Monday, 18 July 2011

The Life of Muhammad: Mixed Reactions

From what I gather from my non-Muslim friends on Twitter, Facebook and face-to-face interactions – all are very much enjoying the BBC’s Life of Muhammad documentary.

From what I gather from my Muslim friends on Twitter, Facebook and face-to-face interactions – all are very much disappointed at the BBC’s Life of Muhammad documentary.

It is wonderful to have a generally sympathetic portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad on national TV in a prime-time slot. A great opportunity to share the man and message so close to the heart of billions of Muslims.

Yet it still isn't quite right. Several things just fail to hit the mark.

The first is its insistence on linking modern day events with the biography. Yes, the Satanic Verses, 9/11 and the Israel-Palestine conflict are all important issues regarding Muslims today. But you can’t miss out 1400 years of history. Quite obviously the Israel-Palestine conflict has more to do with the millions of Palestinian refugees that lost their homes and land upon the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 than al-Israa wal-Miraaj (the Prophet's journey to Jerusalem and beyond). Something that isn’t conveyed in the documentary.

An older American documentary, Muhammed: Legacy of a Prophet did the same thing. But instead of contextualising the life of the Prophet with 9/11 or such, it used the day to day lives of modern Muslims – doctors, lawyers and so on. To hear from Muslims about how a specific event in the life of the Prophet resonated with them, or made them who they are felt more intimate and more meaningful. It also made a lot more sense then trying to link complex global issues to a single incident from the life of the Prophet.

The next issue is the choice of commentators. One commentator was Robert Spencer, a very well known anti-Islam commentator who founded and runs the website Jihad Watch. To give you a sense of Jihad Watch’s paranoia – it accuses a dodgy kebab shop in Cardiff of being al-Qaeda trained terrorists. Like seriously, click the link, they actually say it! And this guy is a commentator on the show? Bizarre. The line up also includes Nonie Dariwsh, Director of Former Muslims United. An ex-Muslim was given more speaking time on the Prophet Muhammad than Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim scholar.

I can totally understand the need for impartial and unbiased (if such a thing exists) commentators, in the form of academics and experts – but how can Robert Spencer and Nonie Darwish be justified?

A final issue that bugs me is choice of content. You have 23 years during which the Prophet Muhammad was active as a preacher and reformer of society. In a documentary of three hours, there is naturally a need to highlight certain important incidents; so no one expects everything to be covered.

But for many Muslims, this documentary misses out a lot of the important stuff. Important first in understanding who was Muhammad, and important in understanding who are Muslims.

For example, the suffering and persecution faced by the Prophet in Makkah is mentioned only in passing. Yet this shaped so much of the Prophet’s experiences, and is such an important aspect of the Prophetic story for Muslims. In the face of torture and punishment, all the early Muslims stood steadfast in their faith, adhering to the Quranic injunction of ‘sabr’, patience. To overlook this is to miss the foundation of the Prophetic biography.

Another aspect I was looking forward to in the second part of the documentary, that was barely mentioned, was how the Prophet united the tribes of Madinah. So much of the Islamic understandings of unity, brotherhood (of humanity and Muslims), sacrifice, asceticism and so on stem from the importance of Madinah, yet it was barely looked at.

Instead the documentary tends to focus on the controversial. When discussing Makkah and the Constitution of Madinah, the documentary is keen to mention historians who argue both didn't even exist. When it comes to the controversial issues however, the Banu Quraizah for example, the documentary seems less concerned with historical debate and is content to accept a single narrative around the issue.

Finally, a documentary that tries to look at the life of the Prophet but that omits his relationship to God will always fall short. Even from a critical, atheist position; his relationship to God is paramount to understanding the Prophet. Karen Armstrong is the one commentator who reminds us of this. She understands how central it is to the story.

Overall, it still feels like this documentary is struggling to break free of Western Orientalism. The issues it focuses on, the way the Prophet is presented, the questions asked; they all mimic previous Orientalist studies of the Prophet.

Yet ultimately, I have to remind myself and perhaps other Muslims that this documentary is step in the right direction. So little knowledge exists in the public realm about the Prophet Muhammad, that anything is better than nothing.


  1. At first, i thought the documentary series was fantastic and something helpful in the path of interfaith and understanding of Islam, particularly for those in the West.
    However, some of the points mentioned above are fair points such as the focus of on historical confirmation of the constitution. I wouldn't say the time slots for each person was unfair, but rather from the 1st episode, seeing David Spencer did make me question and think, what relevance does he have to any aspect of the life of muhammed.

    The BBC's (pathetic attempt of) impartiality fails once more.

  2. Agreed upon, esp the bit abt struggling to break away from orientalist influence. I felt this theme was innocuously placed at the initial tone ( first episode).

    Im not sure about whether this documentary is a step in the right direction or any step at all tbh. I think we often forget that the steps have always been carved out and the cycle has been repeated time and time again. This does howeever need to continue.

    I will say though that it is "something". What something is though leaves it to the individual. For me, the fact that we hear the name of beloved pbuh in public is a welcome opportunity and the far few praises in the documentory can to some balanced individuals awaken a sense of seeking for more.

    We owe it to the BBC though to be grateful atleast for consideration and exertions given to Islam.