Well done, Channel 4, for showing realities of Islam that too seldom see the light of day
Channel 4's documentary The Qur'an
is not exactly my dream fulfilled, but it is head and shoulders above anything I have seen on television about Islam. If such programmes were the norm, what wonderful debates it would be possible to have.
Don't be put off by its two-hour length: it is lovingly made by Antony Thomas, who was responsible for the controversial 1980 drama Death of a Princess
, and is a genuine visual feast.
Stunning desert landscapes, dazzling mosque interiors and glorious shots of illuminated texts will keep viewers glued to the screen. It oozes love, both for the craft of filmmaking and for the subject of the film.
And love is the primary theme. It actually communicates not just Muslims' love for their religion but also the warmth of love emanating from the teachings of their religion and infusing the outlook and attitudes of believers. It is a feeling so basic to Muslims, yet something I have never seen reflected on screen before.
And it seems to me that Thomas does a great deal to break down barriers to actually learning some very important facts about Islam and Muslims. He manages to convey the diversity of interpretation of Islam as a normal part of Muslim existence. There is as much cultural diversity in practice and observance within the same city - Istanbul is the example given - as there is between different countries in different parts of the world.
The programme also deals intelligently with what the text of the Qur'an says and what Muslims make of reading this text. The range of voices, outlooks, experiences reflected is genuinely broad enough to be reasonably representative of a reality that so seldom sees the light of day in media coverage. And for that reason, this programme manages to explain how inaccurate the conventional idea of Islam as a monolith actually is.
But there is more. The film succeeds in making clear how interpretations and religious orientations within Islam change over time. It shows that what is understood as age-old and authentic - by which people usually mean fundamentalism - is in fact a very modern, reactionary movement across the Muslim world.
Fundamentalism cannot simply be explained away with a shrug of, "This is Islam." It has to be interrogated as politics as much as religion. And for those who know little of what the Qur'an actually contains, there are some tremendously useful highlights of old chestnuts, such as female circumcision and delectable 72 virgins of paradise, which the programme reveals are not in the text of the Qur'an at all.
As I say, if this were the norm, I could then quibble about shortcomings. And there are quite a few. To explain the distinction between Sunni and Shia by the analogy of Protestants and Catholics is tritely familiar; it is also simplistic and far less explanatory than people think. Sunni and Shia have far more in common than do Protestants and Catholics. The basis of religious law is common to Shia and Sunni, and is mutually recognised.
Highlighting the difference between Sunni and Shia as a difference of belief in intercessors between the individual and God is also off the mark. Saint worship (the veneration of pirs) is as common among Sunni Muslims as it is among the Sufis. And the Sufis themselves are presented in a romantic way, as the solution to all the problems of Islam. In reality, the Sufi sheikhs, such as one we see in the film, can be as authoritarian and dogmatic as any Sunni or Shia cleric.
The vexed subject of women in Islam is handled by presenting a polarity. But while the fully veiled representative is clearly a thinking woman, who made her own choice, one gets no sense of how much of a minority she is in. The options and thinking of the majority of Muslim women is what the programme ought to have made visible but missed by contrasting the fully veiled woman with one who believes, as a minority do, that the veil is not required at all.
In a programme of this length, one would also expect to see the emerging school of feminist scholars, such as Asma Barlas
, presenting a more enlightened interpretation.
The programme concludes with a trawl through contemporary textual examinations of the Qur'an by western scholars. It is, as Muslim interviewees state, a perfectly legitimate topic for discussion. But the section on Christoph Luxenberg
's Syro-Aramaic reading of the Qur'an seems there only to add controversy.
Luxenberg himself is said to be so controversial that he cannot show his face and appears only as a shadow, something I found quite ridiculous. And, in the end, his great research only tells us that the houris of paradise are nothing but grapes, a point Martin Amis used to ridicule Muslims. This suggests that devoting the whole of the last part of the programme to Luxenberg was a serious error.
There are other levels of Muslim debate that this programme could have reflected. For example, the issue of whether sharia law, derived from the Qur'an, is fixed for all time or to be remade over and over again, according to time and circumstance - a debate more pertinent to understanding what is, and could happen, in Muslim society.
But my criticism should not deter us from appreciating that The Qur'an is light years beyond the impasse of conventional portrayals of what Islam is and what Muslims think and believe.
Much the same can be said about another Channel 4 film, Faris Kirmani's insightful Seven Wonders of the Muslim World
. The "wonders" in question are great Islamic monuments such as the Sacred Mosque, in Mecca, the Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem, the Alhambra palace, in Granada, and the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul. But they are also the ordinary people who, from different cultural and national backgrounds, travel to Mecca. The basic beliefs of Islam, and how they are expressed and lived in daily lives, are explained through their journeys. For both these film we should be truly grateful.
Ziauddin Sardar blogs every week for the Guardian on different aspects of the Qur'an