In Hollywood terms, it was the greatest story almost never told - until now.
With Middle Eastern money becoming an increasingly powerful cog in the global entertainment industry, it was perhaps inevitable that, sooner or later, someone would embark on a mega-budget epic about the life of the Prophet Mohammed.
That moment has arrived thanks to a wealthy Qatari media company which has put together a team featuring a crack Hollywood producer and a Muslim cleric who is banned from visiting Britain to bring the project to life.
Plans for the $150million English-language biopic were announced at the close of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar on Sunday. The narrative will run from the years before the Prophet’s birth through to his death but there will be one conspicuous break from conventional biopic methods: in accordance with Islamic tradition the film will not represent the Prophet himself or direct members of his family.
A source close to the project said that Mel Gibson’s hugely successful (and gruesome) crucifiction film The Passion of the Christ had proved that there was a demand for religious-themed entertainment.
Barrie Osborne, a producer on the Lord of the Rings films and The Matrix optimistically envisages the film as a device that can help “bridging cultures”.
However, the press conference held to unveil the project demonstrated the risks inherent in any attempt to package the “true story” of the Prophet’s life for a global audience today.
Alnoor Holdings, a media company that has created a $200million film production fund to invest in Hollywood and international projects, has hired the cleric Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi as their lead theological consultant for the film.
Sheikh al-Qaradawi is one of the Sunni Islam’s most high-profile theologians thanks to his popular slot hosting a television show on al-Jazeera. He is admired by many moderate Muslims and was recently described by the government’s senior counter-terrorism official as “one of the most articulate critics of al-Qaeda in the Islamic world”.
He is also a highly controversial figure who was refused entry to Britain last year because of his views. He has reportedly condoned the Holocaust, supported the stoning of homosexuals and praised suicide bombers in Iraq, not to mention telling an interviewer that he considered Shia Islam a heretical branch of the faith.
According to the Gulf Times newspaper he told journalists in Doha that the film was a response to “the crusader-styled distortion of Islam [that] continues to influence [the] world population today.”
“I will say we Muslims have not exerted sufficient efforts to correct the fake tales as Christians have used [in] the media. The life of the Prophet Muhammad is richly documented from the cattle he raised to the weapons he used to his private life.”
The Qatari Tribune, which was also present, said that he described the world in milder language as a small village where people must know each other better and learn about other religions.
“We think that our religion is universal. Unfortunately, many people do not know about Islam and have misconceptions about it.”
Mr Osborne, who said that he was “keen to inspire and enlighten the world by bringing the story of one of history’s greatest figures on screen”, admitted that when he was first approached by Al Noor in August 2008 he was not ready to join them.
“I did not have enough knowledge about Islam, but now I have read two books and watched two movies about the religion.”
However much additional research Mr Osborne and his team undertake between now and the scheduled start of shooting for the as-yet-untitled picture in 2011, they are expecting that there will be groups who take offence at their take on the Prophet’s life.
There has been one substantial attempt at tackling the same subject matter before. The Message, a 1977 film about the Prophet starring Anthony Quinn, sparked riots in the US in which two people died, even though it respected the tradition of not representing the Prophet himself. The film is currently being remade as The Messenger of Peace.
More recently, satirical cartoons of the Prophet published in Denmark in 2006 provoked violent protests in many parts of the Muslim world and last year the planned UK publication of a novel about the Prophet Muhammad's child bride was postponed over fears it might incite violence.