The Life of Muhammad, BBC Two’s new 3-part documentary on the founder of Islam, is an audacious and ambitious attempt to rescue the man, Muhammad, from the stereotypes engendered by 1400 years of history. As an atheist, I’m interested in the formation of religions, and it doesn’t hurt to get some objective-ish information about one of the most contentious figures in religious history. Needless to say, I wouldn’t trust anyone but the BBC to do this – their documentaries are the gold standard for public service television and justify the license fee all on their own.
The series is presented by Rageh Omaar, a practising Muslim. His declared aim is this:
I want to examine his life and times and understand how they still affect today’s world, and whether they are force for good or evil. I want uncover the real Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, peace be upon him.
Some people think they already have that answer, but I want to actually learn something on which to base my prejudices. The Seeker covers the period from Muhammad’s birth in Mecca in 570 CE to the persecution of the new religion between 610 and 622.
At the time, the Arabian peninsula was populated by feuding polytheistic clans and tribes, each with their own gods and goddesses. There was even an Allah in the mix. Once a year they would come together in Mecca, where all their gods had a shrine in the Kaaba. Now it’s the most sacred place in Islam, the orientation point for Muslims when praying.
There’s a lot to like and respect about the Muhammad presented in this documentary. He was born in Mecca. His father died when he was only an infant and his mother sent him off to live with a Bedouin tribe for 4 years, a common practice at the time. Then, when he was 6, his mother died and he lived with another relative for 2 years, who also died, before being taken in by his uncle, a wealthy merchant.
Muhammad grew up to become a successful merchant, respected for his fairness and business acumen. So much so that a wealthy older woman, Kadijha, asked him to marry her. He accepted. This was unheard of in Meccan society, and it says something about Muhammad’s attitude to women that runs completely counter to the misogynistic reputation he has today. He was married to Kadijha, taking no other wives during that time, for 25 years. They had 4 daughters.
When Muhammad began to ask the big questions about what his life was for, he would meditate in a cave on top of a mountain outside Mecca, often taking his family with him. After his first revelation in 610, when he was terrified at hearing the voice of Allah and wondering if it was real, it was Kadijha who comforted him and validated the experience. In fact, she became his first convert. Putting aside what I think about people who hear voices in their heads, this was evidently a close-knit, loving family.
This new religion was based on Muhammad’s revelations, which were later written down as the Qur’an. It was thoroughly inclusive, claiming an absolute equality among believers. This didn’t sit well with the ruling clan in Mecca, the Quraysh, who persecuted Mohammad and his followers for 12 years until they left Mecca. Some followers had already found asylum in Abyssinia, a Christian kingdom. But Muhammad stayed in Mecca with his remaining followers, who at one point were forbidden to conduct business, marry other Meccans, trade, or buy food.
Then things got worse. After 25 yeas of marriage his beloved Kadijha died, followed by his uncle, a clan leader, who had afforded some measure of protection. His uncle was succeeded by someone hostile to Muhammad. And there it ends for this week on a bit of a cliff-hanger.
I leaned a few other things as well. The prohibition against depicting Muhammad comes from the idea that one should only have faith in Allah – Muhammad was merely the messenger. So any picture risks becoming an idol. Even buildings associated with Muhammad were removed to prevent them from becoming shrines. The comparison between Christianity and Islam is striking, where the figure of Christ is a focus of worship, and a multiplicity of different creeds fight for dominance and ownership of the image. Hence the rage against the Danish Cartoons.
Another thing I’m grateful for is some insight into The Satanic Verses controversy. When Salman Rushdie’s book was published in 1988, it provoked enormous outrage in the Muslim world and earned the author a fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomeini. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read it yet. Perhaps I will now.
The basis of The Satanic Verses is a story, not accepted by Muslims, that while Muhammad was walking round the Kaaba during the most intense persecution by the Quraysh, he received a revelation that he should compromise somewhat in his doctrines. He later received another revelation that the first one had been whispered into his ears by Satan. This, of course, blows away the authenticity of the revelations because if he got one wrong then how can you trust the others?
This is an excellent documentary, informative, balanced, and a fascinating glimpse into another world view. It’s still on iPlayer, so catch it if you’re at all interested in what 1.5 billion people believe. I’ll follow up with posts on the other 2 episodes.