Prominent Sunni Muslim scholars are demanding that Tehran ban a film on the life of the Prophet Muhammad that was released on August 27, though it is expected to break box-office records in Shi'ite Muslim Iran.
Scholars at Egypt's Al-Azhar, the most prestigious institute of Sunni Islam, said they are not satisfied with elaborate precautions taken by the director of Muhammad, Messenger Of God to avoid depicting Muhammad throughout the 171-minute movie, the first in a planned trilogy of films that focuses on the Prophet's childhood.
Majid Majidi, the Oscar-nominated director, deferred to Islamic strictures by not showing the boy-actor's face on screen and showing him only from behind, or only his shadow.
"This matter is already settled. Shari'a prohibits embodying the prophets," said Professor Abdel Fattah Alawari, dean of the Islamic theology faculty at Al-Azhar.
"It is not permissible in Islam [because an actor] has contradictory and conflicting roles; sometimes we see him as a blind drunk, sometimes as a womanizer...and then he embodies a prophet... This is not permissible," he told Reuters.
Sami Yusuf, one of the Islamic world's biggest musical stars and who sang the soundtrack for the film, told Reuters that the opposition from some Sunnis is political.
"I am sure people in Al-Azhar and others who criticize the film haven't seen it yet. They are against the film only because it's a cultural export of Iran," a Shi'ite power seen as a rival in Sunni-dominated countries.
Yusuf said it was a "shame" there were only two major productions describing the life of Muhammad, in contrast to the many on Jesus Christ, Moses, and other prophets.
The first full-length movie drama on Muhammad, a 1976 film titled The Message, was directed by Syrian Moustapha al-Akkad. Anthony Quinn played Muhammad's uncle, Hamza.
That film also did not depict Muhammad's face on screen, but some Muslims were offended. Akkad was killed in a 2005 suicide bombing in Amman. It is not known whether the attack was related to the movie.
"You cannot study Muhammad's life and not fall in love with him and his character. If this film makes people of the world know our Prophet better and see how kind he was, we have done our job," singer Yusuf said.
The director Majidi said that he made the film, Iran's most expensive to date at a cost of $40 million, to try to educate non-Muslims about the peaceable nature of Islam.
"I decided to make this film to fight against the new wave of Islamophobia in the West. The Western interpretation of Islam is full of violence and terrorism," he told Hezbollah Line, a conservative Iranian magazine.
Majidi says that he had support from both Sunni and Shi'ite scholars for his interpretation of the Prophet's life. Shi'a are generally more relaxed than Sunnis about depictions of religious figures.
"To have the hero throughout the movie and not show his face once is a big challenge," Majidi told AFP.
Majidi, whose Children Of Heaven was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 1998, said he anticipated objections to the film from the most conservative Sunnis.
"Definitely, some countries like Saudi Arabia will have problems with this film. But many Islamic countries -- including Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, and many others in Southeast Asia -- have asked for the film," he said.
The next two films in the trilogy could prove even more controversial, as the young hero is not yet a prophet in the first installment, Majidi said.
"There are no disputes over this period" of the Prophet's life, he said. "From the time he becomes a prophet, even dialogue would be very difficult to manage, but I believe it is still achievable."
Muhammad, Messenger Of God was shot mainly in Iran. Mecca was re-created on a large scale and in minute detail. Scenes with elephants were filmed in South Africa, after India refused to let the filmmakers in, fearing the reaction of Muslim countries to the movie.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, visited the film set during the production, in a strong sign of support.
The film, which stars many top Iranian actors, was released to 143 cinemas in Iran on the same day as it opened at the Montreal Film Festival. One cinema in Tehran said the movie was its most popular at the moment.
Depictions of Muhammad in the West have often provoked unrest after being deemed blasphemous by Muslims. Cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in 2005 were followed by violent protests in which scores of people died.
Islamist militants shot dead 12 people at the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, saying they were avenging its blasphemous cartoon depictions of Muhammad.
Iran's late supreme leader issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to kill writer Salman Rushdie in 1988 for The Satanic Verses, a novel deemed blasphemous in its treatment of Muhammad and Islam.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and The Guardian