Rival Prophet Muhammad Films in the Works

Barrie Osborne - H 2013
Getty Images

Barrie Osborne - H 2013

A team based in Qatar hired a "Lord of the Rings" producer for advice, while an Iranian director plans a $30 million project.

This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Iran and Qatar are bringing the life of the Prophet Muhammad to the big screen in dueling biopics.

In December, Qatar-based Alnoor Holdings announced it will spend up to $1 billion for a series of epics for a worldwide audience about the seventh century prophet of Islam. "They certainly have the money to do it," says The Lord of the Rings producer Barrie Osborne, who is advising, as is a team led by Sunni Islam scholar and Al Jazeera star Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to make sure the story is true to the Quran. "They are being understandably very cautious," adds Osborne.

Indeed, depictions of Muhammad anger some Muslims. In 1977, Islamic protesters of the most recent English-language Muhammad biopic, The Message, took 150 hostages in Washington, D.C., killed two people and shot future mayor Marion Barry.

STORY: Man Pleads Guilty to Threatening 'South Park' Creators for Mocking Muhammad

More recently, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were threatened for depicting the prophet in a bear suit. But that's not stopping Iranian director Majid Majidi (The Song of Sparrows, Children of Heaven), whose very different $30 million biopic began shooting in October. Qatar is dominated by Sunni Muslims, while Iran is home to the rival Shia sect and Persians, a rival ethnicity to Arabs.

"It is a real political battle, as each side has a different interpretation of the Quran," says Iranian cinema scholar Philippe Ragel of the University of Toulouse. "It is out of the question for both sides that the other should be left alone to appropriate the prophet's life."

Sunni-led Al Azhar University has called on Shiite Iran to ban the unfinished Majidi film because of his plan to show the prophet (but not his face). Notes Lesley Hazleton, author of the Muhammad bio The First Muslim, "Sunnis are more strict about depicting the prophet than Shia."

Twitter: www.twitter.com/timappelo

Follow: @timappelo