"On the third floor?" asks a woman in stonewashed jeans with an off-white hajib on her head, holding her daughter's arm. She's standing on the first floor of Ballston Common Mall in Arlington, in view of a towering Christmas tree.
"Yes, in Theater 12," answers a man in a fitted gray suit, pointing to the escalator.
Up they go. Past the Tropik Sun, the Radio Shack, the T-Mobile kiosk, families rush to their seats in the Regal theater, bags of popcorn and sodas in hand. It's Eid al-Fitr (pronounced EED-al-FITTER) -- the Festival of Fast-Breaking, marking the end of the month-long Ramadan -- and, for the first time, a very exciting time, a very important time, there's a film to help celebrate it.
"Muhammad: The Last Prophet" -- a lush, solemn, 90-minute animated film directed by Disney veteran Richard Rich ("The Fox and the Hound" and "The Black Cauldron") -- made its U.S. debut yesterday, showing in about 40 cities in 86 theaters nationwide, four of them in Northern Virginia. The English-language film has been released in a handful of countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Malaysia and Turkey, with subtitles. But 9/11 came, and the $10 million film -- produced by Badr International and financed by Saudi investors -- was shelved in the United States.
Then Fine Media Group, a small, independent film distributor in Chicago, picked it up.
Oussama Jammal, the distributing company's owner and a Muslim, has spent nearly $1 million, renting relatively small theaters and placing ads on Arab satellite TV. Loews and AMC, two of the biggest theater chains in the country, opted to not show it, to Jammal's dismay. But he wanted to get the film out at any cost.
"There was 9/11, then the war in Afghanistan, then the war in Iraq," says Jammal, 50, a father of four, born and raised in Lebanon, who immigrated to Salt Lake City in 1982. "Too much has happened, and it didn't give Americans the chance to be able to differentiate between the good and the bad and the ugly. What is Islam to non-Muslims?"
The film is not a big Hollywood production, he says, certainly nothing like "The Passion of the Christ." Still, word of mouth among the estimated 150,000 Muslims, Arab and non-Arab, in the Washington area, paying $12 a ticket, is expected to fill theaters until Thursday, when the run ends. For the past week, volunteers like Yahya Fouz, a 23-year-old law student, and 24-year-old Sajjad Ahmad, a software tester, have been helping sell tickets; their cell phone numbers are posted on Fine Media Group's Web site.
"Islam has been hijacked by the media, hijacked by Osama bin Laden," says Fouz, out of breath as he stops by Ballston Common on his way to the Washington Convention Center, where thousands of Muslims were gathering for Eid-al-Fitr. He's selling tickets there. Out of 50 tickets mailed to him last week by Jammal, about 20 are left. "Muhammad, you have to understand, is part of the Abrahamian tradition of prophets. Of Moses and Jesus. Unfortunately, not many people know that."
"Muhammad: The Last Prophet" traces the rise of Islam in 7th century Mecca, when the now-holy place was a corrupt city of slave owners and wooden and stone gods. The message is sacrosanct, the god is Allah. Since Islamic law prohibits any images of the prophet (or his close relatives) to be seen, the action is shown, as needed, from Muhammad's point of view -- you don't see him, you see what he sees -- and follows him through his preaching, his words directly out of the Koran.
The audience meets the prophet about 10 minutes into the film, climbing toward a cave outside Mecca, alone, to pray. It is there, at the age of 40, where Muhammad receives a vision from the archangel Gabriel.
In that scene, the film's most visually stunning, Gabriel is depicted by a glowing sphere.
"What I think is very unique about it is you have a film dealing with Muhammad that seeks to tell the development of Islam in a medium -- an animated film -- that can widely be seen. Especially by children, Muslim or non-Muslim," says John Esposito, professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University and editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. He is the author of more than 40 books on Islam, and got involved in the film in 1998, as one of four Islamic scholars. He was asked to review it for authenticity.
Though Islam -- with 6 million to 8 million followers in the United States, Esposito estimates -- is the country's third largest religion behind Christianity and Judaism, "it's still . . . the least understood of the three religions."
The D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations released a poll of more than 1,000 respondents Oct. 4 showing that one in four Americans holds anti-Muslim views such as "Muslims teach their children to hate" and "Muslims value life less than other people."
Those are familiar stereotypes to Sally Abdelhafiz, 34, a Reston human resources worker.
She brought her family -- husband Taha, daughters Nadine, 9, and May, 5 -- to the noon showing at Ballston Common after hearing about the movie on ART, the Arab satellite channel. She liked what she saw, especially a scene halfway through the film.
Muhammad's followers have left Mecca, and a Christian king in Abyssinia offers them asylum. In an exchange, the Muslims try to explain how their beliefs are not far from Christianity.
The king stands, looks up at the ceiling, throws his hands high, and says:
"What we believe and what you believe are like these two beams of light -- separate yet coming from the same source."
"That message, simple as it sounds, needs to be understood by everyone," says Abdelhafiz. "It is the same source. You call your god, God. We call our god, Allah."
She pauses. "What's so different about that?"