Moustapha Akkad was born in Syria but moved to the United States as a teenager. He attended film school at UCLA and USC and went on to produce documentaries which Harry and Michael Medved describe as "the sort of informative and scintillating shows that air on local affiliate stations before eight o'clock on Sunday mornings." However, one of his great dreams was to make more Americans familiar with the Muslim faith, particularly its origins. The problem with doing this in visual form, however, was the Muslim teaching that forbids graven images, including any pictures of the prophet who founded Islam, or many of his relatives who are also considered holy figures -- Mohammed's wives, daughters, and sons-in-law. (In fact, visual art, including movie theaters, is completely forbidden under some versions of Islamic teaching.) However, Akkad decided to get around this problem by making a movie starring Mohammed's uncle Hamza, a warrior for the faith; Mohammed would not appear, although his tent and his camel-riding stick would be shown.
Anthony Quinn, who had previously appeared in Lawrence of Arabia, agreed to take on the part of Hamza. Akkad hired Irishman (and Protestant Christian) H.A.L. "Harry" Craig to write the movie script. Craig spent two years in research, and then had to show his script to representatives of the Council for Islamic Research in Cairo, Egypt, to receive their approval before the film was allowed to shoot in the predominantly Muslim countries which were planned. Akkad says that "every page of that script had been hand-stamped as 'approved'" by the religious scholars, and compared it to getting the Pope's approval for a life of Jesus. However, rumors kept flowing in the Muslim world that Mohammed would be portrayed in the picture: by Quinn, by Peter O'Toole, or even by Charlton Heston. This last rumor provoked a riot in Karachi, Pakistan.
The protests reached a point where Akkad decided to make two versions of the film: one for the Western world with known actors there, and an Arabic-language version that only had Muslims acting in it. Though the two versions would use the same sets, the making of two movies would slow down the production and increase its costs tremendously. Akkad turned down one of the few famous people who could have appeared in both versions: Muhammad Ali, who wanted to play the part of Bilal, a black slave who becomes the first muezzin. Apparently having Ali in the picture would be too commercial; the part went to Senegalese actor Johnny Sekka.
Akkad felt no need to be commercial because he had financial backing from many wealthy Arabs, including the royal family of Saudi Arabia, who promised him up to $60 million (in 1975 dollars). However, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia changed his mind about the film, withdrawing both his money and permission to film in the cities of Mecca and Medina. Akkad found new investors in Iran, Kuwait, and Bahrain, but the setting of the film was a little trickier. Arrangements were made to film in Morocco -- if the moviemakers would leave behind a film production studio after they finished. Akkad accepted this deal and constructed a detailed replica of Mecca a few miles outside of Marrakesh. He also hired up to 7,000 locals as extras, paying them with livestock rather than cash.
But King Faisal had been talking to King Hassan of Morocco; apparently Faisal was worried that the detailed replica of Mecca would attract pilgrims that should be headed for the original city. Hassan was persuaded to withdraw permission to film after Faisal threatened to ban all Moroccans from Saudi Arabia and to cut off oil shipments to Morocco. As they threw Akkad and company out of Morocco, the monarchs offered a $20 million bribe for him to shut down the movie completely, but Akkad would not give up his work. A place was finally found to film in Libya with the approval of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who even provided Libyan soldiers to serve as extras. The filming was finally finished, but the obstacles were not all out of the way.
The movie was supposed to premiere in London on 29 July 1976 as Mohammed, Messenger of God; the theater received bomb threats because Mohammed's name was in the title. The British distributor had the sense to change the name of the film in Great Britain to The Message, which apparently placated the people who had sent the threats. The reviews were bad, but the movie attracted a fairly large audience (the Medveds suggest that rich Middle Easterners vacationing in London formed the majority of the viewers). However, when the film went to the U.S. and the Arab world, the reviews were even worse. Americans felt the movie was so reverential as to be completely lifeless, while much of the Muslim world did not consider it to be nearly reverential enough. The Supreme Council of the World Mosque Conference in Mecca and the National Assembly of Pakistan both banned the film; the scholars in Cairo who had previously approved the script now called the movie "an insult to Islam." (However, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's library catalog notes that "The lifestyle of 7th Century Mecca and Medina, to the extent that it is known, is vividly recreated with few goofs. Quotations from the Qur'an and the Hadith are exact.")
In Washington, D.C., a group of black Muslims invaded the B'nai B'rith building and two others with plenty of weaponry, taking more than 100 hostages. When they gave their demands to the media, the chief one was a plea for the cancellation of the American premiere of Mohammad: Messenger of God. These terrorists were members of the small Hanafi sect and were led by Khalifa Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, one of its founders. Khaalis objected to the film on several grounds, including the very idea that Mohammed could be "played by an actor" (so obviously Khaalis knew only the rumors about the film). The first showing at the Hollywood Paramount theater, the film was stopped 35 minutes into its first show and the audience's money refunded, with the theater manager citing a "small political problem." Akkad offered to show the movie to the gunmen and hostages in Washington and said "I will destroy the film if it is offensive to them," but his proposal was turned down. Instead, the terrorists arranged phone calls to ambassadors of Muslim nations, as well as a few in-person meetings with diplomats who promised to do their best to keep the movie from being shown; after these promises, Khaalis and company surrendered. (Khaalis was sentenced to "21 to 120 years" for his part in these events.)
However, the movie was still shown in New York and Los Angeles (with police stationed outside the nine theaters showing it). It did fairly brisk business for its first week due to the controversy, but after that ticket sales dropped abruptly as word spread about how uninflammatory the actual movie was. Akkad's other hope, that his movie would become popular in Muslim countries, was not fulfilled at the time either; Turkey and Tunisia were the only predominantly Muslim countries to even allow the film, called Al-Ris-Alah in Arabic, to be shown. The Medveds' 1984 statistics say the film would have had to gross $35 million to break even, but as of that point had only grossed $5 million. (However, in 2022 vongrim told me that "the film is watched with reverence in Nigeria. Every year during Eid, it is shown multiple times on local TV stations.")
At some point before home video release, the film's official English title was apparently changed to The Message; at least that's how the video/DVD box shown at Barnes & Noble's web site and the Internet Movie Database has the title. Its availability for home viewers may have made up for the financial shortfalls of its first decade of release; however, Akkad was not hurting for money, having been one of the producers of the first Halloween movie and some of its sequels and made back his investments in those films several times over.
Medved, Harry, and Michael Medved. The Hollywood Hall of Shame: The Most Expensive Flops In Movie History. New York: Perigee Books, 1984.