|Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet: Interview with the Filmmakers|
Michael Schwarz of Kikim Media
Michael Wolfe and Alex Kronemer of Unity Productions Foundation
What inspired you to make a documentary biography on the prophet Muhammad?
Schwarz: I received a call about three years ago from Michael Wolfe, a Muslim friend who has written two books about the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca--Michael told me he had an idea for a documentary. When I asked him what it was, he replied simply, Muhammad. I realized that I didn't even know the biographical story of this major religious figure so I asked him to tell me Muhammad's story. By the time he had finished, I knew this was one of those ideas that producers dream about: a big, important story, full of surprising twists and turns, that has never before been told on American television.
Wolfe: This is a story of great importance to one in every five people on Earth who are Muslim, yet most Americans have never heard it.
What were some of the challenges you had to overcome in telling the tale of Muhammad?
Schwarz: Muhammad is a vital religious figure for over a billion people. While respecting the reverence that Muslims have for Muhammad, we wanted to make his biography accessible and engaging for a predominantly non-Muslim American audience who know little or nothing about it.
Achieving the visual interest that would help make the story appealing was a particular challenge because we learned early on that we would not be able to show any images of our main character…or of his family or closest associates. Muhammad asked Muslims not to create any such images in order to discourage idolatry, and even though some images do exist, most Muslims consider them extremely offensive. So we didn't have an historical filmmaker's most important tool -- a picture of his or her subject. But we did get rare access to Mecca, where we filmed during the 2001 Hajj.
Kronemer: We used a variety of different experts on Islam and Middle East history -- some Muslim and others not Muslim -- as our narrative voices to recount Muhammad’s life with the passion and wonder that the transcendental nature of religious stories require, while providing historical context and commentary. And we filmed American Muslims, who strive to embody Muhammad's example and teachings in their lives, to capture the spirit of the prophet that is alive today.
How do you distinguish between legend, fact and fiction when you retell events that happened centuries ago? And when religion is the topic, is the job even harder?
Schwarz: When faith and history collide it is always difficult. Our program is the first attempt to tell Muhammad's biography on television to an American audience, and we decided that we should introduce Muhammad to Americans as Muslims know him. So our documentary tries to capture the story that Muslims have passed down from generation to generation for 1400 years. This is the story that shapes the beliefs of mainstream American Muslims and helps guide their daily lives. While there is substantial scholarship to support many aspects of this story, there are also a number of areas where the historical record is subject to dispute. We do not pretend to provide definitive answers, or to investigate the ultimate "truth" of conflicting accounts of Muhammad's life. What we have tried to do in this program is simply to allow some of the world's greatest scholars of Muhammad, as well as a diverse group of contemporary American Muslims, to tell the story they believe to be true about a man who brought monotheism to 7th century Arabia and continues to inspire their lives today.
Wolfe: The non-Muslim historical view of Muhammad has changed with each new period over a thousand years. It has its roots in medieval Crusader propaganda, then in the Inquisition, then in European colonial literature. Currently, there are a number of schools of thought on the history, and they mostly disagree. Today's Western views on Muhammad's story will change tomorrow. Meanwhile, for over a thousand years, Muslims have held pretty closely to the story we are telling.
What was the most significant thing you learned during filming?
Schwarz: As we interviewed around the country, I was struck again and again by how active American Muslims are in every walk of life here, from computer analysts to doctors and lawyers, engineers, teachers and professors, nurses, firemen and police officers, politicians, federal officials, and on and on.
In addition, the racial, cultural, and national integration of Muslim community centers and houses of worships is so much more complete than I'm used to in the United States. Churches and synagogues tend to be much more racially and even economically defined.
Wolfe: The lack of mainstream American understanding about my faith always surprises me. Although Islam is America’s fastest growing religion, many American's attitudes about Islam are shrouded in stereotypes, misconceptions and, occasionally, even outright hostility. They know very little about the prophet who founded my religion or what Islam's basic beliefs are. The politics and social customs of the Middle East and the threat of terrorism have overwhelmed a clear understanding of the faith. Considering that the largest Muslim population is not even in the Middle East, but in Indonesia, these perceptions are a real distortion.
The events of 9/11 happened during the shooting of the documentary. How did that affect how you approached completing the film?
Kronemer: On September 11, 2001, we were already two-thirds of the way through filming the documentary. I was working with Michael Schwarz in Kikim Media's Bay Area offices at the time of the attacks. We spent the day of 9/11 in Michael's living room watching television coverage together mostly in stunned silence. Initially, the news of a suspected connection between the attacks and Islamic terrorists made us fearful for the future of our project. The very next night, Peter Jennings did a report on the possibility of a serious backlash against Muslim Americans. At that point, we knew our project had suddenly become more important than we ever could have imagined.
Schwarz: Since we were still looking for American Muslims who could give us their perspective of Muhammad's life and example, I asked Nadine Tanio, our associate producer, to see if she could find a Muslim firefighter who was involved in the rescue efforts. That search led us to Kevin James, a supervising fire marshal from Brooklyn who converted to Islam from a mixed background. His description of his own inner jihad provided the basis for one of the most moving sequences in the film. It also helps to explain an Islamic concept that many American don’t accurately understand.
You traveled extensively around the U.S. and the Middle East. What were the common threads you noticed in your interviews?
Schwarz: One of the most interesting threads had to do with the numerous affinities between basic American values and core Islamic beliefs. I was particularly struck by the number of American Muslims who told me that one of the reasons their love for this country is so strong is because it is here that they can practice their religion most freely and truly. For instance, many of the Muslims who immigrated to Dearborn, Michigan, not only compare their flights from persecution to Muhammad's own reluctant flight from persecution in Mecca to the oasis settlement of Medina, which he felt was necessary to ensure the survival of Islam. They also compare their experiences to those of the first Pilgrims who fled persecution in England in order to be able to practice their religion freely in the New World. Islam's focus on social justice -- and the duty of every individual to care for the poor and the needy -- is very much in tune with the core values on which America was founded.