Sunday, July 21, 2013
What will American Christians (and Muslims) make of ‘The Life of Muhammad,’ a three-part series presented by British journalist Rageh Omaar which will Premiere August 20 on PBS?
By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries
ARLINGTON, VA (ANS) -- When “The Life of Muhammad,” a three-part series of one hour each, presented by journalist and author Rageh Omaar, was first shown in the UK by the BBC back in 2011, it not surprisingly caused an uproar in Iran.
The then Iranian minister of cultural and Islamic guidance, Mohammad Hosseini, who had yet to watch any of the series, branded the film as an attempt by the “enemy” to “ruin Muslims’ sanctity.”
“The BBC's decision to make a documentary on the life of [the] prophet Muhammad seems dubious and if our suspicions are proved to be correct, we will certainly take serious action,” he was reported as telling Iran's Fars news agency.
The documentary, which was broadcast in Britain in mid-July, 2011, just ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in August, follows the journalist and TV presenter Rageh Omaar travel to the place of Muhammad's birth, Mecca, to re-trace the footsteps of the prophet.
It came out without any “serious action” by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and now American Christians and Muslims will have a chance to watch the series which, according to a PBS news release, “charts the extraordinary story of a man who, in little more than 20 years, changed the world forever.”
PBS goes on to say, “Taking a journey that is both historical and relevant today, Omaar documents Muhammad's life from his humble beginnings in Mecca, to his struggles with accepting his prophetic role, his flight to Medina, the founding of the first Islamic constitution and his subsequent military and political successes and failures - and to his death and his legacy.”
Filmed on location in Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, Turkey, Syria, the U.S., the United Kingdom and Jordan, the series also draws on the expertise of some of the world's leading academics and commentators on Islam, including Tariq Ramadan (academic and fellow of St. Anthony's College, Oxford), Ziauddin Sardar (London-based scholar and writer specializing in Muslim thought), Tom Holland (British novelist and historian), HRH Princess Badiya EI Hassan of the Jordanian Royal Family, Dr. Amira K Bennison (senior lecturer in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Cambridge University), Sajjad Rizvi (associate professor of Islamic Intellectual History, Exeter University), Bishop Nazir-Ali (author of Islam: A Christian Perspective) and John L Esposito (professor of Religion and International Affairs and Islamic Studies, Georgetown University).
“Along with the historical narrative, the film addresses Islam's role in the world today and explores interpretations of Islamic attitudes toward money, charity, women, social equality, religious tolerance, war and conflict, providing a fascinating, timely and unique insight into the Islamic faith,” the news release added.
PBS says that “The Life of Muhammad” comprises three one-hour episodes. The first, “The Seeker,” examines the world into which Muhammad was born, his marriage to his first wife, Khadijah, as well as his first revelations and the profound impact they had on his life and on the lives of those closest to him. “Holy Wars,” the second episode, focuses on key events in Muhammad's life, including the Night Journey to Jerusalem, his departure from Mecca and the eight-year war with the Meccan tribes. The third and final episode, “Holy Peace,” analyzes events during his later life, including the introduction of the moral code known as Shari'a and the concept of jihad.
"In line with Islamic tradition, the program, it says, does not depict any images of Muhammad or feature any dramatic re-constructions of his life," he adds.
The presenter, Rageh Omaar, is a Somali-born journalist and author who now has British citizenship. A former BBC World Affairs correspondent, he currently works as a journalist/reporter for ITN UK, where he is the Middle Eastern correspondent, and also hosts his own monthly investigative documentaries called “The Rageh Omaar Report.”
The documentary was made by Crescent Films which the news release says “is an award winning independent British TV Production Company with a record of producing high quality, original and entertaining programs for the BBC and Channel 4 TV.”
When the series first came out, Christopher Howse, writing for the Daily Telegraph, had some strong words to say about it, especially the third episode.
“The BBC in weasel words had announced: ‘In line with Islamic tradition the program does not depict any images of the face of Mohammed.’ Thus it was that the images chosen came from the Persian tradition that shows Mohammed with a veiled face. Yet there are plenty of images in the Persian tradition which depict Mohammed with an unobscured full face. More importantly, most Muslims, who belong to the Sunni tradition, abominate images of Muhammad as being a clear breach of an injunction in the Koran not to cleave to images (Sura 21: 52).
“Why did the BBC happily flout this prohibition? Because it thought it could get away with it, no doubt. I can't imagine that a documentary about Moses would have avoided showing images of him (Michelangelo's horned statue perhaps) for fear of offending Jewish sensibilities.
“As for the biographical details in the program, they were exiguous, as might be expected. Was Ayesha nine when Mohammed married her, or 16? No one seemed to be able to decide.
