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How Muhammad Migrated to America On Translating Mythologies

How Muhammad Migrated to America

by OMAR AL-QATTAN

Vilified by the now-predictably rabid Daniel Pipes, criticised by Time Magazine and the New York Times as too soft on its subject, Muhammad ­ Legacy of a Prophet, shown on December 18th on PBS, was nonetheless widely praised by most commentators and has attracted huge support from the US public. In the essay below, Palestinian-British director OMAR AL-QATTAN offers his own account of the making of the film.

My paternal grandfather, an illiterate orange tradesman, dreamt of building a mosque in his hometown of Jaffa where his son, my own father, would be the serving sheikh. My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, the son of bankrupted Palestinian landowners who had studied in Istanbul after the First World War, had modernizing ideas about Islam and drank three whiskies every night.

As a schoolboy in Jerusalem, my father, whose first name means Slave of the Gracious, was told by his reforming head master to drop the slave prefix and stick to the gracious. "You are a slave to no one", he told him. On the other side of town, a few years later, my mother found herself quarantined in a convent after the death of her mother from TB and her father’s incarceration by the British colonial authorities. It was an experience that would mark her deeply: although a Muslim girl, she adored the rituals despite the cruelty of some of the sisters and still wears a wistful expression whenever she happens to hear church music.

With such a varied and eccentric religious inheritance, I grew up in an atmosphere that was as skeptical and sarcastic about religion as it was immersed in it. Even in Beirut, my native city where I lived to the age of eleven, and where eighteen different religious groups competed for our attention in a political system that was partly secular partly confessional, it was difficult to escape the various religious mythologies. I was enrolled in a French-speaking Protestant school; our nanny was a Maronite Christian; we had a Muslim Sheikh appear every Sunday morning for religious instruction, ruining our weekends; my friends hailed from a variety of eccentric religious backgrounds: Sunni or Shia Muslim, Druze, Armenian, Greek or Russian Orthodox and so on.

Then there was my father’s hero, a brilliant, eloquent and brave businessman turned political and religious leader of the Arabs, the Prophet Muhammad. My father never prayed or fasted but he clung and still clings to a Muslim identity that is less to do with ritual or belief and more to do with language, history and political example. A successful businessman and exile himself, living in an Arab world in conflict and turmoil, and having lost his homeland as a young man, it is easy to understand why a practical and secular man like him identifies so closely with Muhammad’s successful political career, much more so I suspect than with Muhammad’s spiritual message.

My mother always jokes that Muhammad must invariably crop up at their dinner parties, usually after the meal. There are my father’s set pieces ­ how Muhammad dealt with the skeptical Bedouins, how he neutralized the Jewish tribes, how he always made the right strategic decisions and so on. She sits silently through these anecdotes ­ sometimes relishing his story-telling talents, sometimes betraying her skepticism with a wry smile.

But unfortunately, political circumstances in the Middle East in the last thirty years were to force Muhammad and Islam out of the imaginary world of my father’s stories to a much harsher, more complex and turbulent reality. First, there was the Lebanese Civil War, which was to explode both my happy childhood in Beirut and to dispel any illusions of secular co-existence in the region. Then the Iranian Revolution, which suddenly pitted religious and secular groups and regimes against each other and culminated in the deadly Iran-Iraq War and the rise of modern political Islam all over the Middle East.

In 1975, I was sent to boarding school in England following the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon. In my newly adopted culture, I could of course have gradually shed my cultural inheritance and disengaged from the Arab and Muslim world. Indeed, as a teenager in a London school, I did, for a while, turn my back on all things from back home. I wanted to be nothing but a normal English public school boy, whatever that notion meant. But somehow ­ I still don’t really know why ­ I left school and spent my year off studying Arabic and the Qur’an with a sympathetic sheikh in Cairo. It was 1982 ­ the year of General Sharon’s invasion and devastation of my home town, Beirut, the year also when the Sabra and Shatilla massacres made it impossible for anyone with the most tenuous bond to the Arab world to turn away from its people’s predicaments.

At home, Muhammad seemed to loom ever larger. Indeed, never more did we all seem so desperate for the kind of leadership that Muhammad provided to his people in the 7th century. At the same time, the prospect of an Iranian or Afghani-imported political Islam horrified us, stripped, as it seemed to us at the time, of its cultural or linguistic heritage. But we were wrong: this had less to do with Iran and Afghanistan, more to do with the modern world, oil politics and the Cold War. Muhammad was now an Afghani mujahid, an Iranian mystic, an Egyptian soldier foolhardy enough to assassinate Anwar Sadat ­ no longer my childhood hero, but a firmly modern and determined contemporary. In my mind, he had now entered history as I knew it.

Around us in Europe, another phenomenon also began to appear ­ the immigrant mujahid or radical. My first encounter with one was through an Algerian girl friend in Paris, in reality a liberated French woman who nonetheless did not find it strange that her uncle had left France to join the mujahideen in Afghanistan. I had always found immigrant Islam uncomfortable. American Muslim converts, even today, are often looked upon by many Arabs as endearing eccentrics though this is changing rapidly with the overwhelming majority of them now originating from the Muslim world. I would call this a kind of cultural territorialism: if you were not culturally Muslim, then you could not be Muslim at all. I still marvel at London girls who wear mini-skirts, speak nothing but English, drink wine and sleep with men, yet observe the fast during Ramadan, or their equally promiscuous male counterparts who perform their Friday prayers and insist on marrying virgins!

But of course, this view is naïve. Religions and cultures are not unchanging monoliths, but indefinable masses, volatile waves that rise and shift and fall and usually drag you along with them. You can duck them, or let them draw you down, but you cannot avoid them. And strangely, like my own memories of riding waves as a child, they fill you with a mixture of panic and elation.

Inevitably, the first film I made for television was about one woman’s struggle with her religious environment. But little did I ever imagine that I would, ten years later, be invited to work on a film about Muhammad by a group of American Muslims.

It happened on a beautiful summer afternoon by the Californian coast at a small town called Santa Cruz. Two of the principal producers were there, both white converts with mystical or hippy pasts of some sort. There was also the executive producer, a sarcastic New Yorker rediscovering his Jewishness (a reformed atheist, I joked). A hungry flock of Sooty Shearwaters was hovering over the ocean, ready to fish the shoals of anchovy that had drifted to the coast. "But you realize I am an atheist" I told them. "No matter, no matter", they exclaimed. I suspected that they were more interested in finding a director who, as a Muslim, could enter Mecca than in my artistic talents, but the offer was too exciting to refuse. So, I said yes.

A couple of months later, I went to Saudi Arabia with two of the producers for a first scouting trip. I had already visited Mecca in 1982 and had abhorred its barrenness and the ugly architecture around the Kaba commissioned by the Wahabi regime. But this time, we were to travel to all the places of significance to Muhammad’s life, including Medina, Taïf, and Khaybar.

Saudi Arabia is an astonishingly beautiful country ­ much of it uninhabited. Apart from the ultra-modern cities and highway system, it remains primitive, majestic and awe-inspiring in its vastness. There is also something pagan about its landscape, which contrasts uncomfortably with the puritanical but modern, American-built and designed Wahabi cities.

After the Gulf War, the country had an uncomfortable though heavily dependent relationship with all things American, but one of my co-producers had covered the Hajj for ABC Television, the other had appeared the following year on CNN, so both were instantly recognized and approved by the authorities (who, needless to say, were keeping a close watch on us). And though I expected my American colleagues to be curiously out of place there, it was I, the real Muslim so to speak, who did not quite fit in! This made me occasionally feel resentful, but the trip was so interesting that I soon forgot my resentment and tried to make geographical and historical sense of the Muhammad story. What I should have instantly realized was not that my companions were in any way anachronistic but that the country itself ­ at least on an official level and among the elites ­ had become strongly Americanized, despite the apparent religious rigor of its regime.

