On Monday night I eagerly tuned into BBC 2 to see the first in a three part series called ‘Life of Muhammad’. The world of social media was ablaze with predictions of what the documentary would entail, mostly ignited by the fact that on this rare occasion a Muslim story was going to be presented by a journalist respected in both the West and the Muslim world. This journalist also happens to be Muslim.
It was a first in British broadcasting, in the sense that it was the first time a biographical documentary featured no images of the subject: The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). There was great debate over the visual aspect of the series and whether it would manage to engage audiences despite the restrictions in imagery. To some non Muslims, it may have appeared that the BBC was catering to an overly sensitive Muslim community, however the fact is the BBC proved to be religiously sensitive as for in Islam, depicting an image of the prophet is a grave insult. To be honest, I barely noticed the visual limitations, as the screen was instead filled with serenely beautiful images of Mecca, vast expanses of deserts and rolling landscapes, intricately designed Mosques and religious texts. As a journalist I was visually enthralled, as a Muslim I just wanted to visit Mecca.
What impressed me most was the excellent account of Khadija the Prophet’s first wife, a pivotal character in the story of Islam, so often glossed over by mainstream media. Growing up as a young Muslim female the story of Khadija was told to me by my parents, as by many Muslim parents around the world, to inspire and remind us of the importance of education and social development, for women just as it is for men. This utterly honest analysis of events highlights the profound significance of the role of women in Islam, the documentary so rightly asserts it was Khadija who taught the prophet business, who supported and encouraged the prophet when he first received the message of God, and it was Khadija who was the first convert to Islam. However Omar goes on to highlight the diversity of the Muslim world by being brutally frank about the fact that not all of Islam’s followers have fully embraced the traditional role of women in Islam, i.e. It is not the religion that oppresses women, instead it’s the perception of religion that can lead to oppression.
For too long, the British audience have been spoon fed extremist views of Islam on all sides, whether it is from ill informed TV makers who continue to depict an Orientalist view of Islam, or from some of the Muslim community who may defensively shy away from any open analysis and discussion of Islam in fear of further scrutiny and discrimination. In this instance the BBC decided to move away from only presenting images of bearded book burning angry Muslims, by allowing a platform for Islam and the Prophet’s story to be thoroughly examined by a diverse range of individuals. Indeed in a true embrace of impartiality, experts ranged from Islamic scholars, academics who happened to be Muslim, as well as including views from non Muslim academics such as: Karen Armstrong, Tariq Ramadan, Michael Nazir Ali and Tom Holland.
In my view as a journalist it was wonderful to see such an insightful view of Islam, as though a window had finally been opened and the audience was finally allowed to see inside the Muslim world. I am also aware of what a challenge it must have been for the production team to cover such a vast and intricate history in only three hours of programming. Journalism is not academia and must be accessible to all, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds, the Life of Muhammad proved to be so.
As a Muslim I felt emotive and I can truly say this is the first time a British documentary covering Islam has not invoked at least some level of anger and annoyance for being sensationalist, edging too far from the lines of impartiality. In fact this is the first time any British broadcast has left me feeling extremely proud to be Muslim. I would like to commend the BBC religion highly for the inclusion of a non Orientalist understanding of history and a move to a more holistic world view.
Nabeela Zahir is a Journalist, Assistant Producer/Researcher in News, current affairs and factual programming.
You can follow her on twitter @nabeelazahir
And see more of her work on nabeelazahir.com