03/16/2012 07:53 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

HuffJummah: How Enemies Become Allies

"My name is Hind bint 'Utba. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

It's election year in America, a time when our public discussions center on power and who ought to wield it. The big struggle is less over specific legislative agendas and more over who controls the narrative and frames the issues. Is the key term progress? Tradition? Freedom? Who represents its authentic voice? In polarizing debates and campaign rhetoric, legitimate differences of opinion become the occasion for demonization of opponents. An undercurrent of fear stokes the accusations hurled back and forth. Some explicitly assert that "our" way of life is threatened.

This is a powerful motivating idea. It was also, according to Mustafa Akkad's 1977 movie "The Message," the reason for early Meccan opposition to Islam. The film tells the story of the Prophet Muhammad's career, from the first revelation in 610 to the conquest of Mecca 20 years later. Filmed in English and Arabic (with separate casts) it has been translated into many languages, and is shown worldwide during Ramadan. Its soundtrack has become iconic, and the movie itself is now a beloved classic, though it was originally somewhat controversial.

Akkad, who also directed the "Halloween" films, sought to ward off objections by choosing not to show the Prophet's face or voice. Moreover, to avoid offending sensibilities -- or seeming to favor Sunni or Shiite views -- neither Abu Bakr nor Ali appears, 'Umar and 'Uthman are absent, and the Prophet's wives and daughters are likewise missing. Leaving out these major players leaves a gaping hole in the conventional story. Akkad fills it with Mecca's pagan power couple, implacable opponents of the Prophet and his followers: Abu Sufyan and Hind bint 'Utba.

Abu Sufyan and Hind lead Meccan elite opposition to the new monotheism not because it threatens their theology but because it threatens their livelihood (they make money from the Kaaba's idols) and their way of life. In Akkad's vision, Islam threatens the entrenched social order, promising racial equality, liberation of women and economic justice. But it also tears apart families. Sons disobey fathers and turn toward a community of faith instead. The stakes become increasingly personal: Hind's brother and father perish in clashes with Muslims.

Apart from one martyred convert who gets a few minutes of screen time, Hind is the movie's only real female character. Though she's one of the bad guys, she is not a caricature. She has range and depth and a little bit of crazy. Like Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride," Hind's personal loss makes her obsessed with vengeance against the Prophet's uncle Hamza, the man who slew her father. Hind's quest for retaliation eventually finds to her crouched over Hamza's corpse -- she paid a mercenary slave to kill him -- ripping out his liver to dine on it. (The liver was thought to be the seat of emotions; the parallel today would be ripping out someone's heart.)

Hind is central in "The Message" though she appears only a few times in classical Muslim accounts of early Islam, apart from her battlefield declamation over the slain Hamza. (Her temperament is not sweetened after she accepts Islam: When she takes the oath of loyalty, where the Prophet asks that the Meccan women swear not kill their children, she retorts, referring to a battle where many Meccans died, "Have you left us any after Badr?")

Hind and Abu Sufyan were late and reluctant converts, never part of Muhammad's inner circle despite his marriage to their daughter Umm Habiba prior to Mecca's conquest. (Like nearly everything associated with Muhammad's marriages, this gets left out of the film.) Their belated and grudging recognition that they were wrong is necessary to the film's triumphalist narrative, yet they are humbled but not defeated. Their son Mu'awiya became Caliph in 656. When his son Yazid succeeded him (martyring the Prophet's grandson Husayn along the way), a hereditary dynasty was born and the Meccan elite were back in power. The Message ends before this happens. Its concluding voiceover does not discuss how an upstart socio-religious movement becomes mainstream enough to wield imperial power.

Is there a lesson for attentive viewers appropriate for our current polarized political climate? A pessimistic reading of this history might suggest that status and power are not easily defeated; radical reform movements can deal setbacks but rarely death-blows to existing norms. A more hopeful interpretation, guided by Akkad's relentlessly human portrayal of Hind in particular, would suggest that enemies can become allies, and that even reluctant allies can help build a lasting, humane community. In any case, it can remind us that religion has the capacity to be the voice of the status quo or the justification of revolutionary, transformative social ethic.