File Name: The Qur'an (14th July 2008) [PDTV (Xvid)].avi
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In this fascinating and challenging documentary, award-winning filmmaker Antony Thomas, investigates how a text that has inspired peace, tolerance and creativity down the ages can be used to justify violence, terrorism and discrimination amongst a minority of Muslims.
Orthodox Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the word of God, his final revelation to humanity, dictated to the Prophet Muhammed nearly 1,500 years ago and written down some 20 years after his death.
The Qur'an provides Muslims with religious, political and ethical guidelines. As well as mentioning many of the prophets of the Old Testament, a whole chapter is named after Mary, and Jesus is mentioned by name more times in the Qur'an than Muhammed himself. Many Muslims describe the text in intimate terms, saying that they feel as if God is talking to them, personally. Part of the Qur'an's attraction is based on its message which gives dignity to the poorest and most oppressed people, who feel they have direct access to God.
There are over a billion Muslims in the world and they live in every corner of the globe. Although they share Islamic beliefs, their lives, cultures and traditions are very varied.
# In some Muslim societies, women's lives are restricted and segregated from the mainstream; in others women become political leaders.
# Some countries practise executions by stoning, hanging or beheading; in other countries these punishments have not been used for centuries.
# Some Muslims believe the martyr Imam Ali intercedes with God on their behalf; others see this as saint worship and therefore blasphemous.
# In some mosques, men and women worship side by side; in others women are completely excluded.
# In some places, women go out in public without scarves or veils; in others they are covered from head to toe, with even their faces covered.
The Qur'an is written in classical Arabic, which is hard even for Arabic speakers to understand. Because of this most Muslims rely on a preacher to convey the message of the text, which they interpret with the help of the Hadith. But this need for interpretation gives imams and other preachers the power to put their own spin on the words.
Tolerance and intolerance
Muslims see Jews and Christians along with themselves as 'People of the Book'. Like branches of the same tree, they share historic roots, with Abraham as their common forefather. But at the same time as preaching tolerance, the Qur'an describes Jews and Christians as having errant views. How this is played out in the actions of its followers depends on the context.
In the early days of Islam, Muslim peoples conquered huge areas and brought many more people into the faith. Even those enemies who fought back, and reconquered territories that had fallen to the Muslims, in turn were drawn to Islam.
In the period after the death of the prophet Muhammed, when Islam was in the ascendancy, the Qur'an acted as a springboard for an incredible leap in the development of Muslim art and architecture, science and medicine, mathematics and philosophy. Islam during that period was open, confident and tolerant. When it is under pressure, though, as it is in many parts of the world today, it tends to narrow its view and look inwards.
War, peace and petro-dollars
The Israel/Palestine conflict and the struggle for control of and access to the city of Jerusalem constitute a major source of distrust between Muslims, Jews and Christians today. Hard-line Islamic fundamentalists are capitalising on the sense of insecurity generated by Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestinian land, which is backed by the US and other western countries.
Islam has a long history of diversity and intellectual debate which is manifested in the huge variety of traditions. Today, though, they are in conflict with each other. Some Sufis express their relationship to God through music and dance; the Shi'a venerate the Imam Ali as an intermediary between the individual and God. For Sunni Muslims, though, God may not be described in human language, nor represented in any art form.
Saudi Arabia has its own clerical hierarchy, and the dominant religious message here is a belligerent and patriarchal Islam, know as Wahabism. Backed by immense oil wealth, the Saudis are attempting to impose their strict, rigid, narrow and, many would say, divisive interpretation of Islam on the whole Muslim world.
At its most basic, the Saudis are printing thousands of copies of their own translation of the Qur'an in 44 languages, and distributing them at low cost or free around the world.
On the opposite side of the religious divide, the Shi'a priestly caste that rules Iran has imposed a rigid orthodoxy on its population which is enforced by state violence in the form of a massive increase in public executions, floggings and hangings.
Challenges and choices
The imposition of such draconian and narrow rules on whole populations is at odds with the inclusive and evolving Islamic traditions that date right back to the time of the prophet Muhammed. Indeed, some western scholars are arguing that forensic analysis of a very early version of the Qur'an indicates that the text itself can be reinterpreted, and was probably not passed down word for word.
Today, new technology is able to bring the Qur'an to millions more people than ever before, but those who are trying to contort and narrow down its many meanings are using that technology to try to impose their own interpretation on Muslims everywhere.
'That,' says filmmaker Antony Thomas, 'is the paradox of the Qur'an. It speaks to Muhammad's 7th century tribal audience, and it speaks to a 21st century audience. It offers challenges and choices, not dictums, but if read carefully, one consistent message comes through: "Think and think again."'
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