Wednesday, August 21, 2013

PBS Documentary Series

Last night I watched the documentary marathon series called ‘Life of Muhammad,’ narrated by journalist and author Rageh Omaar. All-in-all, I have a rather mixed response to the documentary series.
   The series, starting with Muhammad’s early years as a poor orphan, running through to his life in Medina, and eventually his return to Mecca, is interspersed with commentary from a variety of scholars and others interviewed by Omaar emphasising how Muhammad’s life and Islam has been and is being interpreted and practiced.
   For the most part, I think the documentary is an endeavour in apologetics. Those interviewed and Omaar put a positive spin on Muhammad’s life and on Sharia law.   
   For example, one woman they interviewed wearing complete head-coverings said it was her free choice to do so rather than viewing it as required by law. One of the female commentators also insisted that Muhammad didn’t require head-coverings for women. However, if that is the case then one wonders why Muslim women make such an issue of the head-covering—if it’s not required, then why all of the fuss?
   Another example of the apologetics at work in the series was the discussion of violence in relation to Sharia law and how it is interpreted. One commentator claimed that Sharia law was not to be interpreted to refer to use of violence unless Muslims were being oppressed—but he did not go on to cite any legitimate illustrations of or define what he meant by oppression. He did however admit that Sharia law has been abused and radicalised by Muslims today to justify terrorism.
   Yet another example of apologetics was a female commentator towards the end of the program stating that at the end of Muhammad’s life he promoted peace and tolerance towards everyone in Mecca. If that is the case, then why were these among Muhammad’s last words allegedly to have been: “May Allah curse the Jews and Christians for they built the places of worship at the graves of the prophets.” (Bukhari, Vol. 1, #427) Further to such a curse, there was a short video clip included in the program of a present-day Muslim praying to Allah and cursing the Jews, followed by a commentator who claimed this is one example of misinterpretation and the incorrect practice of Islam.  
   The documentary series also cited events in Muhammad’s life where he either was personally involved in violent acts or approved of violence by his followers. More than once, it was emphasised by the narrator and commentators that the use of violence and barbarism must be understood in light of the original context of Muhammad’s time. Ultimately my impression of the documentary series was that at best it was a public relations effort to promote the most idealistic version of Muhammad’s life and Islam and critique, ever-so-cautiously, of those who misinterpret Muhammad and Islam.   

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