Thursday, July 24, 2008

Channel 4's "The Qur'an"

A few days ago I had the opportunity to watch a documentary called "The Qur'an" by Anthony Thomas on Channel 4. I can't say I had high expectations for it, but I felt whatever hopes I had for it were dashed the further the program progressed. I think the subject matter was handled with enormous respect, and for a Western program which is trying to promote a better understanding of the Qur'an, it is a remarkably good effort. Still, I felt he could have done much better with the people he had been interviewing. I don't remember the name of the Egyptian woman and human rights activist he interviewed, but I do remember that there was absolutely nothing of value in anything she said. She might be an expert in something, but to just say that 30 years ago she had never seen a single Hejab in Cairo verges on the ridiculous. What does that mean exactly? The hejab did no exist? Did she mean that things were better then because it was not? Things are worse now? The way she spoke, emphasising drama over detail, reminded me more of women like Ayan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan and Irshad Manji and throughout the program I felt she did not belong at all. Still, the part on the position of women was one of the better ones.

Anthony interviewed some remarkable women who had chosen to wear different forms of the hejab and their arguments were very convincing. I don't personally think the hejab is necessary at all but I understand the views they gave and they were extremely intelligent and articulate. I remember that he was interviewing a woman who had been a lawyer but given it up to wear a full hejab and look after her family. He had gently tried to trip her up by asking loaded questions such as how she felt about giving that all up and whether it was worth it. I was most impressed with her answers and the English subtitles just didn't convey the amusement she had with his condescending questions, perhaps he didn't think that female Arab lawyers were as good as those on Boston Legal? For myself I don't agree that she had to stop her job or that she should cover her hair and face but I've learnt not to play verbal chess with lawyers! If she finds a good reason for doing that then I commend her on her choice.

Overall, at a time when Islam and Muslims are under attack throughout the world, I think it is good to tackle and clarify the areas which are being concentrated on. The Hejab was one common argument but female circumcision is also frequently used to attack Islam, mistakenly. I was horrified with the video and the terror in the girls voice shook me, but there is no religious sanction whatsoever for this practice. I can grant that some think it desirable if they are from a culture which practices it, even women who have had it done to themselves, but the horrific way it is carried out is absolutely shocking and inexcusable.

I think the final part was concerned with ways of interpreting the Quran and I found that it was the part which annoyed me the most. Firstly they had a man who belonged to some interfaith dialogue group in America. He had the alacrity to say that the Qur'an has something in it for everyone, likening it to a supermarket!?! Nothing he said later in the program registered with me as I knew then that he was a total buffoon. The Sufi Sheikh they had put on was also remarkably naive and ignorant in what he said, one point he made amongst many is basically that the children of Abraham are all one and that we worship the same God. There comes a point in any religion when the distinction between you and those who do not believe in the same thing becomes clear. At the most, people of different religious convictions can come to terms with coexisting with one another, but certainly not to the point of acknowledging the complete truth in the others belief. In doing so, they would undermine their own faith, which they truly do believe in and that offers them answers to their place in the world and their relationship to their deity. I say this generally about the different faiths but basically a Jew does not accept Jesus as the Messiah, Christians think Jesus is God and Muslims do genuinely believe that the Jews are those "Allah is angry with" and that the Christians are those who have "strayed". It will always be like this, deal with it.

Thomas paid a lot of attention to the ridiculous section on the discovery of Qur'ans in an old Mosque in Yemen. I get the impression he was trying to stick in an Islamic style Da Vinci code debate about the nature of the Quran, complete with masked identity for author of a 'dangerous' text which made the claim that if one interprets the Qur'an in a Syriac or Aramaic (can't remember which) language, we get very different interpretations. I won't deny or confirm these as I don't know enough, but to make such a claim but then not back it up during the program was poor taste indeed. Also, he seemed to think it was big news that old Arabic did not have dots or any markings to distinguish the letters yet it has always been common knowledge that this was the case so I don't understand why he presented this as something new. In particular, he said that words can have up to thirty different meanings and this might impact how we understand the Qur'an, yet he did not give us one example of where this would be the case. We are expected to take what he said for granted. I for one would have been curious to see which verses would have been radically changed if a dot was erased or added and where it still appears like a possibly valid reading.

Overall, the documentary reinforced, perhaps unwittingly, the now common misconception that the Qur'an was an extremely difficult text to read or interpret, when it is not. What we do suffer from is an overall degradation of the level of Arabic in the Arab world which has become more accute since the seventies and this is what makes many susceptible to not only the rantings of lunatics, but also to Europeans and Americans who would rather we read books written by them than read this very very dangerous and empowering text that has changed the world. The Qur'an is there for those who want its message.


Arabista said...

Great analysis Wassim...though I did find the bit about Christoph Luxenburg's research interesting...I don't necessarily agree with it but it's always fascinating to see what's out there

Jabz said...

yes the documentary was really good and for those who don't know anything about islam I think it shed light and explained some of the misconceptions.. which was good.. and good stuff wassim..

Wassim said...

Thanks Arabista,
It was interesting for a bit yes, but I just got a bit annoyed as I constantly hear people harp on that each word in the Qur'an has thirty meanings, yet when probed, they can't seem to give one, let alone that many, in the first place! I'm not denigrating Luxenburg's research as I haven't read it, but more information should have been given.

Always welcome habibi. Yeah it wasn't bad at all and I don't want to give the impression it was rubbish, but sometimes the devil is in the detail. Small mistakes here could give someone false beliefs which later down the line can harm the way they think on a subject.

qunfuz said...

My biggest problem with the programme was the section on Palestine. I wouldn't have expected the film to deal properly with palestine as well as everything else, but since it did try to show the place of Palestine in generating Muslim anger, it should have done it properly. The dispute was painted as a dispute between two equal parties who both have religious myths focussing on the same land. No mention of the key fact in the conflict: the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 48, and the apartheid system which now exists. Even Palestinian casualty rates were more than hallved (he said 2000 have been killed since 2000) which made me very suspicious.

I must say I liked the Sufi though! Such statements can easily be co-opted by western governments (the 'moderate face of Islam' - they just want to dance and sing while we bomb them!) but still have their place. Great men such as Rumi said similar things.

poshlemon said...


I heard about this documentary from my friends but as I am currently outside the UK, I never got to see it. So thanks for your detailed overview of what the documentary was about.

Two important issues came up. First, I agree with you (I hope I understood you very well) on the issue of hijab. In my humble understanding of the quranic verses dealing with the term 'hijab' and also the ahadeeth, I think the hijab is not a religious duty, so forth.

Another issue is that Christians believe that Jesus is God. This is a fallacy I wouldn't have expected from you. I am sure you were writing in general terms.

Wassim said...

Hi Posh,
I was indeed being general as I know the concept of the trinity is much more complex than that. I've spoken with quite a few people including a Jesuit priest in training and it is certainly not as simplistic as I put it, then again it was not too far from that either...I hope it wasn't too offensive!