Over the past few months I have been studying the religion and culture of Islam extensively in college, trying to learn more about a religion that features so prominently in the media and in Christian circles, seeking to understand where Muslims are coming from, and how they can be reached by the gospel. I have been reading Islamic writings, hearing recitations of the Quran, seeing photographs of Muslims and their architecture, but for me nothing has quite synthesized the whole of Islam with such brevity and beauty as the PBS documentary Islam: Empire of Faith. This remarkable film lays out the rich history of Islamic empires from pre-Islamic Arabia to the reign of Suleiman I, depicting Islamic faith and practice as well as society, politics, and economics in a way that words and pictures on a page could not.
The film goes to great pains to depict Islam in a new light, emphasizing points that a typical American may have never known; for example, the history of Muslim toleration for religious dissidents, their massive contributions to science and literature, and their influence on Europe. The screenwriters seemed a bit biased in their portrayal of Islam’s history, often emphasizing the positive elements without addressing the many issues that non-Muslims have with Islam. However, the historical facts that I saw on screen seemed to line up with what I have been studying this semester.
One aspect of the documentary which I found to be especially interesting and challenging was the comparison and contrast of Islam with Christianity. The film is constantly bringing out the sophistication of the Muslim world at the expense of historical Christendom. The impression one gets is that Muslim culture has been economically, scientifically, morally, militarily, agriculturally, and academically superior to anything Western for much of its history. The beauty and enlightenment of the European Renaissance is largely attributed to Muslim scholars and philosophers who sowed the seeds that eventually led to the Scientific Revolution. According to Islam: Empire of Faith, the Crusades actually affected the Europeans far more than the Muslims, as crusaders brought the tastes and traditions Middle Eastern cultures to the West. This is not a perspective that I have often seen, and has challenged me to reevaluate my belief that European culture is so far superior to that of the Middle East.
As a viewing experience, Islam was wonderful—even on a low quality setting on YouTube. The on-site filmography and lavish reenactments brought the history to life, and gave me a knew respect for the grandeur and development of Islamic civilization.
I think that if every American knew more about the history and cultural heritage of Islam, even if only by watching a few hours of a documentary like this, there would no doubt be fewer extremist debates and more common-sense discussions. A film like Islam has the power to connect emotionally and visually with an audience, and it has the potential to change some grievous misconceptions about Islam that have plagued the Western world for centuries.