Saturday 23 July 2011

The Life of Muhammad — BBC2

As discussed on Skepticule Extra 009, The Life of Muhammad is a three-part BBC TV documentary presented by Rageh Omaar. I've watched the first two — the final episode is next Monday at 9 pm.

It's engaging stuff, with eminent talking heads punctuating colourful location reports, but I've been struck by the singular lack of provenance for most of the events related. The story is fascinating, but it sounds like pure fantasy. For example, in the second episode we are told of the Prophet's so-called Night Journey, when he was apparently teleported to Jerusalem and then on up to heaven for a brief conflab with God. We know this happened because Muhammad said it happened. At night. When he was praying. When the Prophet returned from this extraordinary sojourn — to which there were no independent witnesses — he announced that God had told him that Muslims must pray five times a day.

Throughout his life Muhammad experienced a series of revelations from God — at least that's what the source says happened. And just who is the source of this "historical" information? (I'll give you one guess.) Some of these revelations were awfully convenient, to say the least. One of them, related in the second episode, was that Muslims should no longer pray towards Jerusalem, but towards Mecca. In discussing the significance of this change (regardless of whether or not it was a true revelation), much was made of how it marked Islam as being different and separate from previous religions, but nothing whatever was said about why the direction of prayers should matter. (Visions of some kind of inaccurately focussed prayer-beam spring to mind, with prayers dissipating ineffectually into space.) Presumably the direction of prayers is determined by which way the people praying are facing — except they aren't facing anything except the ground when their foreheads are touching it. It's all very confusing.

Rageh Omaar makes much use of the phrase "according to Muslim tradition" when talking about events that if they actually happened would be described as historical. I can't help concluding that this choice of words is probably an editorial decision to deflect possible accusations of making unsubstantiated factual claims.

The programme's website is here:

Episode 1 & 2 are currently available on the iPlayer until 1 August 2011: