Was Muhammad a force of good or evil? That’s the question British author, broadcaster, and professing Muslim Rageh Omaar promises to investigate in the early moments of the new documentary, The Life of Muhammad, airing on PBS beginning August 20. If Omaar seems to have a conflict of journalistic interest regarding the subject, it’s no more so than the film’s director Faris Kermani, writer Ziauddin Sardar, or executive producer Aaqil Ahmed (also the Head of Religion & Ethics at the BBC, and the man who originally commissioned the project). All are Muslims.
This isn’t to suggest that those who follow Islam shouldn’t have had roles—even major roles—in a documentary aimed at the general public about Islam’s founder. It’s only to point out that almost no one associated with the movie seems to have been in a position to approach the question with much skepticism. Even the name of the production company—Crescent Films—betrays a marked partiality. (It’s hard to imagine, for example, public broadcasting airing an investigative series into the life of Christ from an outfit called Ichthys Productions.)
There’s no doubt, from the outset, that the filmmakers are partial. Within the first few minutes Omaar explains that out of deference to Muslim standards, the three-part series will avoid depicting any images of Muhammad—whether in artwork or in dramatic reenactments. It shows the same sensitivity to his wives. We see paintings of the women, but their faces are carefully whited out.
The Life of Muhammad is well-paced and visually arresting, thanks to locations in Mecca and Medina, but a pall of propaganda hangs over the entire production. With the exception of a few brief appearances by Jihad Watch’s Robert Spencer, whose sound bites are limited to what must be the least critical things he’s ever said about Islam, most of the experts Omaar consults display a sympathy for the religion as naked as his own.
Nearly every element of modern Islam that Westerners find troubling is, the array of talking heads assure us, the result of either a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of the Quran. Muhammad never intended for anyone to be coerced into converting to Islam, and Sharia was by no means intended to rule civil societies. By his own example, Muhammad meant for women to be equal to men, and he never required them to cover their heads or faces. Nor did he view Jews with enmity, considering them, instead, brothers of an earlier branch of his own belief system. And he certainly never intended for Muslims to prosecute a war of religion by targeting innocents. “The Quran says that if the enemy asks for peace, you must lay down your arms immediately and accept any terms however disadvantageous,” author Karen Armstrong informs us.
All of this leaves the viewer with one glaring and glaringly unanswered question—if all this is true, why are so many of this religion’s adherents getting it so publicly wrong?
The film’s characterization of Muhammad as a prophet of peace—indeed a prophet of outright self-abnegation—might be more persuasive if those who espouse a very different sort of Muhammad were also given a full hearing. But The Life of Muhammad doesn’t bother with the “extremists” who hold more hard-line views of jihad until the last five minutes of the last episode. Then, though they only have approximately 30 seconds to express their views, two young Muslim radicals sound (though certainly disturbing), intelligent, consistent, and not at all as if they’re ignorant of what their faith teaches.
Omaar and his scholars speak often throughout the three hours about how the “enemies of Islam” distort the tenets of its founder in order to attack it, and that Muslims have never elected anyone who advocates extremism to represent them. The filmmakers might think about mentioning that to the Egyptians, Iranians, and Turks, to name a few recent examples.
Listen to Megan Basham discuss The Life of Muhammad on The World and Everything in It: