Beliefs Culture

PBS series ‘Life of Muhammad’ explores diverse opinions of prophet

Rageh Omaar travels to the place of Muhammad's birth to retrace the footsteps of the prophet in PBS' "Life of Muhammad". Photo courtesy PBS

(RNS) He’s born poor. By age 6, he’s an orphan. Two years later, he loses his grandfather. Yet he overcomes his circumstances, develops a reputation for business integrity and progressive views on marriage.

Then he becomes a prophet of God.

The portrait of the Muslim prophet, which emerges from a PBS documentary “Life of Muhammad,” may surprise some American viewers.

“As major polls by Gallup, Pew, and others have reported, astonishing numbers of Americans, as well as Europeans, are not only ignorant of Islam but have deep fears and prejudices towards their Muslim populations,” said John Esposito, professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University who appears in the three-part series that debuts Tuesday (Aug. 20) on PBS.

Esposito praised the series’ “balance,” and its attempts to describe controversial aspects of the prophet’s life with a diversity of opinions.

Produced for the BBC in 2011, the series examines the world into which Muhammad was born and his marriage to his first wife, Khadijah. The second hour focuses on the “Night Journey to Jerusalem,” his departure from Mecca and the eight-year war with the Meccan tribes. The third analyzes events during his later life, including the introduction of the moral code known as Shariah and the concept of jihad.

Rageh Omaar travels to the place of Muhammad's birth to retrace the footsteps of the prophet in PBS' "Life of Muhammad". Photo courtesy PBS

Rageh Omaar travels to the place of Muhammad’s birth to retrace the footsteps of the prophet in PBS’ “Life of Muhammad.” Photo courtesy PBS

Narrated by Rageh Omaar, a Somali-born journalist, the series presents Muhammad in a respectful, positive light, though it doesn’t shirk from the controversies that surround Muhammad, who was born in Mecca in 570 A.D.

For example, viewers are given several views of Muhammad’s many wives.

“When (a prophet’s) revelations give him more sexual partners than anyone else is allowed to have, I say we have some reason for suspicion,” said David Wood, a teaching fellow at Fordham University, in the series.

But narrator Omaar also notes that the prophet took new wives only after the death of his first wife of 24 years.

A significant portion of the second chapter of the documentary addresses Muhammad’s treatment of the Jewish tribes of Medina, or Yathrib, as it was originally known. According to Islamic tradition, the Jews collaborated with Muhammad’s enemies from Mecca, the Quraysh, thus voiding the Medina constitution that Muhammad created, which protected Jews’ safety.

Other sources in the film suggest the Jews of Medina betrayed Muhammad due to their trade ties with the Quraysh, and refused to join Mohammed in a key battle because it took place on the Sabbath.

The film avoids depicting the prophet visually, in line with Islamic prohibitions against figural depictions of the prophet.

Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at University of Oxford, says in the film, “We never represent or have any images of any of the prophets.”

But the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a 16th century Islamic manuscript that depicts the prophet without a veil, and other scholars, who are not cited in the documentary, question the characterization of Islam as anti-figurative.

Michael Barry, a lecturer in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, noted that sultans from present-day Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and India commissioned representations of the prophet.

“Whether modern fundamentalists like it or not, those figurative representations exist in the hundreds as historic fact,” said Barry.

Rageh Omaar travels to the place of Muhammad's birth to retrace the footsteps of the prophet in PBS' "Life of Muhammad". Photo courtesy PBS

Rageh Omaar travels to the place of Muhammad’s birth to retrace the footsteps of the prophet in PBS’ “Life of Muhammad”. Photo courtesy PBS

Faris Kermani, the documentary’s producer and director, said through a publicist that the editorial decision was made to respect the “current Muslim view, understanding that historically this has not always been the case.”

Kermani said a wide range of scholars were interviewed for the film, yet it doesn’t embrace any particular perspective of those scholars.

Abdurraheem Green of the Islamic Education and Research Academy in London, for example, has made controversial statements about the 9/11 attacks, and although news accounts have reported that he has multiple wives, the documentary doesn’t note that fact when he is interviewed about polygamy.

Omaar’s signoff at the end of the three-hour documentary attempts to contextualize all of the stories—flattering and damning—surrounding the prophet.  “He left Arabia a better place than he found it,” Omaar says.

