PBS series ‘Life of Muhammad’ explores diverse opinions of prophet

The portrait of the Muslim prophet, which emerges from a PBS documentary “Life of Muhammad,” may surprise some American viewers.


“As major polls by Gallup, Pew, and others have reported, astonishing numbers of Americans, as well as Europeans, are not only ignorant of Islam but have deep fears and prejudices towards their Muslim populations,” said John Esposito, professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University who appears in the three-part series that debuts Tuesday (Aug. 20) on PBS.


Esposito praised the series’ “balance,” and its attempts to describe controversial aspects of the prophet’s life with a diversity of opinions.


Produced for the BBC in 2011, the series examines the world into which Muhammad was born and his marriage to his first wife, Khadijah. The second hour focuses on the “Night Journey to Jerusalem,” his departure from Mecca and the eight-year war with the Meccan tribes. The third analyzes events during his later life, including the introduction of the moral code known as Shariah and the concept of jihad.


Narrated by Rageh Omaar, a Somali-born journalist, the series presents Muhammad in a respectful, positive light, though it doesn’t shirk from the controversies that surround Muhammad, who was born in Mecca in 570 A.D.


Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at University of Oxford, says in the film, “We never represent or have any images of any of the prophets.”


Omaar’s signoff at the end of the three-hour documentary attempts to contextualize all of the stories—flattering and damning—surrounding the prophet.  “He left Arabia a better place than he found it,” Omaar says.

“New Muslim Cool” Takes Inside Look at Fusion of Islam and Hip-Hop

Produced in Association with Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB)
And the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)

“New Muslim Cool transcends race, ethnicity, class and religion. Like hip-hop culture, the film is all about irrepressible social transformation and empowerment.”
— Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Hip-Hop Summit Action Network

New Muslim Cool is Islam as you have never seen it. It is also hip-hop as you have probably never heard it. This new film, which opens the 22nd season of P.O.V., PBS’s award-winning nonfiction film series, gives audiences an insider’s view of a little-known cultural fusion between Muslims and street beats that has been developing since the very beginnings of hip-hop culture. The result is a surprising challenge to stereotypes of both Muslims and urban youth in America that encourages viewers to look critically at the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West.

Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s New Muslim Cool has its national broadcast premiere on P.O.V. on Tuesday, June 23, 2009, at 10 p.m. (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, P.O.V. received a 2007 Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking. The 2009 season of P.O.V. continues each Tuesday at 10 p.m. through Sept. 22, with two specials in November and January.

New Muslim Cool is more than another hybrid hip-hop story. It’s also the story of a man coming of age, facing his deepest questions about his faith, trying to keep his family safe and learning how to hold himself accountable. A decade ago, Hamza Pérez, born Jason, was a drug dealer on America’s mean streets. The child of Puerto Rican parents, he had two recurring, competing dreams at night: in one he was in prison by age 21, and in the other he was dead. New Muslim Cool is the story of how, as Hamza laughingly puts it, “both [dreams] came true,” albeit in unpredictable ways.

Indeed, when Hamza was 21, he was hanging out with friends and getting high when a chance encounter with an “old sheikh” transformed his life. The death he experienced was “a death of all my past, the negative,” he says. He gave up drugs and the street life and converted to Islam. He then went further, becoming active in forming a community of Latino and African-American Muslims, many of whom, like Hamza, were former street hustlers and drug dealers. The community ultimately moved from Massachusetts to Pittsburgh, Pa., with Hamza bringing along his son and, after the breakup of his first marriage, his daughter.

As part of their efforts to build a community that would reconcile their heritage with their new faith, Hamza and his brother, Sulíman, formed the rap group Mujahideen Team (M-Team). M-Team strives to use knowledge gained in the streets to put Islam’s religious message into a familiar context. Ultimately, Hamza would bring that message to prisons, fulfilling his other dream in a way he had never imagined.

Early on in the film, Hamza and Sulíman joke about the exotic hybridization their faith and community embody. “See, we don’t speak full Arabic,” says Hamza, “but we know Arabic Spanglish Ebonics.” The two men’s conversion has largely bewildered their family, who raised them as Roman Catholics. The family’s initial upset has been tempered by gratitude that the brothers’ new faith has gotten them off drugs and away from other dangerous pursuits. Yet the family also feels some discomfort over the tough lyrics Hamza and Sulíman use as M-Team.

With their unflinchingly critical words and intense stage performance — complete with flaming machetes — Hamza and Sulíman attempt to carve out a place for themselves in the tradition of protest poetry, up from the rawest roots of hip-hop. Within the Muslim hip-hop world, they are recognized as heirs to the tradition of artists like the Last Poets and Public Enemy, freely criticizing the government and many elements of modern society. But their music also draws scrutiny and eventually complicates Hamza’s life, even as he begins to grow and embrace a softer way of expressing himself.

The struggle to make his community thrive, raise his kids, build a new marriage and, paradoxically, deal with an FBI investigation of his group’s new mosque in Pittsburgh, Pa., all serve to deepen Hamza’s study of and thinking about Islam and the plight of the poor and imprisoned in America.

Hamza begins to reach out to prisoners, using his faith and struggles to inspire them. His work also leads him into surprising alliances with ministries of other religions that, like his own, seek to build a road to redemption from the nation’s jails.

Says director/producer Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, “New Muslim Cool came out of my long-standing interest in the power of pop music and culture to create social change and a deep feeling that we urgently need to look for common ground as our world grows increasingly diverse and interconnected. This is a story about who we all are as a country, making choices about our deepest values in tough times and continually redefining what it means to be American.”

New Muslim Cool is a production of Specific Pictures in association with Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB) and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).

About the Filmmaker:
Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, Producer/Director
Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s works explore the connection between the personal and the socio-political, and frequently feature Latino themes and Spanish-language content. Her documentary credits include “Paulina,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast by the Sundance Channel; the Emmy-winning “Home Front,” a co-production with KQED-TV San Francisco; “Immigration Calculations”; “Ramadan Primetime”; and, most recently, “Special Circumstances,” which will air nationally on PBS as part of the Voces series in 2009. She is a recipient of the James D. Phelan Art Award for her body of work.

She has produced short stories for the public television series “California Connected” and “Keeping Kids Healthy” and co-produced Sophia Constantinou’s history of Cyprus, “Divided Loyalties” for the Sundance Channel. Jennifer also worked as an associate and co-producer with Lourdes Portillo on Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena (P.O.V. 1999) and Señorita Extraviada (P.O.V. 2002), two award-winning documentaries that had their national broadcast premieres on PBS.

Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, Jennifer has worked throughout the United States, in Latin America and in Europe. She is a native Californian of Irish and Mexican heritage and was raised in Los Angeles and Vermont.

Producer/Director: Jennifer Maytorena Taylor
Co-producers: Kauthar Umar, Hana Siddiqi
Cinematographers: Davíd Sarasti, Jon Shenk, Mark Knobil
Editor: Kenji Yamamoto
Original Score: Chris Strollo
Additional Music: Herman “Soy Sos” Pearl, Junoon, Sean Jones, Rey Nieves

Running Time: 86:46


• San Francisco International Film Festival, March 2008
• Al Jazeera Documentary Film Festival, Doha, Qatar, April 2008
• Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, New York, June 2008
• Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Independents Night, New York, June 2008

“The Mosque in Morgantown” explores dilemmas facing American Muslims

Working in Pakistan after September 11, 2001, former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani faced a double shock. First came a surprise pregnancy and abandonment by the Pakistani man she thought would be her husband, then the murder of her dear friend and colleague Daniel Pearl at the hands of Muslim extremists. Still reeling and with a son to raise, she returned to her hometown in West Virginia and discovered the mosque had been taken over by men she saw as extremists. THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN chronicles what happens when she decides to fight back — unexpectedly pitting her against the mosque’s moderates. As the film unfolds, it tells a story of competing paths to social change, American identity, and the nature of religion itself.

Premieres June 15 on PBS

Official PBS Site
Film Site

(Courtesy of PBS)–Morgantown, West Virginia, is a university town of 30,000 nestled in the Appalachian Mountains—and the site of a brewing battle within the local mosque.

Journalist Asra Nomani glimpsed Islamic extremism up close when her dear friend and former Wall Street Journal colleague Daniel Pearl was murdered in Pakistan. When she returns home to West Virginia to raise her son, she believes she sees warning signs at the local mosque: exclusionism against women, intolerance toward non-believers, and suspicion of the West. Her resulting campaign against perceived extremism in the Islamic Center of Morgantown brings a storm of media attention, unexpectedly pitting her against the mosque’s moderates.

These would-be allies object to Asra’s methods and suspect her motives, seeking themselves a more conciliatory path to change. They say she has unfairly used the label of extremism and is working only to further her own career as a writer. It is not long before members put forward a petition to expel her from the mosque.

But Asra is unwavering. She believes intolerance in the mosque is the first step on a potential path to violence, and that Islam cannot afford to handle this problem with half-measures and diplomacy; the stakes require nothing less than a revolution. As her efforts to spark that revolution escalate to the national stage, many Muslims in the mosque and elsewhere begin to suspect she aims to reshape the religion into something that is no longer Islam.

The film also features Christine Arja, a convert to Islam who initially opposes Asra’s efforts but eventually becomes her only ally in the mosque; and Ihtishaam Qazi, a moderate mosque leader who becomes Asra’s strongest opponent as he struggles to balance competing viewpoints in the community.

THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN frames this local conflict as a lens to explore the larger dilemmas facing American Islam. It tells a story of competing paths to social change, American identity, and the nature of religion itself.

CAIR Partners With ‘20,000 Dialogues’

CAIR, a prominent national Islamic civil rights and advocacy group announced that it will partner with the 20,000 Dialogues campaign to bring together Americans from different faiths in communities across the country. 20,000 Dialogues is a project of the Unity Productions Foundation (UFF), and will use films about Muslims to stimulate discussion and promote understanding. The initiative is envisioned as a way to empower everyday people to take part in a dialogue to understand Muslims and Islam through interfaith dialogue. UFF launched 20,000 Dialogues in August 2007 with a program on PBS. At present, hundreds of dialogues have been conduced across the United States.

With 11-Part ‘Crossroads,’ PBS Looks Many Ways

CTION: STYLE; Pg. N01 DISTRIBUTION: Every Zone LENGTH: 958 words HEADLINE: With 11-Part ‘Crossroads,’ PBS Looks Many Ways; The Challenges of a Post-9/11 World Are Daunting. For the Next Six Nights, an Ambitious Series Resolutely Meets Them Head-On. BYLINE: Tom Shales; Washington Post Staff Writer BODY: “America at a Crossroads” answers the question “Is there still a purpose for public television?” And the 11-part PBS series replies in the affirmative, because it’s hard to imagine another national network that would attempt a project this ambitious, this challenging and this relatively esoteric. Starting tonight with two hours of “Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al-Qaeda” and concluding Friday with “Security vs. Liberty: The Other War” and “The Brotherhood,” this magnum opus tackles some of the toughest subjects of our time. “Crossroads” asks plenty of salient, crucial questions — and works slavishly to find sane, satisfying answers. Even the format and length of the special series are on the gutsy side: 12 hours over six consecutive nights of prime time. Several decades ago, CBS News aired a landmark report on “The Defense of the United States” — five hours over five nights, although not all in prime time — but the focus of “Crossroads” is more specific, and that gives it added urgency. When you’re at a crossroads, you have to do something; you can’t just watch the world go by and hope there aren’t collisions. “Crossroads” puts the dominant issues in the cross hairs, its goal occasionally just to make sense of Islamic radicals and what they envision as their global “cause.” The series’s more ambitious purpose is to hold a seemingly insoluble conflict up to the light and study it from as many angles as possible. The approach is bound to strike some viewers are flagrantly one-sided. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt by the other side to “understand” us — only to obliterate us. If communists were won over, or undone, by the allure of American pop culture — by tight jeans, catchy ditties and such inspirations as a bug-eyed talking sponge who works at an underwater diner — such magnetic entities are viewed as poison by, for lack of a better term, The Enemy. When Muhammad bin Laden — father of 54 children, one them Osama — studied American culture, he came away “appalled” at suburban America’s obsession with lawns, of all things — the meticulous and fastidious care and feeding thereof. Perhaps taking spectators literally, he reportedly shrank in horror at cries of “Kill him!” during a professional boxing match, and he generally considered Americans to be corrupted by the sorts of things the rest of the world envies. Viewers who’ve oohed and aahed over the scenic and natural wonders captured in high-def for Discovery Channel HD Theater’s eye-boggling “Planet Earth” will find the visual approach of “Crossroads” to be naturally austere by comparison. But although various producers and different creative teams worked on the various “Crossroads” segments, there are striking consistencies — chief among them a way to zoom out from one spot on the globe and then zoom in, way in, on another. At their most basic level, these zooms, from a vantage point in space, give you a welcome perspective on just where things are in relation to one another. It’s also a gee-whiz effect for its own sake. “Gangs of Iraq,” the segment airing Tuesday night, was co-produced by the “Crossroads” team and the producers of “Frontline,” one of the last of the current-events topical series on public TV. “Gangs” looks at the massive U.S.-sponsored training effort to get Iraqis to stand up for themselves in the defense of their country and its moderate, or at least non-radical, citizens. According to the report, the coalition-trained forces have themselves been infiltrated by extremists — thus increasing the challenge facing additional U.S. troops on their way to Baghdad. Also on Tuesday, “The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom” is largely a profile of former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, a one-man campaign on behalf of the U.S. effort in Iraq and the mission as he sees it — sharply contrasted with the views of Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Security vs. Liberty: The Other War,” one of the two concluding hour-long segments airing Friday night, was co-produced by ABC News, another sign of the magnitude of the production. Written, produced and directed by Edward Gray, “Security vs. Liberty” asks whether Americans have been “far too willing to sacrifice our basic liberties” in the name of “homeland” safety. Those basic liberties were in peril within hours after the airplanes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and this part of the report gives the impression that only the ACLU is doing much to prevent the further erosion of rights. The hour includes case studies of Americans whose profiles, as compiled in FBI computers, seemed to indicate possible terrorist ties — among them a Muslim pizza shop owner suspected of peddling missiles as well as pizza pies. Brave and indignant librarians in Connecticut stood up and protested when they received so-called “national security letters” that requested patrons records. The FBI not only makes its accusations in secret, but also often imposes a “gag order” on those charged so that they can’t seek the legal protections that are supposedly the right of every U.S. citizen. So many issues and conundrums arise during these reports on the war and its effects that the question of “what the title should be” keeps rising from the complexities and confusion. What’s the plural of “crossroads”? The so-called war on terror has stranded us not at one crossroads but at many — interlinked, entwined, perplexed. Six nights of examining the intricate issues and maddening dilemmas of the conflict might not “solve” anything, but we ought to at least come away with a clarified sense of how confused it has all become. America at a Crossroads begins tonight at 9 on Channels 22 and 26.