Most Americans could tell you more about the boxer Muhammad Ali than they could about Muhammad the prophet," says filmmaker Robert Gardner, whose latest project is "Islam: Empire of Faith" (May 8, PBS, check local listings). "And yet," says Gardner, whose three years of work on the project took him to Iran as the first American filmmaker to work there in 20 years, "Muhammad the prophet is one of the most important figures in the last 2,000 years of human history."
In keeping with the magnitude of that story, this public television event is presented as the third in the PBS "Empires" series of historical programs telling the stories of great empires that changed the world. "Islam," the three-hour special, is not about the religion of Islam as much as the culture. "It's about the arc of culture for this 1,000 years of civilization and how this civilization intertwines with Western civilization in a number of extraordinary and surprising ways," Mr. Gardner says.
His approach differs from many documentary makers. "We were looking for a way to push the historical documentary from beyond the traditional paradigm of moves over flatwork of art and photographs and to try to evoke the past in a big way," Gardner says. "I wanted to see big scenes with lots of horses and camels and hundreds of people and the beautiful architecture of Islam."
The series includes many reenactments. "We created a very different kind of documentary that includes over 300 costumes and a tremendous number of animals and stunts and architecture."
As the film points out, 20 percent of the world's population is Muslim, yet the religion suffers from what Islamic scholars call a serious misperception.
"One of the reasons, perhaps, is that it's not about religion, it's about other things," says Jonathan Bloom, professor of Islamic and ancient art at Boston College and a series consultant. "Our prejudice is not that we're listening to what this religion is really about, but to all sorts of baggage that goes along with it. What we're trying to do with this film is start at some place of common ground."
Islam's belief in one God is certainly a starting point. An appreciation of the critical role Islamic culture played in the forwarding of world culture is another. One of the key points the filmmakers establish is that the Islamic empire formed a crucial link between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Europe and its voyages of discovery.
The series focuses on two areas of cultural development, literature and architecture, both direct expressions of Islamic beliefs.
"It's the transformation of the everyday into the extraordinary," Bloom says. "unlike in the West, where we separate art from the rest of life, and so you go to a museum and you see big pictures on the wall - or statues."
Bloom points out that Islamic cultures brought beliefs into people's lives. "Here, the art that we're talking about are the objects of everyday life, of carpets and of ceramics and metal-wares."
In a dreamy mix of historical reenactments, scholarly interviews, and narration by actor Ben Kingsley, the series creates a deft and compelling historic panorama, something that has become the hallmark of the "Empires" series. In three hours, it manages to show the rise of the prophet Muhammad; the early revelations and writings of the Islamic holy book, the Koran; the early persecution suffered by Muslims; and the early battles fought by its followers.
It also details the swift expansion of the religion, its culture and politics, which soon establishes an empire larger than Rome's. Albeit with a broad stroke, the documentary manages to include the flowering and eventual downfall of Islamic culture in the 16th century. That's a bit over 300 years per hour: Not a bad return for a single night's viewing.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor