Though he's read the Koran from cover to cover, Judge Bill Gibron was still amazed at the amount of information contained in this informative and enlightening History Channel documentary.
The Story of Muhammad and the Holy Book of God
While it post-dates the Bible by centuries, it is only a mere 80 years removed from the death of the prophet who revealed its contents to the world. Its title is literally translated as "the recitation," reflecting the manner in which it was first delivered and how it was kept alive during its creation. It does not contain a central narrative, an examination of the life and times of its messenger, or a clear-cut discussion on how the universe was created. Instead, it is made up of laws and directives, some only a few phrases long, others taking up several pages, all organized into chapters used for both prayer and meditation. It reflects God's wishes for his followers, as well as rules for governing one's actions and providing for the fellow faithful. It is neither as harsh as the modern believers make it out to be, nor is it an easy document to pattern along with progress. But one thing is clear—the Koran is one of the most influential books ever written. Decoding the Past: Secrets of the Koran hopes to show just why this is so, and how as with any other significant religious work, it has been twisted and misused over time.
Made up of two episodes of the History Channel's Decoding the Past series, Secrets of the Koran hopes to accomplish two concrete things. First, it wants to trace the history of the document from its revelation to Muhammad, its recitation and memorization by the believers, and the attempts to create the definitive text version. After 45 minutes of chronology and insight, it then moves into the realm of Jihad, the literal meaning of the word (to "suffer"), and how it has been modified over the centuries by both the Crusades and cultural modernity. In the process, it hopes to clarify misconceptions about the Islamic religion, the Muslim worshippers, and the questionable link between the Koran and terrorism. For the most part, it succeeds exceptionally well. Outside of a classroom setting, where the study of the Archangel Gabriel's revelation of Allah's words to the Prophet can be deciphered, contextualized, and accompanied by scholarship, this is an excellent and enlightening way to learn about the foundations of Islam, and why the fundamentalist branch of the religion uses death and intimidation as a means of projecting their interpretation of God's will. Granted, there is an ever so slight Western bent to the narrative, making sure to downplay the role of colonialism and Christianity in the persecution and perversion of the Koran's basic tenets, but that does not distract from the legitimacy of the lessons provided.
Yet Secrets of the Koran does something that is greatly needed in our current geopolitical climate—it allows for both sides of the Islamic picture to plead their case. True, the terrorists and militant theocrats will find little favor in the way they've created an "us vs. them" mandate toward the rest of the world, but Secrets is sure to point out that they represent a very small, very publicized section of the religion. In a faith with nearly 1.5 billion believers, militants and terrorists hardly make up the majority of Muslims. Secrets also hopes, via its many talking heads of all races and ethnicities, to dismantle some of the misconceptions about the religion itself. The scholars, all of whom offer erudite and considered commentary on dogma, direction, and disparities, use the TV platform as a way of finalizing the principles of Islam, careful to point out when issues deemed disgraceful by the West (the treatment of women, say) actually undermine the elements of Islam as well. Imagine a discussion of Christianity which focuses solely on dispelling the myths surrounding the born-again ideology and you get the idea of Secrets reasoning. It wants us to realize that individuals like Osama Bin Laden are as close to actual Islam as Jim and Tammy Bakker or Jerry Falwell are to Jesus—the belief system is the same, the way it's construed is not.
Perhaps the most important thing Secrets of the Koran does is argue for Islam's close kinship to Judaism and Christianity. There is a remarkable sequence where a pair of scholars point out the timeline for each "message" and show how the Koran references, and even re-explains, certain passages and parables from The Bible. It also argues against Christ as the Son of God (something which would deify him and, as a result, violate the "only one God" conceit) and for his importance as a messenger of God's word. In fact, when viewed in a light outside the flying of airplanes into skyscrapers, Islam and its learned tome take on a whole different dimension. It becomes the guidebook for a growing populace, a people outside the great cradles of civilization who were looking to reject paganism and embrace a clear, culturally significant belief system. Sure, it all seems as sloppy and self-serving as Catholicism or any other religion when viewed through the skeptic's science-oriented eyes, but it proves that ancient peoples needed God, and his direction, to drag themselves out of the dark ages, for better and the always reciprocal worse. With a clear focus and an excellent educational bent, Decoding the Past: Secrets of the Koran may not dispel each and every fatalistic fable associated with Islam, but it can begin a process of illumination that everyone—including Jihad-oriented Muslims—could surely benefit from.
Presented in a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic letterboxed transfer, the image offered by Secrets of the Koran is sensational. Obviously filmed with meticulous skill and professional production values, the visual scope here is spectacular. There are some dramatic recreations that are less than successful (none of Muhammad, naturally) and many of the talking-head scholars seem seated in the same general "library" backdrop. With those minor elements ignored, we end up with a stellar picture, loaded with color, contrasts, and details. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix offers easy to understand dialogue and crystal clear conversations. The sole bonus feature is an episode of A&E's Biography series, this time focusing on Muhammad. Again, no images of the Prophet or his family are shown or attempted, and yet the show gets its well-reasoned points across in a lucid, logical manner. Many misconceptions are dispelled and the overall message is clear—Muhammad is not an agent of terror. Those who preach violence in his name have misconstrued everything he stood for, not only as a messenger of God, but as the socially conscious human being that he was.
While it does have the slick polish of a Western-oriented look at religion, Decoding the Past: Secrets of the Koran still provides the kind of intelligent, rationale dissection of Islam and its Holy Book that takes most of the fear out of the prevailing perception of the Muslim faithful. It may not change a lot of people's opinions, but it is a good place to start if you want to know more than just the screaming media basics.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• A&E Biography -- Muhammad
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