Islam for Viewers Like You

Martin Kramer, “Islam for Viewers Like You,” Middle East Quarterly (Winter 2002), pp. 71-78. This article is a review of Robert Gardner’s PBS documentary, Islam: Empire of Faith. Scroll to the bottom to watch the documentary in full.

It hardly needs saying that the United States and the Muslim world are locked in an embrace. There are more than a billion Muslims in the world, and there are millions of Americans who are Muslim. American relations with the believers in Islam run the entire gamut, from mutual cooperation to violent confrontation.

Since September 11, Americans have been preoccupied with current events in the Muslim world and the present struggles within Islam. They have no choice. But it behooves the citizenry of this great power to know something of the history and legacy of the Islamic world—knowledge that goes beyond daily headlines. And there is no more effective way to inform a wide public, especially on subjects that are foreign, than the medium of film.

No doubt this was the motive of PBS when it commissioned Robert Gardner to produce and direct a documentary on the history and civilization of Islam. Islam: Empire of Faith is the result: a three-part, 150-minute sweep through the first thousand years of Islamic history, from the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia to the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century.1 PBS broadcast the film last May and made it available immediately as home video. In the aftermath of September 11, PBS broadcast it again. It seems safe to say that, for the foreseeable future, most Americans will encounter the civilization of Islam through Islam: Empire of Faith. That is not altogether a good thing.

$1.54 Million

The first point worth noting about Gardner’s creation is that it breaks the usual barrier between documentary and cinematic film.

Most films on Islamic history have a predictable format: lots of architecture, images from illustrated manuscripts, and a parade of “experts.” The camera pans across the arcaded façade of the Great Mosque in Damascus and lingers on the fountain in the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra. The usual illustrations are dusted off to depict court life, early astronomy, medical knowledge, and siege warfare. Familiar talking heads offer familiar assessments.

Islam: Empire of Faith dishes up plenty of shots of the best-known mosques, palaces, and manuscripts. And of course it has its “experts.” But it offers something more: a few landmark events in Islamic history, reenacted by meticulously costumed actors on big sets. Such reenactments are one of Gardner’s specialties. His bio relates that his earlier award-winning series on Near Eastern antiquity featured reenactments of the discoveries of the Rosetta Stone, Tutankhamen’s tomb, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and an Assyrian tomb “complete with live rats.”2 Clearly we are in the hands of an artist.

For the Islam venture, PBS provided Gardner with $1.54 million in funding from “viewers like you.” He took this money to Iran, home to a sophisticated film industry, and there shot all of the reenactments. Many of these are stock scenes, right out of Lawrence of Arabia: bazaars, caravans, and camel charges. But a few of the reenactments are quite evocative and are arguably worth the price of admission. Most notably, Gardner built a four-story reproduction of the Ka‘ba, the pre-Islamic shrine in Mecca that the Prophet Muhammad purified and that all Muslims face in prayer. The (entirely speculative) reenactment of pre-Islamic totem worship in this faux-Ka‘ba is memorable.

Watching part one, “The Messenger,” I was reminded of the passage in Richard Grenier’s wicked novel, The Marrakesh One-Two, where the American protagonist contemplates his assignment of making a film about Muhammad in a Muslim country:

We’re doing The Mohammed Story, you understand, but Mohammed’s got to go. Too holy to be portrayed. We’ve got to “shoot around” Mohammed. But also all his immediate family has to go: This wealthy widow he married who gave him his start in life. All his ten or so other wives. His children, all the daughters. His famous sons-in-law. Ali goes. Omar goes. The four first caliphs go. Mohammed’s mother and father go. The ten Companions of Mohammed go. That’s the ten apostles right there. Talk of Hamlet without the prince. This was Hamlet without the prince, king, queen, Ophelia, Polonius, Horatio, Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. It was going to be Hamlet with the gravediggers and Fortinbras.3

In his reenactments, Gardner too “shoots around” all of the dramatis personae—less of a disadvantage in a documentary film, but an indication to the viewer that the producer is determined or resigned to working within limits set by Muslim sensibilities.

