The Life of Muhammad Review: Inside Islam

THE LIFE OF MUHAMMED: Monday 11th July, BBC2, 9pm

This new three part series sees BBC journalist Rageh Omaar explore the life of one of the most revered historical religious figures on the planet: the prophet Muhammed.

Despite Islamic issues featuring on the news more often than the correct weather forecast – normally in a negative light – many UK non-Muslims actually know very little about the religion. Whilst we’re all very aware of Al-Qaeda’s misinterpretation of the Koran in this day and age, most of us don’t know much about how the religion came to be, and how it grew to have one of the biggest followings on the planet in the face of already well-established faiths like Christianity, Judaism, and Arabic Paganism.

The Somali-born British journalist explores these early foundations, probing into the life of Muhammad and explaining to viewers how he came to deliver the message that is the Koran. It’s important to note here that whilst Muhammad is a central figure in Islam, and indeed a Prophet, he is not worshipped directly like Jesus. Muslims pray only to God or Allah, hence the reasons for the ban on pictures of Muhammad.

To start the Prophet’s story, Omah whisks viewers back to a sixth century Arabia where Muhammad grew up, a place barren and deserted, with few cities, and certainly very little law and order. The Kaaba, a cube-shaped black fabric building at the centre of Mecca that Muslims pray to, had been there for hundreds of years previously, supposedly placed there by Ibrahim (Abraham) and Ismail (Ishmael) and containing a stone apparently from paradise which was sent down by angels.

Whilst the BBC journo does not really go into what’s contained within this mysterious box today, or what the Black Stone on the outside is that followers kiss (I’ve had it on good authority that the stone is actually a meteorite, and that the ‘box’ has contained many items over the years, including icons of the many Gods worshipped by Arabic Pagan’s.) Fascinating stuff.

Throughout the programme, Omah draws on the expertise of religious academics and commentators to examine key events in the prophet’s life, with the result being that the viewer is treated to a near neutral view of the prophet’s early existence. This is a history documentary after all, and is not intended to ‘sell’ the religion.

And as history programmes go, this one was literally fit to burst with fascinating insights. We learn about Muhammed’s marriage to Khadija, a rich and powerful older woman who turned the tables and surprised him by asking him for his hand in marriage, proof some say that women are an equal partner in a Muslim society. This future wife is widely considered to be the earliest Muslim, being the first person to see her husband as a Prophet.

We also discover that Muhammad was unable to read and write, with his illiteracy proving that writings in the Koran are words directly from God, written down by the Prophet as a result of several revelations delivered to him by Angel Gabriel.

Temporarily included in the early Koran were a small number of pagan sections known today as the Satanic verses, which formed the basis for the story contained within Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel. Disliked for obvious reasons by many scholars, these passages were removed in the early days of Islam, with their importance today disputed by modern historians and religious leaders across the globe in a similar fashion to the treatment given to the Dead Sea scrolls, Mary Magdalene and the Bible. Credit goes to the journalist for bringing up this taboo subject, in a documentary that is utterly absorbing and a must for those who seek to understand more about the second largest religion in the UK and that of nearly a quarter of people of the world.

Whilst not being religious myself, I’m thoroughly interested in the foundations of faith and the impact of religion on culture today. With Rageh Omah being a Muslim himself, viewers will see how keen he is to educate people in his faith from a point of neutrality, often a hard thing to do when trying to explain something of such huge importance in your life. Let us hope that over the next two parts, the documentary continues to offer up more of the same.