By Anna-Maria Ramzy
An excited whisper of a BBC documentary about the Life of Muhammad, (pbuh*), a TV first, spread to the four corners of the Isles, as Muslims awaited Monday evening with bated breath. A documentary on Islam’s greatest figure and right before Ramadan; at last, something worth the licence fee! And to be presented by Rageh Omaar, of Al-Jazeera fame, it seemed as though Christmas, or Eid rather, had come early.
Directed and produced by Faris Kermani, and written by Ziauddin Sardar, ‘The Seeker’ was to be a historical documentary with a difference since depiction of the Prophet was strictly off bounds, as programme summaries anxiously highlighted. Instead, the crew, with Omaar before the lens, returned to the roots of the Prophet and retraced his steps.
It was clear from the outset, however, that this was not simply a relation of the events of Muhammad’s life, oh no. Familiar scenes of the 9/11 attacks, rioting Muslims, and video suicide notes served to completely dispel any such expectations within the first few seconds of the programme. It was not just an exploration of the past which the team were attempting to broadcast, but the implications of this history for the present.
Throughout the hour-long programme viewers were taken on a journey through the harsh, wind-carved deserts of the Prophet’s early life, explored the complexes of great symbols of Islam such as the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, gazed from Cave Hira out over the city peered into a church in Ethiopia, and inevitably ventured down the dark alleyways of events in more recent times, including the reaction to the Danish cartoons and the furore following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
What could have been a very difficult task, documenting the life of a historical figure without a single image of his face, was easily overcome by well-shot cinematic scenes of natural and architectural beauty interspersed with the drama of more recent events, interviews with historians and Islamic scholars, and numerous shots of Omaar perusing the pages of the Qur’an.
Reaction to the ‘The Seeker’ has varied. As anticipated by the makers of the series, there have been some vocal objections, namely, and predictably, from the Iranian government, who are coincidentally making their own series on the Prophet’s life. However, there are those who thoroughly enjoyed the first episode, such as Chris Harvey from the Telegraph, and John Wilson of BBC 4’s the Front Row who interviewed Omaar about his experience making the documentary. The BBC would perhaps have done well to make this interview essential listening before viewers, particularly Muslims, went on to watch part one, many of whose hearts I am sure sank as they heard the likes of Tom Holland adhering to the hard-core Orientalist line that Mecca was most likely non-existent in seventh century Arabia.
In his radio interview, Omaar explains far more comprehensively the aim behind the series and the premises upon which it was filmed, than he does in the episode itself. ‘This is not a programme made for Muslims, very far from it. This is a programme made for people of any faith and none.’ Omaar admits that he filmed the series ‘with two very different hats on’. Donning his two pieces of white cloth and heading for the Ka’bah, Omaar ‘sets his stall’, as he put it in the interview, as to why it was him before the camera, explicitly stating his Islamic background as justification. His other hat is of course the journalist’s one, rammed firmly into place by the BBC who set the ground rule that this was to be a series suitable ‘for all audiences’. As such, the story of the life of Muhammad is told from all angles; the traditional and the secular, the academic and the literary, the religious and the sceptic.
Thus, for Muslims seeking an Islamic telling of the Prophet’s life story, this was not the place to look, and it would be unfair to expect it, but for those simply wanting to know more about the history of this great religious figure, the program served them well and there are several reasons to be pleased with the documentary. The emphasis on the role of Khadijah in particular was beautifully stressed, as well as the fact that the early Muslims adopted a successful policy of non-violent resistance in the face of brutal persecution, juxtaposed with images of fierce protests, which highlighted the unfortunate, but often common contrast between the teachings of the Prophet and the actions of many in the Muslim world today. This is perhaps what most people will take away from the programme, what the Prophet himself actually taught, and the fact that there has been over fourteen hundred years of re- and mis-interpretation of his words and actions since then.
Whilst part one seems to have proven rather an emotional roller-coaster ride for some Muslim viewers, it has proven an entertaining and historically insightful hour well spent for others, with sufficient amounts of excitement and drama. It is important to bear in mind that this is, after all, a TV programme and, as recent events in the media have proven, the sensational does sell. It is perhaps not surprising then that episode one ended on references to a massacre and that part two is rather crudely entitled ‘Holy Wars’, which I anticipate with intrigue but perhaps less bated breath.
* Muslims repeat the phrase “peace be upon him” after mentioning the Prophet Muhammad’s name. It is abbreviated to (pbuh) in the text.
Anna-Maria Ramzy is Spirituality Sub-Editor of the Platform and Co-Director of the Oxford Muslim Women’s Association. A keen writer with a penchant for poetry, she is currently studying for her undergraduate degree in Oriental Studies (Arabic, Persian and Islamic Studies) at Oxford University.
Photo credits: BBC/Crescent Films
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