Ibrahim Hooper, the national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he welcomed educational materials about the prophet’s life, though he hasn’t seen the series.

“Our research has consistently shown that a knowledge about Islam and Muslims in general is very low in our society,” he said. “The corollary to that is that as people know more about Islam and Muslims from objective, fact-based sources, prejudice and stereotyping goes down.”

(The Life of Muhammad premieres on PBS from 8 to 11 p.m. EDT, Tuesday, Aug. 20.)

About the author

Menachem Wecker


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  • I wouldn’t expect a Professor of Islamic Studies to present Islam in any way other than a peaceful, misunderstood religion.

    Even at their best, the common denominator of every false religion is the idea that man can save himself by his own works.

    Christianity is the only religion that portrays God as One who humbled Himself, became one with us, and by His own life (as a man) provided the path to reconciliation.

    Christianity says we’re not saved by the numbers of our prayers, our pilgrimages, or any other “good work” we may do – but by the shed blood of Jesus Christ – the Son of God and the Son of man.

  • and i’d guess plenty of people would say that’s the simplistic and self-serving view we’ve come to expect from a christian

  • What bothers me is how apparently decisions made on what to report on and on what to picture about Mohammed in the PBS series – were not based on scholarship decisions or on media audience interest, but solely on Moslem sensibilities.
    Now this is fine–showing respect for the beliefs or values of Moslem believers.
    But when does the media show the same concern for the sensibilities of Christians.
    How about: Almost Never. Whether it is a TV series or a work of filthy art (Christ in urine at taxpayer’s expense) if Christians object to such they are basically told to shut up. But Moslems don’t have to object because the media virtually grovels ahead of time to make sure it doesn’t upset Moslems-especially those in radical fundamentalist groups which might do more than object merely in print.
    TV is primarily a visual medium- for PBS to not use a depiction of Mohammed in reporting on this issue is clearly a reportorial groveling of the highest order. Reporting on this issue cries out for more on the TV screen than a talking head.

  • I saw it and I wonder – is it really a documentary? It seems to me more like a show of the kind of a widespread housewives entertainment in which some fashion designer takes a dull looking plain maiden changing her crooked teeth, applying some bottox here and there, dressing her up in something more colourful than her shabby jeans and mousy t-shirt and then presents her to a potential suitor waiting in the twilight of a fancy restaurant.
    So, if documentary is something that is a synonym of truth or at least a tangible sincere effort to reach it, this series is not a this. It is a professional upgrade of something rather different. See-how-nice-can-I-be silouhette for candle dinners. Thus it makes the wrong claim – leave me alone, I am as tolerant as other religions and should be treated like this. Who blames Islam for the sea of violence is not targeting the right address.
    On the other hand, it is a demonstration of somewhat of a inferiority complex which needs some pink pills.
    However, this could be a good start as an input for those who would like to know more about Islam. In such undertaking they may understand that if the merits of this religion are not quite known in the West it is not because of lack of wish and efforts on the part of Islam, but because of the fear and the burden of good manners of western societies.

  • When I was teaching philosophy of religion years ago, I came upon evidence that early imams — in the first few centuries after his death — extensively repressed negative and diverse accounts of Muhammad and his work. Extant Muslim history thus, allegedly, gives only sanitized and homogenized accounts. Does the TV series, which I’ve not yet seen, advert to this?

  • Does it get into the long history of aggression towards others? By about 720, they had for no reason other than conquest entered Spain and were repelled at the Battle of Tours. A good history of what the Hindus endured, along with Christians and Jews, is warranted.

    It amazes me that we are catering to Islam in the U.S. when there has been no such effort for Buddhists and Hindus. Precisely, and very precisely, what has Islam contributed to the world besides tiles, rug making and some loose philosophizing?

  • Life was different during that time and women matured much earlier back then like they are starting to now. Aisha started menstruating and went through puberty at age 9 so she was at the age of becoming a woman. This was not unusual at all during those times. She was not raped it was with her approval. She was a very religious person. She was one to remember and take account of the way he lived and how he dealt with things. Survival was much different then than it is today. She very much loved him and was taken care of very well.

  • Well, if that doesn’t sound like a sex offender’s rationalization, I don’t know what does.

