Saturday, August 24, 2013

Life of Muhammad (Crescent Films, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched the recent three-part PBS telecast on the life of Muhammad, which was actually filmed in 2011 by a company called Crescent Films (which is sort of like forming a company to make a documentary on the life of Jesus and calling it “Crucifix Films”) and produced and directed by Faris Kermani, written by Ziauddin Sadar, and featuring as on-air narrator and principal personality one Rageh Omaar. Rageh Omaar, who tells us in the opening minutes that he is himself a Muslim, was born in Somalia and formerly worked for BBC News as a world-affairs correspondent (which explains his excellent “Beeb” English), then joined the British commercial TV network ITV News as their Middle Eastern correspondent and host of his own monthly show, The Rageh Omaar Report. Life of Muhammad is divided into three parts, “The Seeker,” “Holy Wars” and “Holy Peace,” and it’s a fascinating presentation of Muhammad’s life juxtaposed with how Muhammad’s evolving beliefs and revelations, as codified after his death in the Holy Quran and the hadith (the latter being the collections of sayings attributed to Muhammad, which Muslims don’t believe are divinely inspired the way the Quran is but are authorities for how to interpret the Quran and put its ideas into practice in the here and now).

What’s most fascinating about Muhammad’s story is how closely it parallels those of other prophets who founded new religions; though Omaar goes out of his way in the opening to disclaim any similarities between Jesus’s background (at least as it’s presented in the Christian faith) and Muhammad’s — Muhammad had an ordinary conception, birth and childhood, though the latter was shaped by his status as an orphan (his father died before Muhammad was born and his mother died when he was six) and the way he was passed around not only among relatives but at one point actually taken out of his birth tribe, the Quraysh, and briefly passed to a band of Bedouins to raise. (The Quraysh were the elite of Muhammad’s home town, Mecca, but he was a poor relation and had no status in Mecca’s acutely stratified society — and the Quraysh were the old order that bitterly fought and tried to repress the new faith of Islam throughout most of Muhammad’s adult life.) Muhammad became a merchant, apparently because that was the only sort of career open to someone without a family to sponsor him in anything else, and he worked for his uncle and traveled throughout the Middle East. Though the show points out that Muslims to this day insist that Muhammad could not read or write — apparently, according to Omaar and some of the people he interviewed, because Muslims believe their prophet’s illiteracy means that he was not influenced by the Bible (which is nonsense; even if he couldn’t read or write, he could well have heard Biblical stories from preachers in the towns he visited while on his trading journeys) even though Muhammad himself acknowledged the influences of both Judaism and Christianity on Islam by claiming to be the last in the line of prophets that included Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muhammad lived a relatively normal life as a merchant, though his choice of a wife was unusual: Khadijah, a woman somewhat older than himself, a wealthy widow who had inherited a fortune from her husband and through her own business acumen had increased it. Apparently Khadijah was the great love of Muhammad’s life: though he lived in a society in which polygamy was the norm, he never married anyone else until after her death, and (ironically given the way women are treated today in many Muslim countries) Muhammad preached that married women should be able to own property independently of their husbands — a right which didn’t become generally accepted in the Christian world until the early 20th century.

Then he went through what would today be called a mid-life crisis; he began to withdraw for longer and longer periods to pray and meditate in the hills, and during one of those prayer sessions, at about age 40, he was (at least according to Muslim belief) visited by the Archangel Gabriel who started dictating to him the Quran (literally “recitation” in Arabic) with the word “Read!,” even though Muhammad tried to beg off by telling Gabriel he couldn’t read. Eventually Omaar and his filmmakers get to the parts of the story most people know about, including the long silence between Gabriel’s first revelation to Muhammad and his later ones; the growing evolution of Muhammad’s teachings; his building a following, first among his relatives and the lower strata of Meccan society (like Jesus, Muhammad seems at first to have reached out to the less affluent on purpose) and then among enough people that the Quraysh decided he was a threat and needed to be eliminated; his flights, first to Ethiopia (where a Christian king gave him and his followers asylum once Muhammad convinced him he too revered Jesus) and eventually to the town of Medina, where Muhammad set up a government that granted equal tolerance to Muslims, pagans and Jews. Muhammad is supposed to have drafted the world’s first written constitution, the Constitution of Medina, to govern his new state — though no version from Muhammad’s time survives and the only references we have to it are bits and pieces collated as part of the hadith two centuries after Muhammad died. But a series of new revelations and the resulting changes in Muhammad’s religion — including his insistence that Muslims face in the direction of Mecca, not Jerusalem, when they pray — antagonized the pagans and the Jews, and some of them (particularly one Jewish tribe within Medina) aided the armies of the Quraysh when they came to besiege Medina and ultimately to kill Muhammad and suppress his religion. The last part, “Holy Peace,” depicts how Muhammad ultimately won control and allegiance from Mecca basically by wearing the Quraysh down — much the way Christianity went from a viciously persecuted minority sect in the Roman Empire to the official state religion — and how Muhammad, like Jesus, delivered a final sermon just before he died (of natural causes as a respected, powerful man, essentially the first leader of a united Arabia) that summed up his life’s work and his vision for the future.

