Issue 82 July 2011
In the first of the series, Rageh Omaar asks a crucial and poignant question: was Muhammad a force of good or evil? It seems for a series commissioned by a Muslim (Aaqil Ahmed – BBC Head of Religion & Ethics), directed by a Muslim (Faris Kermani), presented by a Muslim (Rageh Omar) and written by a Muslim (Ziauddin Sardar), the answer is maybe.
And that’s the problem with the first episode; in its bid to show an objective reflection, the program fails miserably to direct the narrative in any given way. We hear accolades of the 'man who changed the world' but no examples of how he actually achieved this. The narrative arc - or more precisely arcs - attempts to explore the life of Muhammad through modern contexts. This is understandable given that the vast majority of the audience would have never come across Muhammad in any other way. What is less understandable is the fact that all the contextual elements are negative. We are paraded through a list of modern flash points, from the 9/11 attacks at the beginning of the film to the marches and book burnings in Bradford at the end, but there are no positive modern flash points – no positive modern contexts.
Even when the episode redeems itself by exploring Khadijah – the Prophet’s first wife - and their unusual marriage, we only get the negative snipe of how the modern Muslim world fails to live up to such a legacy. And I'm sure we fail in every possible way but there are also amazing stories where we live up to the Prophet’s great legacy. It’s astounding that there were no mentions of powerful and incredible modern Muslims who, in the footsteps of Khadijah, are brilliant businesswomen, politicians, sports personalities and more.
Ironically, however, the first episode is able to handle the Prophet’s life, in its own historical context, in a better light – sometimes quite beautifully and in a compelling way. We are treated to the normality and humanness of the Prophet through the exploration of his birth. There was no star to mark it, no kings bearing gifts and no extraordinary event symbolising the moment - and the Arabs do not celebrate it. We are also shown the non-violent character of the Prophet’s movement and how in the early years, despite persecution, there was no violent upheaval or confrontation. There is good commentary on the social justice elements of early Islam through explanations of the revolutionary fervour that ran through its message. Many of the early converts were either aristocratic or people on the margins of society; by bringing them together, early Islam proved to be a social movement with justice at its core. There are moments of great documentary drama that beautifully explore the religious significance of Muhammad’s life. My favourite scene is that of the first revelation, where Rageh captures the unworldly experience of Divine contact and the drama of the consecutive commands of Iqra (Read!). The bewildering feeling of awe and disbelief is narrated with great passion and eloquence, befitting this epic and defining moment.
Overall, the series looks promising and well worth a watch; however, it missed the opportunity to redefine the modern narratives around Islam and its final Prophet. Perhaps these are addressed more effectively in the following shows – I will be looking out for it.