Christian Science Monitor (May 04)-- "Most Americans could tell you more about the boxer Muhammad Ali than they could about Muhammad the prophet," says filmmaker Robert Gardner, whose latest project is "Islam: Empire of Faith" (May 8, PBS, check local listings). "And yet," says Gardner, whose three years of work on the project took him to Iran as the first American filmmaker to workthere in 20 years, "Muhammad the prophet is one of the most importantfigures in the last 2,000 years of human history."

PBS's "Islam: Empire of Faith" uses over 300 costumes, animals andarchitecture to tell the story of Islamic culture.

In keeping with the magnitude of that story, this public televisionevent is presented as the third in the PBS "Empires" series ofhistorical programs telling the stories of great empires that changedthe world. "Islam," the three-hour special, is not about the religion ofIslam as much as the culture. "It's about the arc of culture for this1,000 years of civilization and how this civilization intertwines withWestern civilization in a number of extraordinary and surprising ways,"Mr. Gardner says.

His approach differs from many documentary makers. "We were lookingfor a way to push the historical documentary from beyond the traditionalparadigm of moves over flatwork of art and photographs and to try toevoke the past in a big way," Gardner says. "I wanted to see big sceneswith lots of horses and camels and hundreds of people and the beautifularchitecture of Islam."

The series includes many reenactments. "We created a very differentkind of documentary that includes over 300 costumes and a tremendousnumber of animals and stunts and architecture."

As the film points out, 20 percent of the world's population isMuslim, yet the religion suffers from what Islamic scholars call aserious misperception.

"One of the reasons, perhaps, is that it's not about religion, it'sabout other things," says Jonathan Bloom, professor of Islamic andancient art at Boston College and a series consultant. "Our prejudice isnot that we're listening to what this religion is really about, but toall sorts of baggage that goes along with it. What we're trying to dowith this film is start at some place of common ground."

Islam's belief in one God is certainly a starting point. Anappreciation of the critical role Islamic culture played in theforwarding of world culture is another. One of the key points thefilmmakers establish is that the Islamic empire formed a crucial linkbetween the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Europe and itsvoyages of discovery.

The series focuses on two areas of cultural development, literatureand architecture, both direct expressions of Islamic beliefs.

"It's the transformation of the everyday into the extraordinary,"Bloom says. "unlike in the West, where we separate art from the rest oflife, and so you go to a museum and you see big pictures on the wall -or statues."

Bloom points out that Islamic cultures brought beliefs intopeople's lives. "Here, the art that we're talking about are the objectsof everyday life, of carpets and of ceramics and metal-wares."

In a dreamy mix of historical reenactments, scholarly interviews,and narration by actor Ben Kingsley, the series creates a deft andcompelling historic panorama, something that has become the hallmark ofthe "Empires" series. In three hours, it manages to show the rise of theprophet Muhammad; the early revelations and writings of the Islamic holybook, the Koran; the early persecution suffered by Muslims; and theearly battles fought by its followers.

It also details the swift expansion of the religion, its cultureand politics, which soon establishes an empire larger than Rome's.Albeit with a broad stroke, the documentary manages to include theflowering and eventual downfall of Islamic culture in the 16th century.That's a bit over 300 years per hour: Not a bad return for a singlenight's viewing.