(RNS) Mention the word "Islam" and many Americans envisionimages of Koran-quoting, gun-toting extremists. A stunning new PBSdocumentary airing next Tuesday (May 8, check local listings) aims tochange all that by focusing on the glories of Islamic culture.

Emmy Award-winning producer Robert Gardner spent nearly three yearsworking in seven countries to create "Islam: Empire of Faith," America'sfirst major prime-time examination of the worldwide movement founded 14centuries ago by the Prophet Muhammad.

"We're seeing the beginning of an opening up of American attitudestoward Islam rather than focusing on the negative images," says Gardner,who partnered with an Iranian film company, becoming the first Americanfilmmaker to work in that country since its 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Iranians created hundreds of period costumes and staged the manyhistorical reenactments that give the documentary its compelling powerand usher viewers into various periods of Islamic culture.

Meanwhile, Gardner used robotic camera cranes and new,light-sensitive films to create vibrant visual images of deserts,villages and especially mosques, images that linger in the mind longafter the three-hour documentary has ended.

"Over the centuries, Islamic culture has enjoyed tremendous wealthand power, which allowed for the construction of mosques that maketremendous architectural statements about the glory of God," saysGardner, who was raised as an Episcopalian but is "extremely open to thespiritual beliefs of other people.

"Having a chance to closely examine their extraordinary use ofspace, light, stone and tile was very moving."

Beginning with the birth of Muhammad around 570 and continuingthrough the death of Ottoman ruler Suleyman the Magnificent in 1566, theprogram examines Islam's first millennium rather than contemporaryconflicts like those between Palestinians and Jews or American oilconsumers and Middle Eastern producers.

In three fast-paced segments, the program examines Muhammad's life,trials and ultimately popular message; the flowering of Islamiccivilization; and the rise of the Ottoman empire.

In the process, the documentary shows how the faith that now hasmore than 1 billion adherents -- or nearly one quarter of the world'spopulation -- has also given the world an extensive cultural legacy,including our system of numerals; lasting contributions to science,medicine, mathematics, optics and scholarship; and traditions of socialjustice and religious tolerance.

Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair are the husband-and-wife team whowrote the companion book for the series, "Islam: A Thousand Years ofFaith and Power" (TV Books, $28). They write glowingly about Islam'scultural achievements:

"At a time when unwashed Europeans in northern forests wore leatherjerkins and ate roast game and gruel when they weren't beating eachother over the head with clubs to solve disputes, bathed and perfumedMuslims inhabited splendid palaces with running water and sanitationsystems, dressed in silken robes, and ate haute cuisine off fineporcelain, while sitting on plush carpets discussing the subtleties ofancient Greek philosophy."

One of the enduring tragedies of world history is the long-simmeringdisputes between disciples of Islam and followers of Judaism andChristianity, the two other major monotheistic faiths with which itshares a deep reverence for patriarchs like Abraham and Moses.

For centuries these tensions have boiled over in Jerusalem, and oneof the most fascinating segments of the PBS program covers the Crusades.But unlike traditional Western retellings of these violent episodes,this program views them from an Islamic perspective.

Even though the program contrasts the ruthlessness of the ChristianCrusaders with the magnanimity of Islamic ruler Saladin, who didn'tretaliate against Christian residents when he reclaimed Jerusalem after1187, Gardner portray Islam's enemies fairly.

"As a Christian, I would never want to be evaluated by the standardsof the Crusaders," he says, "just as Buddhists wouldn't want to becompared to the extremists who released poison gas into Japan's subwaysystem, and Jews wouldn't want to be compared to the people who shotIsraeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin."

For American viewers, the program arrives at a time when it may beincreasingly important to reassess old stereotypes of an ancient faithand culture.

Although the numbers are imprecise, experts say there are between 4million and 6 million Muslims now living here. That means there are moreMuslims than Episcopalians, and their numbers will soon equal those ofAmerica's Jews, if they don't already.

"When I started working on this project, I had all the samestereotypes as everyone else does," Gardner said. "But my views got alot of laundering during the past three years."

The documentary is part of PBS's acclaimed "Empires" series, andpeople who want to know more about Islam's history and culture can visita companion Web site (

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