2016-06-30
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(RNS) Mention the word "Islam" and many Americans envision images of Koran-quoting, gun-toting extremists. A stunning new PBS documentary airing next Tuesday (May 8, check local listings) aims to change all that by focusing on the glories of Islamic culture.

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

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

The Iranians created hundreds of period costumes and staged the many historical reenactments that give the documentary its compelling power and 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 long after the three-hour documentary has ended.

"Over the centuries, Islamic culture has enjoyed tremendous wealth and power, which allowed for the construction of mosques that make tremendous architectural statements about the glory of God," says Gardner, who was raised as an Episcopalian but is "extremely open to the spiritual beliefs of other people.

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

Beginning with the birth of Muhammad around 570 and continuing through the death of Ottoman ruler Suleyman the Magnificent in 1566, the program examines Islam's first millennium rather than contemporary conflicts like those between Palestinians and Jews or American oil consumers and Middle Eastern producers.

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

In the process, the documentary shows how the faith that now has more than 1 billion adherents -- or nearly one quarter of the world's population -- 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 social justice and religious tolerance.

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

"At a time when unwashed Europeans in northern forests wore leather jerkins and ate roast game and gruel when they weren't beating each other over the head with clubs to solve disputes, bathed and perfumed Muslims inhabited splendid palaces with running water and sanitation systems, dressed in silken robes, and ate haute cuisine off fine porcelain, while sitting on plush carpets discussing the subtleties of ancient Greek philosophy."

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

For centuries these tensions have boiled over in Jerusalem, and one of 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 Christian Crusaders with the magnanimity of Islamic ruler Saladin, who didn't retaliate against Christian residents when he reclaimed Jerusalem after 1187, Gardner portray Islam's enemies fairly.

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

For American viewers, the program arrives at a time when it may be increasingly important to reassess old stereotypes of an ancient faith and culture.

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

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

The documentary is part of PBS's acclaimed "Empires" series, and people who want to know more about Islam's history and culture can visit a companion Web site (www.pbs.org/empires).

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