  • @Bill Up until 10th century, it was common practice among Muslim scholars to criticize both religious practices and religious figures including the prophets and nature of god. Most early texts from Islamic philosophy would now be considered blasphemous and their writers heretic.

  • The more I looked into it, the more I’m not sure if Aisha wasn’t older than that. Only God knows.

  • Any logical person will not accept such a claim. The age of Aisha upon marriage is disputed among Muslim scholars and most agree that Aisha was at least 16 years old when got married. You have been misinformed by haters of Muhammad who wrote and spoke lots of false information about him after his death.

  • Read the Hadith, Dave, and you will discover that Aisha herself said that she was 6 years old when she went to live with Mohammad, and 9 years old when she married him and they consummated their marriage. It is not the Muslim haters who are failing to tell the truth in regard to this matter.

  • this is not true. back in those times the prophet muhammad and anybody else was allowed to get married ,and when she reached the age of nine ,she had her period . so therefore she was consirdered and women (in those times) and muslim peopole do not worship him , we worship allah , and we believe in the message of the prophet

  • Dear Thinking Housewife and all those who keep insisting Islam is somehow inherently violent.

    I find it amazing that you would criticize this documentary you even admit you have never viewed, and you talk about a religion you know absolutely nothing about, and rant and rave about violence perpetrated by one group of people without equally denouncing the violence perpetrated by other religious groups, such as denouncing the non-stop violence of Israelis against innocent Palestinians for over 50 years, denouncing the over 1 million Iraqis who died because the Bush administration lied about WMD’s, denouncing the millions of Muslims who died in Burma by Buddhists extremists, denouncing the hundreds of innocent people dying due to drone attacks, denouncing the hundreds of thousands of Japanese that died because the Atomic Bomb was dropped in Hiroshima when the Japanese had already indicated they were willing to surrender, and the hundred thousand Vietnamese and American soldiers who died based on another government lie? What about Hitler, Stalin, Caesar, Ghengis Khan, Pinoche, Crusades, Inquisition, World War I, World War II, Mao Ze Dung, the Pharoah, etc, etc, etc…which one of these were Muslims???????

    Violence stains every group of people, every nation, every religion (and more people have died in the name of “Democracy” than in any other name). Let’s examine who is really killing who? And should people hate you because of what your government is doing? Is hate of others what your religion teaches you? Is this what God teaches you? Is this the love Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) taught you? Your knowledge of Islam is quite tainted by prejudice, but I fear your knowledge of Christianity and Judaism is even worse. Love thy neighbor, whether he is Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Jew. This is how the world will improve, not by repeating unfounded rumors, falsehoods, and hate about others. At least that way you can argue that your character is better than those who support violence. Otherwise what makes you any different than the one you criticize?

    Peace to you and may God guide you to the truth.

  • So does that mean that a killer, rapist, thief etc etc etc is still blessed by the shed blood of Jesus Christ? Then why do you do good deeds? Why don’t you steal? Why don’t you rape? Who do you fear? God? Are you not already blessed? So in Christinaity a rapist who did 100 rapes is equally blessed with someone who whole his life did good to others?

  • Christ forgave the sins of a woman,then Christ said to her:go and sin NO MORE,He NEVER said,go, and keep sinning.p.s.that Muslim argument has been circulating in the internet for quite some time now, don’t YOU think it’s time for Muslims to ACTUALLY READ THE WHOLE BIBLE in order to find ARGUMENTS AGAINST CHRISTIANITY BASED ON FACTS?…..also with all due respect towards Muslims,I will tell you this:a Jewish woman poisoned Mohammed and he died as a result of that incident, that is IRREFUTABLE EVIDENCE that Mohammed was NOT a Prophet of God,because had he being a REAL PROPHET of God, he would have KNOWN that the food that the Jewish woman offered him WAS POISONED.also in the Bible God identifies the devil as a deceiver, while in the Quran “Allah is the BEST DECEIVER”, food for thought

  • Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:

    It is obvious that Islam is based upon war, vengeance, violence, retribution and justification through military victory.

    Muhammad fought many battles and asserted himself through successful warfare.

    Muhammad himself approved war and military action.

    This proves Muslim beliefs are not a real religion but instead a military and political system.

    I am amazed that no one, either Muslim or Christian, seems to be willing to admit this.

    Sincerely yours,
    Caleb Boone.