Monday , May 27 2024

Muhammad Tonight on PBS: No Pictures Please

Hey, what’s on TV tonight? Anything warm and fuzzy for the holidays? It would appear so based upon pre-reviews from the NY Times, Daniel Pipes and the show’s own website – Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet on PBS.

There is no doubt that Islam has come under much closer scrutiny since 9/11, and not all that has been scrutinized has come out smelling like a virgin drenched in olive oil and grape juice. In particular, the path of Muhammad into politics, statecraft, warfare, and at least the appearance of intransigent exceptionalism strikes many as startlingly different from that of another “prophet,” Jesus who refrained from any of the above.

I have not seen the show yet, which debuts tonight, but a spin around the website yields this, from the section on Muhammad and Violence and Jihad:

    Through most of the Medina period, the Muslim community was in mortal danger and surviving in a defensive mode. Between 624 and 627 especially, the Muslim community was often quite literally fighting for its life. It is no accident that the concepts of jihad and martyrdom were developed at this time.

    Though the Qur’an takes on more temporal issues in the Medinan Period, it does not abandon the notions of spiritual striving and God consciousness that were hallmarks of the Meccan Period. Even the concept of defensive warfare is placed within the larger concept of jihad as striving for what is right. Though jihad might involve bloodshed, it has the broader meaning of exerting an effort for improvement, not only in the political or military realm, but also in the moral, spiritual, and intellectual realms. Muhammad is often cited in Islamic tradition for calling the militant aspect of jihad the “minor” or “little” jihad, while referring to the improvement of one’s self as the “greater” jihad.

    ….With many of the billion-plus Muslims living in poverty or oppression, Islam has become a rallying point for independence movements worldwide. Since jihad and martyrdom were placed within a religious context during the Medinan period, some of these independence movements have deployed the same concepts as sanctified tools for motivating combatants in the face of overwhelming odds. Thus, some seek a military solution to their political aspirations.

    At the far end of the spectrum lies a fairly recent tendency to justify acts of terror with quotations from the traditions of Islam. This exercise in legal sleight of hand, placed beyond the pale by all except the terrorists themselves, has bred enormous doubt throughout the world about the essentially peaceful nature of Islam.

    Especially since the tragic events of September 11, most religious scholars around the world have rejected these interpretations as spurious. Rather, they have re-emphasized the Prophet’s saying that “the true jihad is only that which exalts God’s word, which is truth.” The Qur’an condemns as an ultimate act of blasphemy actions that attempt to dismantle the very fabric of existence by destroying and spreading ruin on the Earth. Elsewhere it states that God has willed Muslims “to be a community of moderation.” (Qur’an 2:143)

Now this is not the place to argue whether Islam is essentially “peaceful” or not, but for the show to state unequivocally that justifying “acts of terror” with quotations from the Qur’an is regarded as “beyond the pale by all except the terrorists themselves” is either flat out untrue or at best hotly contested. I imagine the statement turns on the meaning of the phrase “acts of terror,” but this strikes me as close to the “legal sleight of hand” that the writers condemn.

The bottom line is that Islam seems to get the benefit of the doubt at every turn, so much so that Daniel Pipes – admittedly no friend of Islam – calls the show :

    an outrage on two main counts.

    * PBS has betrayed its viewers by presenting an airbrushed and uncritical documentary of a topic that has both world historical and contemporary significance. Its patronizing film might be fine for an Islamic Sunday school class, but not for a national audience.

    For example, PBS ignores an ongoing scholarly reassessment of Muhammad’s life that disputes every detail – down to the century and region Muhammad lived in – of its film. This is especially odd when contrasted with the 1998 PBS documentary, “From Jesus to Christ,” which focuses almost exclusively on the work of cutting-edge scholars and presents the latest in critical thinking on Jesus.

    * The U.S. government should never fund a documentary whose obvious intent is to glorify a religion and proselytize for it. Doing so flies in the face of American tradition and law. On behalf of taxpayers, a public-interest law firm should bring suit against the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, both to address this week’s travesty and to win an injunction against any possible repetitions.

As usual Pipes is a bit over the top, if this is all true then the show is propaganda, and propaganda exposed by open criticism – such as his – has the effect of turning against itself.

I think we have a fair idea of where Pipes is coming from, but I can’t resist a few more choice barbs:

    What would be the best way to convert lots of Americans to Islam?

    Forget print, go to film. Put together a handsome documentary with an original musical score that presents Islam’s prophet Muhammad in the most glowing manner, indeed, as a model of perfection. Round up Muslim and non-Muslim enthusiasts to endorse the nobility and truth of his message. Splice in vignettes of winsome American Muslims testifying to the justice and beauty of their Islamic faith. Then get the U.S. taxpayer to help pay for it.

    Show it at prime time on the most high-minded TV network. Oh, and screen it at least once during the holidays, when anyone out of synch with Christmas might be especially susceptible to another religion’s appeal.

    This is precisely what the producers of “Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet” have done. In a documentary The Washington Post calls “absorbing, . . . enjoyable and informative,” exotic images of the desert and medieval miniatures mix with scenes of New York City and the American flag. Born- and convert-American Muslims speak affectingly about their personal bond to their prophet.

Pipes sees a terrorist in every mosque, but what of that bastion of liberality and fairness, the NY Times? A remarkably similar, if more diplomatically stated assessment:

    Perhaps understandably, given the climate after Sept. 11, the film also seeks over and over to reassure viewers who fear a link between the Koran and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Steering viewers away from considering terrorism, the filmmakers illustrate Muhammad’s teachings by focusing on a cozy, comforting portrait of Muslim communities in America. Heartwarming depictions of a Muslim New York City firefighter, a hijab-wearing nurse in Dearborn, Mich., and a black Muslim Capitol Hill staff member in Washington, packaged around glowing testimonials by clerics and academics, turn the Muhammad story into a lengthy infomercial for Islam.

    That is partly because most of the sponsors (they include Arabian Bulk Trade, Sabadia Family Foundation, Irfan Kathwari Foundation, El-Hibri Foundation, and Qureishi Family Trust) are Muslim-American business and community organizations eager to have the story told in the most favorable light possible.

    ….Some of the academics recruited to help narrate the story are so eager to banish stereotypes about Islam that they sound like missionaries, not historians. Karen Armstrong, a former nun who wrote a biography of Muhammad, is perhaps the most colorful partisan, dismissing critiques of Muslim practices like polygamy or the veil in a plummy, authoritative British accent that makes her sound like Margaret Thatcher defending free enterprise. Explaining that Muhammed sanctioned polygamy to protect war widows, Ms. Armstrong sounded unassailable.

    “It was an act of faith, not an act of lust that inspired men to take more wives,” she declares. “So, it would be wrong to think of the Prophet as basking decadently in the garden of sensual delights with his harem.”

    ….For all its tiptoeing through history, however, the documentary is well worth watching both as the first serious attempt to tell the story of Muhammed on television and also as a testimony to the hypersensitivity of our times.

“Watch the show to pick up some bio on Muhammad and to see how crazy PC can be,” is not the kind of endorsement a historical documentary would want, but it may not bother the makers of an evangelical tract one bit.

I think I’ll stick with the “25 Days of Christmas” on the ABC Family channel – I’m already converted to what they’re selling.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted,, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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