Monday, May 07, 2001

PBS lifts the veil on Islamic religion

        Be honest: Who do you know more about, Muhammad Ali or Muhammad the Prophet? The boxer, right? I was the same way, until Islam: Empire of Faith, a 2 1/2-hour PBS documentary airing Tuesday (8 p.m. Channels 48, 54; 9 p.m. Channel 16).

        Islam pulls back the veil on the religion founded by the prophet in Mecca about A.D. 600. It also gives U.S. viewers a rare peek inside Iran, where producer-director Robert Gardner (Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in the Promised Land) shot most of the film. He is the first U.S. filmmaker allowed to work in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

        We see beautiful Mideast mosques and are-creation of 8th century Baghdad, the scholarship center of the time. That will be eye-opening to those who know more about the prizefighter than the prophetwho preached there is only one God. Or to those who know more about Arab carpets than the religion practiced by about one-fourth of the world's population.

        At the Baghdad House of Wisdom, scholars translated ancient Greek writings by Aristotle and Plato into Arabic. They challenged some Greek findings, giving birth to the scientific process of investigation.

        These Baghdad scholars developed the Arabic numeral system used today. They made advancements in algebra, trigonometry, engineering and astronomy.

        They studied light and lenses and performed the first cataract surgery. They theorized that diseases were transmitted by airborne organisms, a precursor to the study of germs. They separated sick people into hospital wards by illnesses.

        They turned the Chinese art of papermaking into an industry, so knowledge would spread throughout the Muslim empire.

        “This is the first time in human history when people from Spain to the borders of India and China are united by one language (Arabic) and one faith,” Mr. Gardner says.

        Mr. Gardner also filmed in Egypt, Israel, Spain, Syria, Turkey and Tunisia, but found Iran the most accommodating. He relied heavily on Majid Mirfakhraei, an Iranian film director and production designer, to supervise the locations and 300 costumes needed to re-create 1,000 years of history, including the Crusades. (The documentary ends in 1600 with the Ottoman leader Suleyman the Magnificent.)

        East met West in an Iranian desert. where Mr. Gardner and Mr. Mirfakhraei spoke through interpreters to orchestrate camel caravans and Crusade battles. “On one hand, I had Mr. Gardner with his computer, and on the left side was a camel rider with a camel,” Mr. Mirfakhraei says.

        Mr. Mirfakhraei built a replica of Mecca's Kaaba, the most holy building in Islam.

        “They were not comfortable with that in Morocco ... (or) Egypt. One might think we would be most restricted in Iran, but in fact, we had the greatest freedom there,” Mr. Gardner says.

        “It's to me — from my personal, subjective point of view — a great sadness that we have this distance between the Iranian people and the American people over the last 20 years, because they were so welcoming to us,” Mr. Gardner says.

        Says Mr. Mirfakhraei, a production design teacher at Tehran University: “This 20 years makes big gap between two cultures. Sometime they might get together. At least, the film industry is a good point for a start.”

        For Americans who know little about Muslin culture, Islam: Empire of Faith is a good place to start. It's nice to write about the positive educational impact of TV, after so much attention to the negative influences of MTV's Jackass.
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