And Gardner left no room for guesswork in his effort to stay within Muslim bounds. Just before the release, he took the added precaution of screening the film to representatives of American Muslim organizations. The film passed muster with only one minor change. (Viewers might have gotten a glimpse of Muhammad in a shot of an illustrated fourteenth-century manuscript of Rashid ad-Din’s Tavarikh. Out went that frame.)4 But if Gardner’s fare is halal, this is because he made all of the necessary compromises well in advance. The result is a film that viewers will rightly regard as a compliment to the high civilization of Islam. But a compliment is not a history, and it is as history that the film ultimately runs aground.

Empire of Swords

The history of a great empire is a messy thing. “Sword-blades are foundations that never settle,” wrote the historian Arnold Toynbee, mocking the labors of “happy empire builders” who would delude themselves that their achievements might endure.5

Toynbee, of course, was a misanthrope who denied the obvious: that great empires, for all their faults, have been history’s most civilizing force. Certainly the sword-blades under Islam’s empires settled well enough to allow the erection of magnificent structures on their foundations. But Toynbee (who also thought that Islam had been “militant from first to last”) was right to point out the indispensable role of the sword. The depiction of Islamic empire as an “empire of faith” is already a limiting one, since Islam was spread by fear as well as faith, by conquest as well as commerce. Anyone who has taken an elementary course in Islamic history will know this. Anyone who has only watched this film will not.

The problem is evident from the very beginning in the representation of the Prophet Muhammad. Through the mists of time and obfuscation, the historical Muhammad is beyond retrieval. All that remains are the canonical accounts preserved by the believers themselves. But even these present Muhammad as a man of battle as much as a man of faith. Gardner has no problem presenting Muhammad as a believer—dark desert mountains evoke a man wrestling with his soul and God’s revelation—but how is he to present Muhammad as warrior?

Answer: cast him as the forgiving conqueror. This is achieved in Gardner’s dramatic reenactment of Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca. We are told that in seventh-century Arabia, the usual treatment meted out to conquered enemies was grim: men were slain, women and children were sold into slavery. But in Mecca, Muhammad refused to exact bloody revenge. He did violence only against the idols in the Ka‘ba. “Within the very founding of the religion,” intones Michael Sells of Haverford College, “one finds episodes of great generosity, often extraordinary acts of kindness and mercy.” And that’s that: Muhammad as MacArthur.

This is true as far as it goes, but there were also episodes of ordinary retribution and revenge. “The Messenger of God ordered that every adult male of Banu Qurayza be killed,” relates Ibn Hisham, “and then he divided the property, wives, and children of Banu Qurayza among the Muslims.”6 (The Banu Qurayza were a Jewish tribe that surrendered to the Muslims; the men, between 600 and 900, were beheaded.) The notion retailed in this film, that Muhammad put a complete end to vengeance, cannot be squared with the historical record preserved by Muslims themselves. Of course, it would be absurd to judge Muhammad’s warfare by the Geneva Convention, but it is no less absurd to suggest that Muslims conducted their early battles within its limits. They didn’t.

Their early politics get the same laundering. The film emphasizes the unity and solidarity of the early Muslim community as the prime explanation for its lightning conquests. But there is no mention of the fact that three of the first four caliphs were assassinated. More important, we are not told that a Muslim army massacred the grandson of the Prophet, Husayn, and his entire retinue on a baked plain in Iraq, creating a permanent fissure in Islam. Gardner would not even have had to provide costumes and actors for a reenactment of Husayn’s martyrdom: in Iran, Shi‘ites reenact it on their own, in passion plays held every year. Mock-ups of severed heads are the main props.

One can understand why Gardner would chose to omit Shi‘ite references from a film shot in Iran. There are plenty of Sunni viewers who would take offense. But this is a bit like making a documentary on Henry VIII without Sir Thomas More. The dramatic expansion of Islam is remarkable precisely because it occurred despite very deep divisions among Muslims. Cutting out all references to the vengeful rivalries of early Islam makes it impossible to understand the early breakup of the empire and the process of dissent and rebellion that created new Muslim empires. By all means, let us admire the Dome of the Rock in all its perfection. But there are other symbols dating from these earliest years, soaked in blood, which live in Muslim hearts to this day. In Gardner’s film, they are swept under a very ornate oriental carpet.

