Judge Victor Valdivia also lives his life by the beliefs of a book: The Collected Letters to Penthouse, Vol. III.
A journey into the heart of Islam.
Over the last few years, much has been said about Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East. What has almost never been examined in any great detail is what exactly Islam is. The Koran—the holy text of the religion of Islam—may be the most-discussed book in the news that few, if any, TV commentators have ever actually read or even skimmed through. Inside the Koran is an attempt to examine the Koran as a work of literature and spirituality. What does the Koran really say? How has it been interpreted throughout the years, and have any of those interpretations changed or been rendered irrelevant? Director Antony Thomas (who has directed several episodes of Frontline) is clearly asking some very big questions, and if Inside the Koran doesn't answer them fully, it's only because one documentary, no matter how thoroughly researched, couldn't possibly do so. Though Antony makes some directorial missteps, this is a worthy look at an important topic.
In exploring how the Koran is read and interpreted throughout the Muslim world, Antony interviews various Muslims from across the world. Clerics, scholars, housewives, activists, politicians, and students all discuss how they apply what they have read in the Koran to their daily lives. This leads some fascinating moments. Women and clerics disagree, for instance, on the exact interpretation of the verse in the Koran that enjoins women to cover up "that beauty that God has given them." Does that mean that they should cover up their entire faces, leaving only the eyes? Does that mean simply to dress modestly, with a scarf to cover up one's head? This is a debate that has been going on for centuries, and even Muslim women themselves don't agree on what the answer is. It's one of this film's best moments, allowing each viewpoint to get a full airing and making clear how something that seems so elementary could be such a flashpoint for controversy.
In addition to exploring how the Koran affects the daily lives of Muslims, Inside the Koran also examines how the Koran has been used for political and social ends. This is the best part of the film, because Antony has made some extraordinary interviews and discoveries that anyone who is trying to understand how Islam is viewed in the Middle East should see. Antony demonstrates, for instance, how Saudi Arabia has almost singlehandedly devoted itself to exporting Wahabi Islam, a strain of Sunni Islam that is extremely violent and intolerant. It does so as a way to forestall criticism of its autocratic and wealthy regime, but the effects are pernicious. Not only does the Saudi government bankroll Wahabist mosques, clerics, and organizations throughout the world, it even inserts Wahabist commentaries and footnotes (such as anti-Semitic and anti-Christian slurs) into the officially sanctioned Korans it prints and distributes for free throughout the world. Because the Saudi government is the caretaker of Mecca and Medina, two of the three holy sites in Islam, their altered Koran is viewed as the official translation of the Koran, more than any other translation. Antony also explores how the rise of a class of clerics who devote themselves solely to preaching and interpreting the Koran, something unheard of in Islam until recently, has meant that it is harder for scholars who want to analyze how the Koran was written and interpreted to be heard without being attacked as infidels, since the new breed of clerics view scholars as threats to their jobs. These are important details that must be considered when assessing why it sometimes seems that Islam has become increasingly intolerant or hostile. Inside the Koran does an excellent job of putting these facts in the proper context.
For all that Antony does a great job of uncovering some interesting new material, however, he makes a couple of mistakes that make this film not as definitive as it could have been. The first is that he shortchanges discussing the history of Islam and the Koran itself. How exactly was the Koran written? How is it organized? How did it get transcribed and passed along over the years? This is not explained. Similarly, Antony mentions the split behind Sunni and Shia Islam, but doesn't actually explain what the split is or how it emerged from differing interpretations of the Koran rather than the Koran itself. The Sunni/Shia split is the defining event of Islam (see Accomplices section) and it affects every aspect of the religion, so this would have been a prime opportunity for Antony to elaborate on his point on how different interpretations of the Koran can have significant impact.
Antony also tends to go a little overboard with the explicit realism. There's a brief but graphic section on female genital mutilation (or "female circumcision," as one cleric euphemistically refers to it) as well as footage of public executions in Iran and Taliban-era Afghanistan and shots of the 9/11 attacks. These scenes are not included for shock value but to give an overall perspective on how the Koran has been used to justify atrocities and horrific acts. Still, he probably should have toned down some of the explicitness. These scenes stop the film dead and it's awfully hard to concentrate on interviewees proclaiming their love of Allah with the screams of mutilated girls and 9/11 witnesses still ringing in one's ears. Nonetheless, though viewers should be warned that this is not an easy film to watch at times, there is enough good content to justify seeing it.
The non-anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer and stereo mix are both very good. This was mostly shot on well-lit and edited video although a few archival shots look less good, but it's of a generally high quality. Disappointingly, there are no extras. It would have been interesting to see some interview outtakes to get some additional perspective but none are included. Although more squeamish and sensitive viewers might find parts of this film too painful to watch, anyone interested in understanding the roots and importance of Islam should at least give it a look.
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