This alliance of puritanical Wahabism and liberal American imperialism should, with hindsight, not be surprising. Anthropologically, the strongest common element is perhaps to be found in their attitude to history and popular culture ­ in the case of the Wahabis, a one-dimensional, moralistic vision of their religious heritage and in the case of Islam as it is exported to America, a desire to ignore the history and ethnographic manifestations of alien cultures in order to better absorb them into the American way of life. There is also the tendency of all empires to penetrate and overwhelm the cultures of those countries which they either invade or with which they have unequal alliances.

The phenomenon I am describing is of course fraught with danger. There is no single American vision of the region and there have been many brilliant and nuanced examples of American scholarship about it. There have also been many important shifts in American policy in the Middle East in the last century and a half that have been reflected and have in turn influenced cultural representations of Islam, the Arabs and Israel within America. What the experience of this film has shown me though is the way the American empire at the dawn of the twenty-first century, and, in parallel, certain cultural representations within America, are dealing with Islam. The similarity with Wahabi ideology, I was to find out, is uncanny.

The Wahabi approach to Islam is painfully evident in the systematic destruction of religious relics. From the 1920′s onwards, when the Wahabi-inspired Al Saud family began to rule all of modern-day Saudi Arabia, almost every building related to Muhammad’s life was either destroyed or left in ruin, with the sole exception of the Prophet’s Tomb in Medina and of course the Ka’aba. The ideological justification for this is simple: no object or building with historical links to the Prophet or his companions, however old and valuable, should be allowed the status of shrine, relic, or such symbolic religious value as to run the risk of being used by the faithful in an idolatrous way. The word in the Qur’an for this kind of idolatry is "shirk" or, roughly translated, "partnership or equality with God", for God ­ the absolute, abstract God of monotheism has no equal. It is an impressive proposition, but its consequences are devastating for Islam’s historical patrimony.

Today, many people in the Hijaz ­ the large swathe of western Arabia which includes Mecca and Medina, harbor considerable resentment about the philistine behavior of their rulers. One such man was Dr Said (not his real name), an amiable, aristocratic architect with a deep passion for the beloved Mecca of his childhood. Said was our guide through the virtual, invisible geography of Muhammad’s life. With him, we spent an extraordinary day looking at the unseen remains of the 7th century, which have been buried under the vast expansion of the Ka’aba and its surroundings, undertaken in the last decade by the Saudi government (and ironically executed by no other than the Ben Laden contracting empire to which the infamous Ossama once belonged). We visited a small library just outside the perimeters of the Ka’aba complex and were told, in whispers, that this is where the Prophet was born. Later, I used the near-by toilets and was told that in their place once stood the house of Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife.

But nowhere was this telescopic and devastating approach to the Prophet’s life and to early Islamic history better illustrated than in Medina. Next to the Prophet’s Mosque, there is a massive graveyard known as the al-Baqi cemetery, where many of the Prophet’s relatives and companions are said to be buried. In the 1930s, the Saudi authorities ordered the removal of all the tombstones so that today it looks like an expanse of desert dotted with thousands of unmarked, pointy stones. The reason? Again, the fear that the faithful would flock to these graves and use them as shrines, instead of directing their prayers to God and God alone.

The only exceptions to this destruction were the Prophet’s tomb as well as those of his two immediate caliphs, Abu Bakr and Omar, but even these are enclosed in two dark inaccessible rooms and are guarded by austere religious policemen who will chide you if they see you involved in any idolatrous behavior, such as crying or praying to the Prophet, or lingering for too long.

