There are few genuine firsts left for British television, but Rageh Omaar believes he has notched one up in his new BBC2 series. “The Prophet, his own story and words, the basics of what he did and what he believed he wanted to do, is just a fantastic story that hasn’t been told before on television.”
But, as with so many firsts, there are good reasons why no one has tried it before. Top of the list in the case of Muhammad is that the subject is just too sensitive. Omaar’s day job these past 20 years, reporting from the hotspots of the Middle East, Africa and Asia (formerly with the BBC, currently for Al Jazeera English), has made him all too well aware that this is dangerous ground – not least because in line with Islamic tradition no images of the Prophet are allowed.
So can you make a television series without showing a single image of its central character? It presents a particular challenge, he concedes, but that challenge goes to the heart of his determination that the series should balance respect for Islam with asking difficult questions. “For many Muslims,” he says, “it is what the Prophet represents, what it is about this man and his life that shows how you live your life as a Muslim that is more important than how he is represented.”
The series’ emphasis, theologically, is on the message rather than the messenger, but it’s not been made solely for Muslim viewers. When addressing a secular, Western audience that is used to religion being challenged, there is surely an argument that demands Muhammad be treated on screen like any other religious figure, up to and including featuring the controversial cartoons published in a Danish newspaper in 2005.
“We did discuss those cartoons a lot,” Omaar confirms, “but there are some things that when included act as a magnetic force for obscuring the rest. If we’d shown the cartoons, the series would simply have become about that two-and-a-half minute sequence, and that wasn’t what we wanted.”
Instead they are simply mentioned in his commentary. There is also a spoken physical description, taken from Ibn Ishaq, one of the earliest historical sources about the Prophet. Muhammad, we hear, was of “sturdy build with long muscular limbs and tapering fingers... [with] long and thick and wavy hair... large and black eyes with a touch of brown... [a] thick beard and fair complexion.”
Including this uncontroversial (for Muslims) written account represents the spirit of compromise required of the film-makers. “Muhammad has become so central to modern-day politics, especially since 9/11,” Omaar says. “The result is that he is usually presented in very stark terms. There is very little that is rounded in what we have about him, but instead a thousand snapshots at both ends of the spectrum, from devout Muslims on one side, and from those who regard him as a negative influence on the world.”
The Life of Muhammad attempts to walk a middle line, tracing the Prophet’s story in its entirety, including probing disputed episodes and teachings – for instance over violence, jihad and tolerance of other faiths. Quite an undertaking?
Omaar, 43, simply smiles his broad smile. Being the first to tackle the subject on TV may have benefits, he suggests. “If there had been ten TV series about Muhammad before, I think we would have felt the need to have a particular angle on him, but because this is, as far as I am aware, the first presenter-led documentary on Muhammad ever, we didn’t have to set out to be controversial. My hope is that whatever one feels about Muhammad, or feels one knows about him, this is a series everyone can watch.”
Part of that drive for the widest appeal is undeniably having Omaar as the presenter. He seems the perfect bridge between polarised positions on Islam: the product of a Muslim upbringing combined with an elite British education at Cheltenham and Oxford, who joined the BBC in 1992 and witnessed first hand the growth of “political” Islam in our times. Yet he is hesitant at the prospect of being that bridge. “This is not ‘Rageh Omaar’s take on Muhammad’. I don’t want to put myself at the centre. It is not a personal series of essays.”
There seems to be something else troubling him. So fluent on screen, he is now struggling to find the right words. “I think in the series I’m still the reporter, not the insider. I’ve approached this as a broadcaster and a writer who knows about the subject, not as a theological expert. I’m not donning a religious mantle... it is that middle ground we’re aiming at.”
But at the very outset of the series, he arguably oversteps that mark when he recalls that, as a toddler in Somalia (he came to Britain in 1972, the youngest of a well-to-do family), the very first name he heard was that of Muhammad when it was, as tradition lays down, spoken into his ear as an infant. And later, in the same episode, he remembers going on hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca with his parents. It is because he is a Muslim that he can film inside the Kaaba, the central shrine in Mecca. Non-Muslims are not admitted.
“I have always rejected this idea that you have to be one thing or another, one aspect or another of yourself. Certainly I have not tried to labour the point in the series that I am from a Muslim background. I have put in very small little bits where it is relevant. The first words you hear is a very universal thing.”
He declines, ever so politely, to go any further in a discussion about his own faith. He uses the phrase “from a Muslim background” a number of times. Are you still practising, I wonder? More awkward squirming in trademark blue linen shirt and off-white baggy suit. “I don’t know... I didn’t approach it from that angle. It is very much me as the reporter who has a lot of hinterland around the subject. It’s not relevant.”
His discomfiture is perhaps understandable given his anxiety that potential viewers may be put off because they imagine he will have an axe to grind. He has, though, been more candid in the past, describing himself in interviews as a not practising Muslim and as “working through” the question of where Islam fits in the lives of his three children with his wife Nina, who was raised as a Christian.
In his autobiography, Only Half of Me, published in 2006, he confronted head on how he joins the different parts of himself – including the tensions that arose when a British-based Somali relative had his throat slit in an attack in the wake of the 7/7 London bombings.
Having spent the past two years planning and filming this series, he is more at ease discussing the changes in his own perspective on Islam. “What came as a surprise to me were all the aspects of Muhammad’s life where I hadn’t really understand the context.” The programmes, for instance, draw attention to Muhammad’s loving, monogamous first marriage to Khadijah, a wealthy older widow, who carried on running her business with his blessing.
The series, he says, touching lightly on the personal, has been “an education” for him. And for the viewers? “For me, one line about Muhammad that emerged above all the others was that he was a warner, someone who warned the society he had grown up in that it had become abusive, corrupt, and neglectful of the most needy. And as I have been finishing off the series, I have also been watching the events taking place in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. I can’t help thinking that never has Muhammad’s message to autocrats and the wealthy elites felt more timely.”