By the standards of the time, the Muslim conquerors dealt with conquered peoples in a relatively enlightened way. But here, too, there is a risk of mythologizing, a temptation strengthened by the contemporary demand for greater Muslim-Christian “understanding.” Take, for example, the fate of the Church of St. John the Baptist in Damascus, a city conquered by the Muslims in 636. Should we believe the film? “Side by side, the two faiths shared the same building—in peace.” Or should we trust the Encyclopaedia of Islam? “A legend which tells of the division of the Church of St. John between Christians and Muslims springs from an error in translation.” Should we follow the film? “As the Muslim community grew, they bought the old church from the Christian congregation.” Or should we follow the Encyclopaedia? “In spite of previous agreements, the Caliph al-Walid confiscated the Church of St. John the Baptist from the Christians.”7 Yes, the Islamic empire tolerated the practice of Christianity (and Judaism), but Gardner resorts to legend to suggest that it placed all religions on one moral plane. The Islamic empire itself did nothing of the sort.

By the time Gardner gets to the apex of Islamic civilization, he has done a very thorough job of burying all the blades. The admiring portrayal of the renaissance of Islam, centered on Baghdad, renders a genuine service to the average American viewer, who may be unaware of the extent of medieval Muslim achievement in commerce, art, philosophy, and science. Scholars will debate whether Muslims really made this or that breakthrough, or whether they made it alone. Gardner certainly gives them the benefit of any doubt. But who among us, if suddenly compelled to live a thousand years ago, would not choose Baghdad? Gardner has done an evocative reenactment of the busy intellectual activity in Baghdad’s famous House of Wisdom (bayt al-hikma), and it is arguably the high point in the film. The filmmaker’s problem, of course, is that the old glories of Baghdad are long gone, and Saddam’s own palaces are off-limits and far too gaudy. Alas for the Iraqis, their House of Wisdom gets reenacted in a ruined nineteenth-century mansion—in Iran.

Crusade and Jihad

Like Islamic civilization itself, Gardner’s film goes into decline thereafter. For if the film until this point has been devoted to idealizing Islam, it now turns to an indictment of the West, in the form of the Crusades.

A proper historical understanding of the Crusades is not easy to achieve, and it certainly cannot be reached without taking into account the Muslim view. The problem is that many of today’s Muslims have turned the Crusades into something like a holocaust, better to extract confessions of culpability from the West. (Churches have been especially vulnerable to this moral extortion.) The Crusaders waged a cruel war even by medieval standards, and there is nothing easier than to moralize over it. Gardner does, with the academic sanction of British historian Carol Hillenbrand, who calls the Crusader massacres in Jerusalem “a blot on the name of Christendom in the Muslim view, and justifiably so.”

Perhaps, but then one would expect some consistency. In part three, Gardner devotes eight minutes to the fall of Constantinople, capital of Byzantium, to the armies of Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. The importance of the city, its formidable walls, the Ottoman strategy, the siege tactics—all aspects are covered in painstaking detail. When we enter the city, we proceed triumphantly with Mehmet into the Hagia Sophia church, destined to become a mosque. Yet not one word or frame is spent on the treatment meted out by Mehmet to the people of the city. Because the city had not surrendered, Islamic law allowed the conquerors three days of unlimited killing, rape, and plunder. The destruction of the vanquished was certainly a blot on the name of Islam in the Christian view—”and justifiably so,” a moralizing historian might add. Alas, the poor Byzantines have no modern lobbyists whose job it is to turn medieval atrocities into political capital for some present purpose.

The imbalance caused by this omission is particularly unfortunate now that Islam: Empire of Faith has been trotted out to do service as an antidote to September 11. Gardner made a deliberate and legitimate choice not to bring the film up to the present. But the decision by PBS to rebroadcast it after the attacks effectively revokes that choice. If the film has some relevant message, it is the one made by a raft of “experts” who claim that violence is not a part of Islam and that jihad was never anything more than peaceful persuasion. But it’s not true. Wars of conquest expanded Islam’s frontiers, and every one of them was conducted under the banner of jihad. And if anyone doubts the Islamic legitimacy of slaughtering innocents in the assault on an enemy city, they have only to look to the fall of Constantinople. They just won’t be able to find it in this film.