In a sense, making a film about Muhammad poses some very difficult visual challenges. There is of course the ban on representing him or his companions and the general disapproval of painting people in much of the Muslim ­ especially Sunni ­ dogma. But the disappearance or complete change in the architecture of Muhammad’s Arabia significantly complicates the challenge. When we returned to America for our pre-production meetings, this became very clear. What do we show? How, in fact, does one translate the 7th century, to an audience in the 21st century, in the virtual absence of visual or pictorial evidence? The British series producer came up with the wonderful idea of telling the story through interesting contemporary Muslims, preferably well-known figures such as the South African jazz musician Abdullah Ibrahim or singer Salif Keita. I proposed using the rituals of Islam that have a direct bearing to the Prophet’s life, such as the celebrations of the Night of Power (laylatul al-qadr), the night in the month of Ramadan when the Prophet is said to have received the first revelation.

Our Muslim-American producers wanted "eternal" images ­ deserts, full moons, vast landscapes, but we persuaded them that these alone would not be enough to tell the story in two hours. They were also keen not to linger on any of the thornier issues of Muhammad’s life, such as his many marriages, his unhappy relationship with the Jewish tribes of Medina, or the story of the Satanic Verses, for fear of offending their funders who were mostly American Muslims. It was left to our executive producer to find a compromise.

In the end, a solution was found in which, to use the series producer’s musical metaphor, the bass line would mark the principal stations of the Prophet’s life according to the most important themes, and the treble line would comprise of sequences with contemporary Muslims whose work bears a direct relationship to the Prophet’s example.

We filmed during the annual pilgrimage of the Hajj. Filming in Saudi Arabia was so difficult that we were later obliged to shoot many sequences in Jordan in places which could evoke a sense of 7th century western Arabia. And in the end, the Saudi authorities were so worried about the film that they didn’t even let us return to film in Medina and the north.

As a result, the treble line or contemporary elements in the film took on added importance. Then September 11 happened and a new imperative was imposed on the project: the defense of America’s Muslim community, many members of which appear in the final version ­ a New York fireman convert, a campaign manager for a black Senator, an Egyptian-American law professor, and so on.

So we ended up with a film which is more about American Islam today than about the Prophet’s life in 7th century Arabia. As Walter Benjamin put it, "events in the past have been recognized by the present as one of its concerns." Yet you can imagine how strange and disheartening this is to me, while at the same time how interesting an example it is of the translation of a centuries-old religious mythology to a new language. Muhammad is now mostly disembodied, timeless, abstracted from his 7th century environment and, thanks to Saudi censorship, the geography and the space in which he moved has disappeared. Moreover, the ethnographic Muhammad, as he has been inherited by the Muslim peoples of the East, is also absent. He is now fully absorbed into an American value system: tolerant, hard working, sentimental ­ a good father, husband and citizen.

Such overpowering translations are not new. After all, the Founding Fathers recognized a reflection of their own struggle in the Book of Exodus. The civil rights movement saw in modern-day Zionism echoes of its own fight for independence and freedom. The Black Arts movement claimed Tutankamen as an "African" king and the Black Panthers completely appropriated Islam for their struggle. What is important though is not make counter-claims for a "real" Islam ­ there is no such thing ­ but to insist on the importance of a skeptical, scientific and historical reading of mythology.

Of course, the Muhammad of my father’s imagination also virtually disappears in the film. I am left wondering whether this is really such a bad thing, though I try to imagine the feelings of those Palestinian or Egyptian peasants who saw their Christian heritage absorbed by the Byzantine Empire in the 4th century and changed beyond recognition! But I am nonetheless left with a strong feeling of cultural bereavement, and the need to fight for an alternative historical scholarship of Islam and its history ­ based on research, excavation and proper enquiry, rather than the abstract, telescopic and soulless rigor of the Wahabi-American version.

Thanks to Michael Wolfe for the ornithological tips.

OMAR AL-QATTAN is a Palestinian-British filmmaker living in London. He worked as director on Muhammad ­ Legacy of a Prophet, which was broadcast on PBS on 18 December 2002. He is currently co-producing a film, co-directed by an Israeli and a Palestinian, on the disastrous consequences of the 1947 UN decision to partition Palestine. sindibad64@hotmail.com

© OMAR AL-QATTAN2002