amongst those instantly killed in the blast. Akkad was severely injured and died in hospital on Friday.

Across the Arab world and the United States, tributes have been pouring in on this proud son of Aleppo. The Daily Star of Beirut, Akkad’s adopted city, writes:

Remembered by his friends and family here as a humble man whose words spoke volumes, he lived life to the fullest always loving the art of filmmaking and never stopped in his pursuit of bringing a true and peaceful image of Islam to the West. It is the most tragic of ironies that he died a victim of fellow Muslims claiming to fight in the name of the religion he so loved.
Akkad was planning to produce a movie on medieval Kurdish general Salahuddin (known in the West as Saladin) who defeated the Crusaders and drove them out of Jerusalem. Firas al-Atraqchi from al-Jazeera writes on 13 November 2005:

It was only two years ago that I sat across from him and his son Malek as he discussed the challenges he was facing in arranging financing for his new epic project – Salahuddin. Sitting comfortably in a leather chair in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Cairo, Egypt, with a pipe in his hand, Akkad described his Salahuddin troubles as nearly synonymous to the challenges he faced when trying to put together a script for The Message – a film about the rise of Islam and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Atraqchi goes onto describe the problems Akkad faced in trying to convince the fringe Wahhabi religious establishment of Saudi Arabia to approve the making of a film about the Prophet Muhammad. The sunni scholars of al-Azhar and shia authorities of Southern Lebanon had given their approval. Only the wahhabi's were holding back.

The same ideology held back Akkad from completing his Salahuddin project. The al-Qaida terrorist network, an offshoot of the wahhabi cult, took responsibility for the Amman blasts which killed Akkad, his daughter and over 50 others.

In his book The Great Theft – Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, UCLA Law Professor Khaled Abou el-Fadl laments how contemporary attention on Islam focuses on the actions of fringe groups such as wahhabi's and al-Qaida. The result, argues el-Fadl, is that “the most emphatic moral values taught by Islam … mercy, compassion, and peace” are readily ignored.

This struggle between the violent fringe and the moderate mainstream continues. It continues to claim victims of all faiths and no faith in particular. It has now claimed Moustapha al-Akkad, a man who devoted much of his creative talent and wealth to building bridges between Muslims and the rest of humanity. Muslims in Australia , New Zealand and across the Western world owe it to humanity to continue his legacy.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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Anonymous said...

Moustapha's passing is a tragedy. What a loss.

shellal1 said...


While I do agree the Turks do a good job in enlightening the Australian population with the interfaith dialogues and open days held in Sydney Gallopoli mosque, and, are less inclined towards extremism as they have a more 'enlightened' Sufi (eg Said Nursee approach to relgion) I don't agree with all of Irfan's commnets and think they are a touch idealistic. The Turks are more culturally aligned with the Arabs from my Anglo (Muslim) perspective and they are not so tolerant with the mosques regarding women's attendance. I have regularly been turned away from the Augburn Gallipoli mosque on Eid prayer days being told by elder Turkish men "no women , no women". This has gone on for the last 6 years and many other women have complained about this response. The mosque is NOT frequented by women as much as the Lakemba mosque is from my observations. And I don't think the Turkish Mosque committeees have women representatives. The older Turkish ladies I mix with actually go to a local Arab mosque in the centre of Auburn to do their evening Eid prayers.(??) The younger groups at the mosque are however making inroads and doing good work.

The Lakemba mosque does have regular lectures in English for youth and the Lebanese Welfare Association accross the road is quite helpful.

The Turkish community are doing a great job by opening the doors to Islam to the rest of the population more readily that the Arabs and some other groups.

I don't think it is necessary to be so critical of the other groups who are struggling in difficult times.