Race and Sex

It is not exactly true that none of the Prophet’s Companions is portrayed. There is one exception: Bilal bin Rabah, the manumitted Ethiopian slave and early convert to Islam, who issued the call to prayer when it was first instituted by Muhammad in Medina. He is shown in part one, ascending the roof of a building, cupping his hand to his mouth, and issuing a sonorous Allahu akbar. The exceptional depiction of Bilal is a clear mark that this is an American film. For Bilal was black. He personifies the indifference to race that presumably characterizes Islam—a virtue crucial to Islam’s acceptance in contemporary America.

In part two, this subtle portrayal of Islam as enlightened in matters of race produces an instance of crude censorship. The screen fills with an image from an illustrated manuscript showing two turbaned merchants facing one another over a set of scales. In the voice-over, art historian Sheila Blair of Boston College explains the importance of credit in the development of long-distance trade within the Islamic world.

But what were the merchants trading? If you want to know that, you have to refer back to the complete illustration, from a thirteenth-century manuscript of Hariri’s Maqamat in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.8 And here, just below the scales, we find the objects of trade: black slaves. This is a well-known illustration of a slave market in Yemen, a major way station on the slave route into the Arab lands. Apparently the filmmaker decided that his American audience should be spared the knowledge that black slaves were major commodities in the heyday of Arab commerce.

Race and slavery in Islam are issues too complicated to sort out in a documentary film of this length and emphasis. Yet Gardner chooses to make a subtle statement in favor of Islam by giving us the black believer and withholding from us the black slaves. Islamic empire, we are led to assume, escaped the usual imperial practices of enslavement and racial prejudice.

This borders on deliberate deception. Islam’s “empire of faith,” like all great empires before it, sanctioned slavery. Islam’s very expansion, and its great material wealth, created a constant demand for slaves—a demand met in large measure from black Africa. One would think that a PBS film would suggest that the actual record of Islamic civilization on this point was a mixed one. Instead, the past is whitewashed—partly, no doubt, because so many American Muslims are black.

Race is one issue that is finessed for a liberal American audience; sex is another. Islam at its pinnacle, like Greece and Rome, had sexual mores vastly different than those of twenty-first century America. One would think that we are now mature enough to discuss them dispassionately and learn whatever they can teach us about the variety of the human experience. Gardner’s film instead obliterates them, so as to make these long-dead people of another time and place seem just like the neighbors next door. The film’s treatment of these issues tells us nothing about historical Islam, and everything about contemporary America.

For example, we learn at length about Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife and a widow older than he. She is portrayed as an entrepreneur (no glass ceilings in seventh-century Arabia!), and Muhammad becomes her partner, then husband. Who in suburban America doesn’t know an affable couple like this? But ‘A’isha, Muhammad’s favorite wife, gets no mention at all in the film—probably because she was married to him at the age of ten. When she moved into his home, relate the Muslim sources, she brought along her toys. The omission says more about contemporary American sensitivities than it does about Muhammad, who married completely within the mores and conventions of his time.

In part three, Gardner spends several reenactments on the relationship between Süleyman the Magnificent and his slave, confidant, and grand vizier, Ibrahim Pasha. Because, one assumes, this film is also destined for the schools, it demurs over the sexual aspect of their bond. The elision is not an insignificant one: Gardner’s “experts” are adamant that the Ottoman empire, like America, was a pure meritocracy, even though some historians now believe that homosexual nepotism often compromised the palace system.9 Watch the distinguished University of Chicago Ottomanist, Cornell Fleischer, squirm: “The two were very close in age and, apparently, very close in other ways.”

It is a purely American constraint that the issue cannot be raised, even in a discussion of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century. (Or maybe Fleischer was the wrong person to ask: his university chair, half-funded by the Turkish government, is named after Süleyman.) But it is just as smart of Gardner to build up Süleyman’s relations with Ibrahim via so many reenactments and “expert” commentaries. The whole episode is “apparently” a discreet nod to gay viewers. Gardner tosses in the Roxelana story, Süleyman’s “straight” romance and a favorite of cheap novels, and he has covered pretty much the range of accepted sexual preferences, each with precisely the amount of discretion that “viewers like you” expect.

