PBS to Air Prophet Mohammad's Life Story
- PBS to Air Prophet Mohammad's Life Story
BY CATHLEEN FALSANI RELIGION WRITER
How do you make a two-hour documentary for PBS about a
historical figure whose image you cannot show?
That's what filmmakers Alexander Kronemer and Michael
Wolfe had to figure out before they made their film,
"Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet," which tells the story
of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam.
Much like Judaism, Islam forbids the use of "graven
images," and the likeness of the Prophet is almost
never seen in Muslim religious art. The idea is that
images can easily become objects of worship.
"The problem for the documentarian is that there are
none," Kronemer said, referring to images of Muhammad.
"What will people be watching for two hours? . . .
It's not like telling the story of Jesus, which is
usually done through various reenactments with
After some contemplation, Kronemer and Wolfe thought
they could tell the story of Muhammad's life in a kind
of travelogue. Sort of an in-the-steps-of-Muhammad
kind of thing.
So, off they went to Saudi Arabia to film. But, sadly,
most of the historical sites from Muhammad's life
1,400 years ago are gone--destroyed by the sand of
time or purposely by one despot or another.
There are only so many "evocative images of the
desert" that an audience is willing to sit through,
Kronemer said. The sun rises over the desert. The sun
sets over the desert. The sun rises over the desert.
You get the picture.
Plus, filming in the desert has its drawbacks. For
instance, Kronemer recalled one excursion into the
desert in Saudi Arabia to scout locations that ended
with a truck with failed brakes stuck in the sand and
two of the most frightening things the filmmaker says
he's ever heard:
"Save the water," and, "This is where the hyenas
So the travelogue idea was scratched, along with the
working title, "Muhammad: In the Footsteps of the
Kronemer and Wolfe, who are both white American
converts to Islam, had more thinking to do and began
to deconstruct the story of Muhammad.
"In many ways, the story of the Prophet Muhammad is a
quintessential American story," Kronemer said. "He
started with nothing as an orphan," and rises through
faith and hard work to do something great and
historic. Rags to riches. Up by the bootstraps. Rocky
"Americans love that story," Kronemer said.
The Muslim tradition is based on what is in some cases
minute details of the Prophet's life, he explained.
The way Muslims pray--the physical postures of their
praying--and many other practices in the everyday life
of a Muslim anywhere in the world are dictated by
descriptions of how Muhammad acted when he was alive.
The descriptions of the Prophet's life are kept in a
collection of writings known as hadith.
"For example, Muhammad always preferred the right hand
to the left hand," consequently, more than 1,000 years
later, many practicing Muslims will enter a room with
their right foot first, pass food to another with the
right hand, and always allow the person to their right
to go through a doorway first, Kronemer explained.
Those kinds of things got the filmmakers thinking
about a better way to tell the story.
"This is not just the story of a man who was alive
1,400 years ago, but a man who is alive today," in the
lives of Muslims, he said. "Muslims bodily, in their
actions, are repeating what he did and how he did it."
The result of that epiphany is a riveting documentary
that tells the story of the Prophet by telling the
story of Muslim Americans today.
The filmmakers tell the story of Muhammad's flight
from Mecca to Medinah to escape the Meccans, who
wanted to kill him for his beliefs, through the
journey of a man who immigrated to the United States.
The man was fleeing religious persecution in his home
An African-American congressional aide, standing on
the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., helps
tell the story of Muhammad's law making.
A Muslim-American nurse in Dearborn, Mich., talks
about how her profession fulfills her faith
tradition's command to help others, and also helps the
filmmakers tell the story of the end of Muhammad's
To explain what the Prophet said in the Quran--that to
save the life of one person is to save the whole
world--the filmmakers profiled Kevin James, a
Muslim-American firefighter for the New York Fire
Department who was one of the thousands of
firefighters who risked their lives to save others at
the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
The documentary, which is set to air on more than 300
PBS stations nationally on Dec. 18, cost $2.5 million
to make and took nearly five years. It was funded
through grants and 5,000 private donations.
"This is a story Muslims have been telling for 1,400
years," Kronemer said. "My biggest enemy in this was
indifference. After 9/11, people aren't indifferent
For more information, visit www.theislamproject.org.
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