Weeks before its world premiere, Noah, a Hollywood epic starring Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins, has triggered a massive controversy in Egypt where the influential Sunni institution Al Azhar has condemned the film and demanded it banned .
Al Azhar has always proscribed the depiction of prophets and companions of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
“Showing this film constitutes a flagrant violation of rules of Sharia ... and provokes the feelings of the faithful,” Al Azhar said in a statement. “Such works violate the stature of God’s prophets and Messengers.”
In 2012, a US-made video mocking the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) sparked violent protests in Egypt and other Muslim countries.
The Creativity Front, a grouping of Egypt’s top filmmakers and writers, has criticised Al Azhar’s fatwa (edict) against Noah.
“The role of Al Azhar should be limited to advising against watching the film rather than demanding its ban,” said the group, which was set up in 2012 to counter Islamists’ rise in Egypt.
“An actual ban on seeing the film is impossible as it can be seen online after its release,” the group added in a statement.
In 2004, Egyptian censors approved the public screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passions of the Christ on Jesus’ (Isa) crucifixion amid objections from Al Azhar. However, they banned the blockbuster The Da Vinci Code after condemnation from the Coptic Church.
It is not yet clear if Noah  will hit Egypt’s theatres later this month according to a previous schedule.
Censorship officials said they have seen the $125 million (Dh459 million) film but have not yet taken a decision on its public release in the predominantly Muslim country.
“We watched the film in full and did not find any distortion of the Prophet Noah [Nuh],” said Abdul Satar Fathi, a senior official at the state-run censorship board.
“With full respect to Al Azhar, we are talking about art, not religion. If a public showing of the film is approved, no scene will be removed.”
Noah, who built an ark to save faithful followers and species of animals from the Deluge, is revered by Islam and the Quran names a full chapter after him.
The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain have already banned Noah .
But a final decision on the public release of the film in Egypt is likely to be affected by the country’s political turbulence, according to one film critic.
“It is probable that the state authorities will not allow the public showing of the film, although 10 years ago they approved the release of The Passions of the Christ despite rejection of Al Azhar,” said critic Tareq Al Shenawi of the independent newspaper Al Tahrir.
“State authorities now are seeking to calm the situation in Egypt. So, they would not risk angering Al Azhar or its followers to avoid possible furious reaction that may lead to dire consequences.”
Al Azhar and the Coptic Church were among staunch backers of the military’s July ouster of Islamist president Mohammad Mursi following enormous street protests against his one rule. Both institutions have since played a high-profile role in mustering support for the military-backed government.
By Ramadan Al Sherbini