Portrayal of prophet prompts Malaysian ban on ‘Prince of Egypt’

Friday, January 29, 1999

Citing moral and religious reasons, a government board of film censors in Malaysia has barred “The Prince of Egypt,” an animated film, from being shown in the southeast Asian country.

Malaysia is made up largely of Muslims. The Koran, the holy book of Islam, admonishes Muslims to “fear Allah and obey His messengers.” The teachings of the Koran prohibit any and all visual portrayals of the seventh-century prophet Muhammad, who recited the Koran to his followers after receiving its messages from Allah. Muslims also believe the Koran forbids portrayals of all prophets, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. The portrayal of God and prophets in the film was apparently the driving force behind the Malaysian government's ban.

The film, the biblical epic of Moses and the liberation of enslaved Hebrews, was created by the California-based filmmaker DreamWorks and was to be released in Malaysia in February. Lukeman Saaid, chairman of the Malaysian Film Censorship Board, called the film's depiction of Moses “insensitive” and said the film would not serve the interests of Malaysians.

DreamWorks went to great lengths to create a film devoid of insensitive religious material. The company sent an early script to a wide array of biblical scholars, theologians and First Amendment religious-liberty groups to ensure against any improper portrayals. Charles Haynes, The Freedom Forum's senior scholar who leads the religious-liberty programs of the First Amendment Center, was one of those who examined script. “If any script was vetted for problems, it was this one,” Haynes said.

Teresa Watanabe, a religion writer for The Los Angeles Times, called “The Prince of Egypt” an ecumenical work and said last month that the DreamWorks film had “won the blessings of the diverse religious community.”

Nevertheless, DreamWorks was made aware that its portrayal of prophets might not set well with some Muslims.

Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his group was consulted by DreamWorks about the film. Hooper said his group had not taken a position about the movie, but said it should not be surprising that the Malaysian government would feel compelled to bar it.

“According to Muslim belief, you should not have artistic representation of prophets because it can lead to idol worship,” Hooper said. “We worked with DreamWorks on this and voiced our concerns about the portrayal of prophets, but obviously we don't have any proprietary interest to stop it from creating such a film.”

Hooper added that the Malaysian board's action was a reflection “of a real concern that prophets should not be portrayed in any form.”

Tzsivia Schwartz-Getzub, an attorney and the community liaison for the DreamWorks film, said that the ban on the movie was disappointing.

“We went to great lengths to tell this Hebrew Bible story as accurately as possible, within the context of making something entertaining,” Schwartz-Getzub said. “We reached out extensively here and abroad to the Muslim community and we were made aware that some in the Muslim community believe that portrayals of prophets in any manner is absolutely forbidden and so that would have made it impossible for them to view or embrace the film.”

Getzub said that the Malaysian censorship of the film was disappointing, but that “we must be mindful and respectful of the religious sensitivities in the Muslim community, and if the board's decision was based on those sincerely held religious beliefs, then we must respect it.”

The movie's official distributor told The Hollywood Reporter that it would appeal the Malaysian board's decision.