PBS debuts BBC landmark film on ‘Life of Muhammad’

BBC and PBS The Life of Muhammad scene 01

‘The Life of Muhammad’ narrator Rageh Omaar spends a lot of time hiking over rocky hills.

Reporting and Review By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

When the British television network, BBC Two, unveiled its three-hour series, The Life of Muhammad, in 2011, British journalists and top Muslim leaders were invited to a special preview screening. They were met by network executives crowing about this historic event: They called it the first full history of Muhammad’s life produced for “Western TV.”

However, their claim was debatable. Millions of Americans already were familiar with the PBS network’s 2002 documentary Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. That two-hour PBS documentary has subsequently been shown in countless schools, congregations and small groups nationwide—and around the world. The BBC officials were claiming that their three hours were so exclusively focused on Muhammad’s life that their film was a Western-media “first.” In truth? The BBC was splitting hairs in making its claim.

That’s one reason American media coverage of the August 20 PBS debut of that BBC series is muted, compared with the debut in the UK. Most American viewers assume that public television already has covered the Prophet’s life.

The documentary's narrator and chief journalist Rageh Omar in a typical segment of 'The Life of Muhammad.' Here, he speaks to viewers with Medina in the background.

The documentary’s narrator and chief journalist Rageh Omar in a typical segment of ‘The Life of Muhammad.’ Here, he speaks to viewers with Medina in the background.

In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the productions. For example, Karen Armstrong appears as one of the main “talking heads” in both productions. Also, both the BBC and PBS networks bowed to Islamic requirements that only Muslims are allowed to visit the sacred cities where most of Muhammad’s life unfolded. In the case of PBS, the American convert to Islam Michael Wolfe was the chief correspondent and, as an observant Muslim, was allowed to film in the sacred cities. In the UK, BBC executives tapped Director Faris Kermani and chief on-screen correspondent Rageh Omaar. Both are Muslim. Curiously, as PBS promotes its debut of the British series, press releases emphasize only that Rageh Omaar has worked as a journalist for the BBC and for ITV News. In fact, in the British press, he was better known in 2011 as a correspondent for Al Jazeera’s English-language network.

On balance? Both documentaries were produced with an obvious awareness that these films could do more harm than good. There is a painstaking balance to both films that occasionally makes them slow going for casual viewers. Contrast these films with the much more provocative documentaries about Jesus and various eras of Christian history—some of which wind up on American cable TV channels each year—and you will feel the weight that PBS and BBC officials clearly feel on their shoulders.

How do these two productions differ? As its title indicates, the PBS series really is about Muhammad’s legacy and focuses quite a bit on the millions of diverse Muslim families in the U.S. The BBC series stays for all three hours with the Prophet’s life, spanning the 6th and 7th centuries. Overall, the BBC series is heavily weighted toward British experts and media personalities.

‘LIFE OF MUHAMMAD’—WHAT WE THINK:

Rageh Omaar on location in 'The Life of Muhammad.' In this sequence, he is showing viewers around the Masjid al-Qiblatain, an ancient and world-famous mosque in Medina that Muslim tradition says is the place where the Prophet Muhammad commanded Muslims to change the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca.

Rageh Omaar on location in ‘The Life of Muhammad.’ In this sequence, he is showing viewers around the Masjid al-Qiblatain, an ancient and world-famous mosque in Medina that Muslim tradition says is the place where the Prophet Muhammad commanded Muslims to change the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca.

Our Read The Spirit viewpoint: If you care about world religions and the growing religious diversity in the United States, this is “must see” television. You may even want to purchase the entire ‘Life of Muhammad‘ series on DVD, via Amazon. As Editor of Read The Spirit, I watched all three hours and can highly recommend the film. In tackling one potentially controversial issue after another, Omaar carefully presents various points of view and, in the course of the series, paints the kind of balanced portrait of Islam that fans of Karen Armstrong’s books will be comfortable watching on their TV screens.

The BBC deliberately costumed Omaar in this series as a humble journalistic traveler. Wherever he appears around the globe, he always is wearing a simple navy-blue or sometimes charcoal shirt, no tie, comfortable khaki slacks and sturdy hiking boots. Over his shoulder is a simple brown tote bag from which he occasionally pulls a book or some notes. We often see Omaar’s “talking head” popping up in dramatic settings to explain what we are seeing. The other experts he interviews usually are sitting in comfortable scholarly offices or libraries. At one point, Omaar does remove his traveler’s uniform to demonstrate for viewers how Muslim pilgrims to Mecca change into simple white garments. The production design of this series tells us loud and clear: These are all reasonable people talking wisely and compassionately about one of the world’s great faiths.

In other words, it’s a series you’d expect to watch in a class on world religions. Presumably, that’s where most of the DVDs for sale on Amazon are headed.

‘LIFE OF MUHAMMAD’—WHAT OTHER JOURNALISTS SAY:

In the UK, the conservative-leaning newspaper The Telegraph assigned two journalists to cover the BBC Two debut. The newspaper’s TV writer Chris Harvey called The Life of Muhammad “an excellent primer, tracing Muhammad’s journey from orphaned son to prophet of a new religion. … I enjoyed it.”

However, the Telegraph’s religion writer Christopher Howse was less impressed. He criticized the great lengths to which BBC Two went to please Muslims with the series, including bowing to Muslim requirements that only Muslims are allowed inside the sacred cities. The BBC would not have been so deferential in reporting on Judaism or Christianity, Howse argued. And, he has a point. On the other hand, the PBS network made the same choice by tapping Michael Wolfe for its film.

The more liberal-leaning newspaper The Guardian assigned Riazat Butt, a veteran religion writer with long experience in covering Islam, to cover the British roll-out of the series. In general, her columns on the documentary reported positive reactions. Her main criticism was that the filmmakers seemed bent on checking off an inventory of “typical” elements in Muslim culture.

Riazat Butt wrote, in part: “Even though we didn’t see the Prophet, we did see shots of praying (tick!), veiled women (tick!), jihadi references such as the planes flying into the twin towers … and veiled women praying (double tick!). There were also shots of camels. My score card is full. The opening episode deals with the circumstances and society that Muhammad was born into. It charts his childhood and early years—being orphaned, being taken in by his uncle—and the narrative is interspersed, interrupted I’d say, with shots of Rageh praying, Rageh brooding, Rageh climbing over rocks in a manful and foreign correspondent-like way.”

Want to see the series? Be sure to check local TV listings in your region as public television show times vary widely.

AND: Consider ordering the earlier PBS documentary from Amazon: Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet

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