The other most fascinating thing about Life of Muhammad is it is quite obviously the vision of liberal Muslims attempting to take back the history and principles of their religion they feel have been corrupted by the extremists within Islam (the word “Islam,” by the way, is translated here as “surrender” even though all other sources I’ve seen give it as “submission”). In that regard it’s something like a biographical documentary on Jesus would be if produced by someone like Bishop John Shelby Spong (though Life of Muhammad says nothing about Queer people, pro or con), essentially arguing that Muhammad’s life, faith and teachings have been hijacked by brutal people with their own agendas and a lot of people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have bought into the perversion of Islam by groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda because they simply haven’t known better. The show takes on some of the most highly charged recent controversies around Islam, from the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist suicide attacks (interestingly, Omaar mentions briefly Muhammad’s injunction against suicide but, in his discussion of the “sword” verses of the Quran — the ones that supposedly give Muslims the right to wage holy war against non-Muslims, which Omaar and the filmmakers interpret as statements giving the Muslims of Muhammad’s time the authority to defend themselves against attacks by the Quraysh — he doesn’t mention the statement in the Quran that no Muslim may ever justifiably kill another Muslim, which the people in al-Qaeda and other terror groups get around by saying that their Muslim victims have strayed so far from their understanding of the faith that they’re not “really” Muslims) to the controversies over Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad. (When I read The Satanic Verses I became convinced that Ayatollah Khomeini had declared his famous fatwa calling for Rushdie’s murder not so much because of his treatment of a particularly infamous incident in Muhammad’s life — when he had apparently described revelations allowing Muslims to compromise with the pagan rulers of Mecca, then rescinded those revelations and said they had been given by Satan, not God — as Rushdie’s character called “The Imam,” a vicious and quite obvious caricature of Khomeini himself.)

Omaar and his director and writer, Faris Kermani and Ziauddin Sadar, seem to want to present both Muslims and non-Muslims with a 21st century version of Islam, in some cases returning to Muhammad’s progressive ideas (notably on the treatment of women!) and in other cases noting how much of what a lot of contemporary Muslims believe — including the Shari’a, which the show notes was compiled centuries after Muhammad’s life and isn’t a divine revelation but simply a human attempt to create a system for putting Islamic principles to work in social governance, the idea being that since it is a system created by humans Shari’a can be changed by other humans and the Muslim world is under no religious obligation to govern itself like it was still the 10th century — isn’t a necessary requirement for their religion. I wish Omaar and his collaborators well — a world in which more of the estimated 1.5 billion Muslims believe in their sort of Islam rather than Osama bin Laden’s or the Taliban’s will be a considerably more peaceful, just, fair and happy place (just as will a world in which more of the Christians believe in the more liberal, less judgmental sorts of Christianity) — but all too many of the world’s trends are going the other way. With the economic depression gripping most of Europe and the governments instituting “austerity” measures to cope with it, many Europeans (now that the Left has been, at least in popular propaganda, thoroughly and historically discredited) are giving unprecedented (at least since the days when fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were still going concerns) support to Right-wing parties who are openly anti-immigrant in general and anti-Muslim in particular. What’s more, after the brief hope of the “Arab Spring” authoritarianism has reasserted itself in the middle East big-time; the military’s determination not only to reconquer Egypt but wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood once and for all is going to convince believers in Islam as a political as well as a religious force that “democracy” is a sham and will therefore increase, not decrease, the level of terrorism.