A few years ago, the Al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, gave its stamp of approval to an animated film on the life of Muhammad, Islam’s founder. The academy’s council approved it Aug. 20, 2001.

A few weeks later, the Al Qaeda terrorist network attacked New York and Washington, D.C., and the film’s release was pushed back—way back.

“Muhammad: The Last Prophet” just premiered in U.S. theaters Nov. 14, the last day of Ramadan and the feast of Eid Al Fitr.

The 90-minute film is set roughly 1,400 years ago, when Islam was birthed. It’s based on the tradition surrounding Muhammad and his struggle in 7th-century Arabia to restore worship of the one true God.

“Muhammad” is showing in roughly 100 theaters across 35 U.S. cities. It screened in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries in late 2002.

“This movie aims to introduce the story of Islam and its Prophet to new generations in the appealing and accessible medium of animation,” according to the Fine Media Group, the film’s Bridgeview, Ill.-based distributor. “Though the Prophet is not personified, sound and cinematography are employed in the telling of his story, and the film is capped off with a stunning soundtrack by composer William Kidd.”

Islam prohibits images of Muhammad, so the film shows events through Muhammad’s eyes. It also has a narrator, who quotes some of Muhammad’s sayings.

The script for the film was subject to heavy scrutiny, with Islamic experts at the University of California at Los Angeles and Georgetown University going over it continuously. The Al-Azhar council also approved the script prior to its production, as well as the final version of the film.

Ironically, the events that delayed the film’s U.S. release are also what make the film needed now, according to scholars.

“The movie is especially relevant in the current time when so much of the media presentations of Muslims and Muslim life is so negative,” said John Voll, director of Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, in an Aljazeera.Net story.

“Muhammad” was directed by Richard Rich, who also directed “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Swan Princess” for Disney. He now heads up Burbank, Calif.-based RichCrest Animation Studios, which Badr International hired to make the film.

Badr is a British Virgin Islands Corporation centered around Islamic-themed entertainment. It spent $10 million and two years to make “Muhammad,” which was finished on high-definition video for transfer to film.

“Technically, the film’s animation is somewhere between straight-to-video Disney and Saturday-morning television cartoons,” wrote Mark Pinsky in an Orlando Sentinel article. “The color palette is mostly desert pastel and, unlike most animated portrayals of Arabs, these characters all speak English without accents.”

Fine Media Group picked a tough weekend to roll out “Muhammad,” with “The Incredibles” still going strong (making $50 million) and “The Polar Express” being released (making $23 million). In fact, theater chains were reluctant to book the film for fear of no audience. This fact forced FMG actually to rent theaters and then sell tickets to the movie through its Web site.

Much like the strategy for “The Passion of the Christ,” Islamic leaders are urging Muslims to buy tickets for friends and neighbors. One such leader is Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“This is an exciting opportunity for parents and children of all faiths to learn more about an historic figure like Prophet Muhammad and events that shaped today’s world,” said Awad in a press release. “The release of this film in theaters also offers a chance to interact with American Muslims in a learning environment.”

The release also noted, “Recent CAIR research has shown that anti-Muslim prejudice decreases when people have access to accurate information about Islam and relate to ordinary Muslims.”

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

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