Muslims: An Overview

At the heart of The Islam Project is a pair of two-hour documentary films, MUHAMMAD: LEGACY OF A PROPHET and MUSLIMS. These films aired on PBS December 18 and 19, 2002.

The materials on this site reflect and in some cases expand upon the content of those films, and the films are excellent resources for classroom use with these materials, or on their own. To find out how to order the documentaries, click here.

This overview is a preview of the content of MUSLIMS. To explore the film in greater depth and read the words of some of those who were interviewed for the film, click on any of the live links in the text. Some of these quotations might also be used to start and guide classroom discussions.

The events of September 11 left many Americans asking how such atrocities could be perpetrated in the name of religion: specifically, the religion of Islam. Yet even as U.S. opinion polls reflect a collective sense of mistrust toward a religion few Americans know much about, Islam continues to be one of the fastest growing religions in the United States and around the world today.

What does it mean to be a Muslim? How do Muslims reconcile the pressures of modern life with their Muslim traditions? Does Islam deserve its reputation as a patriarchal, authoritarian and anti-western religion? And what role does militancy play in the Muslim world?

These are among the questions explored by MUSLIMS, a two-hour film examining the fundamental tenets of Islam and the different faces of its worldwide resurgence. With reports from Iran, Nigeria, Egypt, Malaysia, Turkey and the United States, MUSLIMS illuminates the differing perspectives, conflicts, and tensions shaping the lives of Muslims today.

The documentary begins at Cairo's Al Azhar Mosque, claimed to be the oldest University in the world. We meet Sheikh Abdul Mauwith, an Islamic scholar who mans the phones of Al Azhar's Fatwa committee. He issues edicts to Muslims wanting to know what is right and wrong under Islamic or Shariah Law. In a society increasingly shaped by Western influence, he encourages Muslims to hold fast to the traditions of Islam.

The film places the Sheikh's struggle in a global context. Across the Islamic world, Muslims are confronted with the political, economic and cultural influence of a dominant West. As Chandra Muzaffer of Malaysia's Just World Trust explains, "Some Muslims have become very conscious of the fact of dominance and they have become exclusive, they have become inward looking ... they have become reactive and sometimes very aggressive."

Akbar Muhammad, Associate Professor of History at State University, New York, sees a desire by Muslims to return to a life that is not shaped by Western influences, that is truer to an Islamic vision of the world.

In Nigeria, the film explores this desire for a more authentic way of life. Dr. Datti Ahmad, President of the Supreme Council on Sharia argues that for Muslims, Islam is everything. "Islam is our culture ... we have no other culture. Anything that is un-Islamic you find is not accepted". In the predominantly Muslim north of the country, an increasing number of states have reintroduced full Sharia Law, with its criminal punishments of amputations, floggings and public executions. "In the West I think the emphasis is on human freedom" says lawyer, Muzzammil Hanga. "The overall emphasis in Islamic law is on communal harmony". He says the introduction of Shariah Law was necessary due to increased lawlessness. Hanga also challenges the West's perception of Islam. "With the event of September 11th, the West is frantically trying to establish two worlds ... the forward looking western world, and the backward, in quotes, uncivilized, in quotes, Islamic world."

The film moves to Iran, where a modern nation state was reconstructed according to Islamic principles. Turkish sociologist, Nilufer Gole explains that, "radical Islam, which shaped the Iranian Revolution, was the basic idea of the Islamization of the whole of society ... starting from your inner world but going to your mode of government--Sharia, the Islamic State." Through the eyes of Hadavi Tehrani, one of Iran's youngest Ayatollahs, the film shows the blend of Islamic traditions and modern lifestyles at the heart of Iranian society. "People in America ... are thinking that they are the standard of life," maintains Tehrani. "They should understand the difference in traditions. The differences of the cultures ... if they understand this then we will reach to a better circumstance for dialogue." A family man, Tehrani believes in traditional male-female roles, although he also supports education and jobs for women.

In Iran the film also meets Hadi Semati, a Professor of Political Science at Tehran University. Semati was once a young revolutionary but is now an adviser to Iran's President Khatami and a leading advocate of reform. "We had too many expectations at the beginning of Islam that it would respond to everything, would solve every question," he says. "Islam gives you a direction, gives you a light, so to speak. It gives you a sense of belonging".

Malaysian commentator Chandra Muzaffer explains that, "there are also Muslims who say that in the midst of globalization, you have to reassert the essence of Islam ... its universalism, its inclusiveness, its accommodative attitude, it's capacity to change and to adapt while retaining the essence of faith."

The struggle between Muslim traditionalists and those favoring a more contemporary interpretation of the faith is being waged in almost every Muslim country. In Malaysia, Zainah Anwar, a feminist Muslim activist, is caught in the conflict. With the rising influence of Malaysia's conservative Islamic Party, Anwar is adamant that it is not the faith that is at fault. "We found that it is not Islam that discriminates against women, it is not the verses in the Qur'an, it is the way that these verses have been interpreted by men, living in patriarchal societies who wish to maintain their dominance, and their superiority and control over women". Anwar remains optimistic about her religion's future in the 21st century and beyond. "Islamic Law that is practiced in many Muslim countries ... this is changeable. What is universal, what is eternal [in Islam] is the principles of justice ... of equality, of compassion, of mercy of dignity--these are principles that are upheld in the Qur'an".

For Muslims in the United States, a reassertion of their identity has led to confrontations with other ethnic and religious groups, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. In Bridgeview, a suburb of Chicago, an angry crowd shouting anti-Muslim slurs surrounded the local mosque. For many in the community, the event highlighted the intense frustrations Muslims experience as they strive to develop an American Muslim identity.

"The only thing I know how to be is an American ... an American Muslim," says one Bridgeview Muslim. "When somebody questions my loyalty to this country, it's frustrating because I am an American ... I was born and raised here".

Despite growing suspicions of Muslims by many Americans after the terrorist attacks, the religion continues to grow rapidly-both here in the United States and around the globe. Dia Richardson, a young African-American woman was brought up as a Christian. A few months ago she converted to Islam. The simplicity of the faith drew her attention. "The thing that caught me was there is only one God ... and he is like the creator of everything and that made a lot of sense to me."

MUSLIMS traces the social, historical, and political roots of the renewed interest in Islam worldwide.

MUSLIMS is a FRONTLINE co-production with the Independent Production Fund. Major funding for MUSLIMS has been provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts and The William & Mary Greve Foundation. Additional funding has been provided by the Lilly Auchincloss foundation and The Fetzer Institute.

Graham Judd and Elena Mannes are the writer/producers. Associate producers are Dina Hossain and Hassan Fattah. The editor is Bernadine Colish. Senior Producer for FRONTLINE is Martin Smith.

Alvin H. Perlmutter and Anisa Mehdi are the executive producers for the Independent Production Fund. David Fanning is the executive producer for FRONTLINE.