What would be the single best way to convert lots of Americans to Islam? Forget
print, go to film. Put together a handsome documentary with an original musical
score that presents Islam's prophet Muhammad in the most glowing manner, indeed,
as a model of perfection.
Round up Muslim and non-Muslim enthusiasts to endorse the nobility and truth of
his message. Splice the story of his life with vignettes of winsome American
Muslims testifying to the justice and beauty of their Islamic faith.
Then procure U.S. taxpayer sponsorship for the film. Get it shown at prime time
on the most high-minded television network. Oh, and screen it at least once
during the holiday season, when anyone out of synch with Christmas might be
especially susceptible to Islam's appeal.
And that is precisely what the producers of "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" have
done. In a documentary The Washington Post calls "absorbing, ...
enjoyable and informative" and the Los Angeles Times describes as
"thoughtful, flowing, visually stunning," exotic images of the desert and
medieval miniatures mix with scenes of New York City and the American flag. Born
— and convert — American Muslims speak affectingly about their personal bond to
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) showed this two-hour documentary across
the United States initially on Wednesday, Dec. 18th, in the evening, and will be
repeating it in most areas. The film's largest tranche of funding comes from the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting, "a private, non-profit corporation created
by Congress" which in fiscal 2002 received $350 million in taxpayers' funds.
The heart of the film consists of nine talking heads competing with each other
to praise Muhammad the most extravagantly. As a result, not one of them
criticizes him. Some of their efforts are laughable, as when one commentator
states that allegations about Muhammad contracting a marriage of convenience
with a rich, older woman named Khadija are wrong for "he deeply, deeply loved
Khadija." Oh, and his many marriages were "an act of faith, not of lust."
Other apologetics are more consequential. What Muhammad did for women, viewers
learn, was "amazing" — his condemning female infanticide, giving legal rights to
wives, permitting divorce, and protecting their inheritance rights. But no
commentator is so impolite as to note that however admirable this was in the
seventh century, Muslim women today suffer widely from genital mutilation,
forced marriages, purdah, illiteracy, sexual apartheid, polygamy, and honor
The film treats religious beliefs — such as Muhammad's "Night Journey," when the
Qur'an says he went to heaven and entered the divine presence — as
historical facts. Muslim wars are presented as only defensive and reluctant. All
this smacks of a film shown by missionaries, not a prime-time documentary.
Move to the present and the political correctness is stifling. Hostility is said
to be "hurled" at American Muslims since 9/11 — but there's no mention about the
prior and vastly greater Muslim hostility "hurled" at Americans, killing several
thousand. The narrator exaggerates the number of American Muslims, overestimates
their rate of growth, and wrongly states they are the country's "most diverse"
But these are details. "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" is an outrage on two main
counts. First, PBS has betrayed its viewers by presenting an air-brushed and
uncritical documentary of a topic that has both world historical and
contemporary significance. Its patronizing film might be fine for an Islamic
Sunday school class (the Philadelphia Inquirer calls the film a "blessed
opportunity for rest and reflection"), but not for a national audience.
For example, PBS ignores an ongoing scholarly reassessment of Muhammad's life
that disputes every detail — down to the century and region Muhammad lived in —
of its film. This silence is especially odd when contrasted with the 1998 PBS
documentary, "From Jesus to Christ," which focuses almost exclusively on the
work of cutting-edge scholars and presents the latest in critical thinking on
Second, the U.S. government must never fund a documentary whose obvious intent
is to glorify a religion and proselytize for it. Doing so flies in the face of
every American tradition, custom, norm, law, and regulation. On behalf of
taxpayers, a public-interest law firm should bring suit against the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting, both to address last week's travesty and to win an
injunction against any possible repetitions.
Daniel Pipes, "Missionary for Islam." New York Post, December 17, 2002.
Reprinted with permission of Daniel Pipes. Other articles
by Daniel Pipes are available on his web site at: