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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 13, 2002

Muhammad the man Muhammad the man (December 13, 2002)

A new documentary by Menlo Park director spotlights the founder of Islam

by Robyn Israel

M ichael Schwarz admits he knew virtually nothing about the subject of his new television documentary when he signed on for the project three years ago.

A college graduate who had lived in a Muslim country (Malaysia) for two years, Schwarz had never entered a mosque and was very ignorant about who Muhammad was, save that he is considered the father of Islam and that he led Muslims back to Mecca.

"I couldn't have even told you what century he lived in. I knew about the politics of the religion, but I didn't know about its spiritual underpinnings," the Menlo Park resident said in a recent interview. "Most of what I did know was colored by the same stereotypes and misconceptions that are common in Western society. He's a figure shrouded in mystery."

"Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet," produced and directed by Schwarz, attempts to demystify the man who founded Islam 1,400 years ago. Interweaving 7th-century biography with the lives of 21st-century American Muslims, the two-hour documentary shines a spotlight on the man revered by 1.2 billion people in the world. It premieres on Wednesday on KQED. Actor Andre Braugher ("Homicide") will narrate the film.

Schwarz became interested in the project after receiving a phone call from his friend, Michael Wolfe, a Santa Cruz-based poet and author who had written two well-known books on the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Wolfe became well-known and trusted in the Muslim community after reporting on the Hajj for "Nightline" in 1997 -- a watershed moment for American Muslims, Schwarz said.

"Many felt it was the first time television had covered the spiritual side of the religion, rather than the politics and violence associated with it," Schwarz said of the Emmy-nominated program that continues to be a best-selling video.

"Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" also aims to address Islam's spiritual side, with a clear focus on the man whose influence extends to 6 million American Muslims. Created and produced by Wolfe and Alexander Kronemer, it is geared for a predominantly non-Muslim audience.

"Many Muslims say, 'If you want to understand who I am as a Muslim, the best place to start is with the story of Muhammad,'" Schwarz said. "They model their lives on his teachings -- not just in the way they sit or pray or greet each other, but it also extends to their moral and ethical behavior. They say he's a living presence."

For Schwarz, who been making award-winning television programs for more than 20 years (his resume includes three Emmy Awards), the three-year project was an educational experience that left him with a new understanding of Muhammad, a very human and humorous man who claimed to be the prophet of God.

"I think he was a rich, multidimensional character. He was a real man, an extraordinary leader who was strong, gentle and compassionate. And I really got hooked on the story. In purely dramatic terms, it's a really compelling story," said Schwarz, who worked at KQED/San Francisco for eight years before leaving in 1996 to found Kikim Media, based in San Carlos.

Born in Mecca into the powerful Quraysh tribe, Muhammad was orphaned by the time he was six years old. Aided by a powerful uncle, he became a successful trader and, at the age of 25, married Khadija, a 40-year-old widow who was a wealthy merchant. Together they raised a family of four children (two others died in infancy). But as he prospered, Muhammad saw that the poor of Arabia were increasingly neglected and hedonism and paganism dominated the culture.

One day, while meditating in a mountain cave, he began to recite words that he said were from God. Muhammad, who could not read or write, was at first terrified by these revelations and thought he was possessed.

"The words had a structure and a complexity that no one had heard before. It was like he was inventing a new language," Schwarz said.

These messages would continue throughout the rest of his life and would ultimately form the basis of the Koran. Muhammad advocated monotheism and championed the virtues of compassion, fairness and social justice.

"He appealed to the young, to women, to slaves -- the more marginalized people in society," Schwarz said. "He had support among people who felt they weren't getting a fair shake."

Many Muslims today believe Muhammad is the perfect man, Schwarz said.

"Not that he was flawless; in fact, some of the most interesting passages in the Koran correct his behavior. But he's experienced everything there is to experience in life -- he married, had children, lost children, had triumphs and setbacks," Schwarz said. "Muslims think no matter what challenge you face, there's some aspect of Muhammad's life you can look to for guidance."

One of the biggest challenges in telling Muhammad's story, Schwarz said, was the inability to show any images of the main character, his family or his associates. Muhammad asked Muslims not to create any such images in order to discourage idolatry (even though some images do exist, most Muslims consider them extremely offensive). But the team was granted rare access to Mecca, where they filmed over a two-week period during the 2001 Hajj.

The only catch?

Only Muslims can travel to Mecca, which made it impossible for Schwarz -- a Jew -- to film in the sacred city (the taboo also restricted "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel from covering the Hajj in 1997).

To circumvent the restriction, Schwarz hired Omar al Qattan, a London-based Muslim director, to film the scenes in Mecca. Born in Palestine and raised in Kuwait, al Qattan understood the language and culture, but was also familiar with Western media and American story-telling conventions. And Schwarz felt confident al Qattan could work under the conditions of the Hajj, which floods Mecca with 3 million people each year.

"It was a pretty specific need we had and he was the person who best fit it, we thought," Schwarz said.

But Schwarz stressed that "Muhammad" came together through an interfaith effort that included Muslims, Jews, Christians and Sikhs (Schwarz's wife, Kiki Kaur Kapany, a Sikh, served as production manager) -- as well as atheists and agnostics.

Two-thirds of the film had already been shot when Sept. 11 occurred, throwing the project into disarray. Schwarz was left wondering how they would raise the remaining funds needed for the project, which had relied on grass-roots level donations from individual Muslims. Hostility towards their subject was another concern. And an even bigger question loomed: Should the documentary address the events of Sept. 11?

"I pretty quickly decided we had to," Schwarz said. "I felt we had to acknowledge 9/11; if we didn't, the film wouldn't have had a credibility."

But how to address Sept. 11 without detracting focus from the main subject, Muhammad? The answer, Schwarz said, lay in profiling Muslim Americans who had been personally affected by the terrorist attacks, such as New York fire marshal Kevin James and critical care nurse Najah Bazzy.

"Each had a connection to 9/11, but framed that experience in terms of their own understanding of Muhammad," Schwarz said.

When asked why Islam is the country's fastest-growing religion, Schwarz replied with the paused gave various reasons.

"Part of the growth is attributable to immigration, with many Muslims fleeing persecution from their countries. Many immigrants say they come to America because they can practice Islam here free of the political baggage they have in other countries. Many American Muslims think that this is the place where Islam can achieve its fullest expression.

"And the core values of Islam are in the end quintessentially American values -- fairness, justice, giving everyone a fair shake.

"Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on KQED. The documentary is produced by Kikim Media and Unity Productions Foundation.


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