“For want of biographical facts, the program discussed controversial aspects of Islam, such as the corporal punishments of sharia. Of these punishments for hudud (the boundaries set by God), the cutting off of a thief's hand is commanded by the Koran, but not stoning for an adultress. That, an Islamic scholar told us in this episode, was originally a Jewish and Christian punishment. So that's all right. Actually, I'm not sure that many Christians have historically practiced stoning. The story of Saul was no doubt a disincentive.”
However, Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, a Catholic priest and a doctor of moral theology, writing for the UK-based Catholic Herald on Thursday, July 21, 2011, praised the series, saying, “Congratulations to the BBC for broadcasting a program that tackles a serious subject and that is genuinely informative.
“Omaar is lots of people’s favorite presenter, and a few of the talking heads may represent the usual suspects, but the program, perhaps in the interests of balance, does feature some surprising contributors: good to see Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali there, and also Robert Spencer. The bishop’s book Islam: A Christian Perspective (1983) is an excellent guide to what we, as Christians, are to make of the Islamic religion.
“As for Robert Spencer, he is someone who is pretty tough on Islam and Islamic issues, and must be heartily disliked by most Muslims. Also present is Karen Armstrong, who has written about Islamic history, and who, as the entire world knows, was once a nun.
“The series describes itself as groundbreaking, and perhaps in a sense it is. It faces up to the issue of historicity. The question of historicity greatly troubled Christians in the 19th and 20th centuries. It all feels a bit dated now, and no one really cares much about whether the prophecy of Isaiah was the work of one person, or two (or indeed three, as contemporary scholarship claims).
“But historicity is still a very sensitive subject for Muslims, and as far as I can see, largely untouched territory. There is, the first episode told us, an Armenian non-Muslim source for Muhammad, dating from about 30 years after his death: so he was a real person, about that there can be no doubt.
“The program also raised the surely peripheral question of how important a place Mecca was in the time of Muhammad; far more central is the question of Muhammad’s supposed illiteracy – the program acknowledged this, without coming down on one side or the other. Again, with the Night Journey – we were left free to choose whether Muhammad’s trip to Jerusalem and then up to heaven was in fact, as Rageh put it, ‘metaphysical’ or not.
“All of this was quite fair, but I remain convinced that Islamic claims rest on some startling incoherencies. The person who came nearest to exposing this was Karen Armstrong who (31 minutes into the first episode) compared Muhammad’s experience of divine revelation to that of the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah. I think she wished to point to similarities, but the truth of the matter is that there are startling differences. Jeremiah and Isaiah were not aiming to found a new religion; they were working inside a received tradition and they were producing words that were their own, and not supposed uncreated words from God.
“Muslims today claim that the era before Muhammad was ‘the Age of Ignorance’: I may not understand this correctly, but this surely indicates that they must believe that there is no revelation apart from the Koran. Now that is not the case with Isaiah and Jeremiah: their prophecies do not start from a tabula rasa.
“This means that Islam has a different model of revelation and a different idea of prophecy to Christianity and Judaism; it makes more sense to us, surely, to think of Muhammad as the messenger of God rather than the prophet: the word nabi can be translated either way, I believe.”
He added, “One thing that Rageh Omaar did say was that almost all physical traces of Muhammad’s era have been obliterated, in case they lead to idolatry. At the end of the first episode we saw a picture of Khadijah’s tomb as it had been in 1925, and then a picture of it today. The demolition of the tomb has upset and angered many Muslims – this is certainly conveyed by Ed Husain in his excellent book The Islamist. In fact the pictures in these program spoke louder than any words could do.
“Modern Mecca and Medina, which no Catholic can visit, are hideous and drab, despite the millions the Saudi royal family have lavished on them. Their desert surroundings look like the surface of Mars. All the architectural gems we saw – the Great Mosque of Damascus, the Dome of the Rock, and the Hagia Sofia were the work of Byzantine builders.
“Modern Mecca and Medina reveal a conflicted and paradoxical approach to history on the part of some contemporary Muslims, and that is something that we should watch: how can contemporary Muslims reconcile history with a model of revelation that claims to be ahistorical? Put another way: is the Koran direct from heaven, or is it a product of its time and its geographical setting?
“So far the series on the life of Muhammad leaves this an open question – but is it? In the long run it is a question that may well divide Muslims themselves.”
There you have it. Its first broadcast in Great Britain caused controversy, and brought some praise, so how will people here in the USA receive it? The only way for you to find out is to watch it and make your own mind up about it.
** You may republish this story with proper attribution.
Send this story to a friend.