So there is something for everyone—the guiding principle of the blockbuster movie. The real genius of Gardner’s film is not its cinematography, and certainly not its accuracy. It is Gardner’s uncanny ability to appeal to so wide a range of traditional viewers of public television, and the increasingly affluent American Muslim minority. This is Islamic history as PBS needs it, wants it, and now has to have it. It is a quintessentially American artifact, and a pointer to the kind of Islam many Americans hope (against hope) will emerge from the present turmoil.

Expert Overreach

Finally, there are the experts. They are a photogenic lot, competent in their specializations—mostly, art history. The problem is that several of them are called upon to comment on areas well beyond their competence. If you ask a historian of Ottoman art to characterize the relationship between Muhammad and Khadija, don’t be surprised to get a line like this one: “It was a wonderful partnership, and I’m sure he learned a lot from her.”

And not all of the experts sound like experts. What was the significance of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem? “Imagine, if you will, these new guys coming in and taking over this piece of prime real estate. … This is not a fly-by-night, this is something big and important. Islam has come to stay.” How did the Muslims view the Mongol invaders? “To the cultured, urban Muslims, these guys were a bunch of savages.” When narrator Ben Kingsley sounds more academic than the academics, something has gone wrong in the script. (Kingsley, though, completely mangles the Arabic word for the conquests, futuh, and also botches the word kanuni, lawgiver, applied to Süleyman the Magnificent.) The inclusion of one or two of the surviving doyens of Islamic historical studies might have added some gravitas to the proceedings. As it stands, the overall (and largely erroneous) impression is that American expertise in this area is fairly thin, stuck somewhere at a stage of uncritical acceptance of the Muslim sources.

In sum, Islam: Empire of Faith is a compliment to Islamic civilization, but it is no compliment to the intelligent and inquisitive viewer. “There were a lot of areas we just didn’t have the money to go to,” Gardner has been quoted as saying. “Television always involves a lot of compromise.”10 True enough. But the same can be said of art, literature, and scholarship. The problem arises when compromises become consistent, even to the point of deliberate misrepresentation. And there is too much of a pattern in this film to assume Gardner’s naïveté.

Gardner’s peculiar approach to his medium also makes this film a particularly potent form of propaganda. He set out, in his words, “to borrow from the visual vocabulary of feature films and even music videos to create an authentic and truly evocative portal through which the audience can experience the deep past.”11 This is not the documentary art. Opening “portals” to “experience the deep past” is the art of the Florida theme park and the Vegas theme hotel. And by emulating them, Gardner has driven his subject closer to the center of American culture. Let us admit it: no amount of scholarship could ever achieve that.

But why draw lines? Why not share the “experience” with those who don’t watch public television? Perhaps an “Islam experience” is really the ideal medium by which to introduce Americans to the grandeur of Islam. Imagine Gardner’s reenactments before us on a giant screen; from behind our 3-D glasses, the idols of the Ka‘ba seem to crash down around us. Imagine the call to prayer from Cairo’s thousand mosques in surround-sound. Surely there is enough money in Arabia and the Muslim dispersion to bring this off, especially after the recent drubbing of Islam’s image. Islam, camera, action.

© Martin Kramer

1 Gardner Films in association with PBS and Devillier Donegan Enterprises, 2000. Website at
2 See,
3 Richard Grenier, The Marrakesh One-Two (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), p. 3.
4 John Maynard, “After Request, PBS Edits ‘Islam’,” The Washington Post, May 8, 2001.
5 A.J. Toynbee, A Study of History, vol. 6 (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 196.
6 Ibn Hisham, Life of the Prophet, quoted in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2 ed., s.v. “Muhammad.”
7 Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2 ed., s.v. “Dimashk.”
8 Available, most readily, on the cover of Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Inquiry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
9 Stephen O. Murray, “Homosexuality among Slave Elites in Ottoman Turkey,” in Islamic Homosexualities, ed. Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe (New York: New York University Press, 1997), pp.174-86.
10 Quoted by Elizabeth Jensen, “‘Islam: Empire of Faith’ Keeps Eye on Culture, Not Religion,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2001.
11 “About the Producer,” at

Update: All three parts of the documentary are now available for viewing below.