After a fanatical band of Hanafi Muslims shot their way into three buildings in Washington, D.C. recently, they offered unusual credentials as film critics: to wit, more than 100 terrified hostages. So when the gunmen called the $17 million epic Mohammad, Messenger of God "fiction" and demanded it be shut down in New York and Los Angeles, the moviemakers quickly complied. Showings were resumed when the Hanafis surrendered, but the film was shadowed by fresh threats of violence.

Apart from Mohammad's Syrian-born, UCLA-educated producer, Moustapha Akkad, 44, no one seemed more distressed by the controversy than the movie's leathery star, Anthony Quinn, who plays Mohammad's uncle, Hamza. "When we made this film we really thought we were involved in a great event," he says ruefully. "I thought I was doing something worthwhile. I knew there were dangers. I knew I might be criticized. Here I thought I was doing a good deed, and it winds up like this."

The 60-year-old Quinn, now on location in Mexico for the shooting of his 106th film, Oscar Lewis' The Children of Sanchez, knew from the beginning that Akkad's Mohammad was on treacherous ground. He realized that to many conservative Muslims the very idea of the film was a sacrilege, and that, in keeping with Islamic tradition, the image of the prophet could never be shown. Like Akkad, however, Quinn believed that discretion could conquer all obstacles. "I've never been involved in a picture in which everyone bent over backward as we did because of the delicateness of the situation," says Quinn. "The filming took a year, and we had six high priests with us constantly as advisers. Not only do you not see Mohammad, you never even see his shadow." (The film does use three symbols to represent the prophet: his tent, his camel and his camel stick.)

Despite producer Akkad's willingness to compromise, he was hounded by accusations of betrayal. When the Voice of America broadcast an erroneous report that Charlton Heston had been cast as Mohammad, there was rioting in Muslim Pakistan. The first time Akkad went to Libya seeking financial backing, he was intercepted at the airport and sent packing. When he finally raised the money—from sources in Kuwait, Libya and Morocco—Saudi Arabia's late King Feisal refused permission to film in his country.

Choosing an alternative site in Morocco, Akkad spent more than three months filming near Marrakech until the Moroccan government, under heavy pressure from Feisal, had him arrested and expelled. Ironically, the picture was saved by Libya's religiously conservative (though politically radical) strongman, Muammar Gaddafi, who reportedly wept when he saw Mohammad's Moroccan footage. Colonel Gaddafi permitted Akkad to film near the desert town of Sebha and detailed 3,000 troops to be used as extras in battle scenes.

Two-time Oscar winner Quinn, whose film characterizations range from the Pope to Attila the Hun in his 40-year career, claimed to be energized by the move to the desert. "You have mystic experiences there," he explained. "The desert can either kill you or stimulate you. There's no in-between." Quartered in a newly built purple-and-lavender villa on the outskirts of Sebha, he settled in like a suburban handyman. "When I first came to that house," he recalled, "there wasn't a stick of furniture. I got up at 6:30 every morning and worked on the place for two hours. And I couldn't live without anything on the walls, so in the evenings I painted. There was nothing else to do."

On the set the Mexican-born Quinn amused himself between takes by carving crude African figures (the real Hamza also whittled while waiting for battle). "I suddenly found myself able to do it," he observed mysteriously. "I don't know whether it was Hamza whittling or me." Quinn was obviously nettled, however, by the intrusion of a third alter ego. For box-office reasons, Akkad and his backers had decided to shoot two versions of Mohammad: one starring Quinn and Greek actress Irene Papas, the other with an all-Arab cast. Quinn's Arab counterpart, Egyptian actor Abdullah Ghaith, studied Quinn closely in scene after scene, and Quinn made known his displeasure. Ultimately, however, the two arrived at a grudging détente.

"You know," Quinn reflected afterward, "it's like the saying, 'Walk in another man's shoes before you criticize him.' When he did a scene I'd understand the problems he was having, because I'd just done it. So sometimes I'd offer a suggestion. And I'd tell him, 'If you see me doing anything wrong, let me know.' Let's face it. He's Arab. He knew Hamza better than I did."

On Quinn's final day on the set, Hamza was to die in battle. Papas, 50, who once starred with Quinn in Zorba the Greek, had to kick the hapless corpse in the face. "Oh my God," she gasped afterward, "I kicked him too hard!" Sure enough, by evening a ruddy egg-sized bruise had appeared on Quinn's cheekbone. ("Hell, I don't mind," he said. "Irene and I have been in so many pictures together, I guess you could say we've watched each other growing older.") When his last scene was finished, Quinn rose stiffly from the sand to say his goodbyes. First Papas embraced him, then Akkad, then the entire cast and the technicians as well. "It's been a long time," said Quinn, deeply moved. He hopped into a Land-Rover and drove off. His 366 days as Mohammad's uncle were over.