DECODING THE PAST: SECRETS OF THE KORAN – DVD review

As you might expect, the History Channel’s “Secrets of the Koran” is completely cartoon-free. In fact, these two episodes (45 min. each) from the network’s “Decoding the Past” series avoid even the faintest whiff of controversy, opting for the most sanitized histories of both Mohammed and the earliest days of Islam. Therefore, you’re not really going to learn any secrets about the Koran, but you still might learn a great deal about one of the world’s largest and fastest growing religions.

The Koran translates roughly as “The Recitation”, a reference to the belief that Mohammed was not merely inspired by the word of God, but rather that God (through the angel Gabriel) directly dictated the words of the Koran to his prophet over a 22 year period in the seventh century. Mohammed didn’t transcribe these words (in fact, he was probably illiterate) but rather memorized them, and later repeated them verbatim to his followers. Though the Koran was committed to paper soon after Mohammed’s death, the holy book has retained this oral tradition to this day, and its words are meant to be spoken aloud by devout Muslims, not just read.

Though the Koran shares much in common with Judeo-Christian scripture, one major difference is the book’s almost total lack of narrative. The Koran is not organized chronologically, but rather its 114 chapters (suras) are roughly organized by length with the longer chapters first; at least this is what the program emphasizes, but the word “roughly” should be emphasized, as the first sura is a very short one, and longer suras are found closer to the end. The purpose of the Koran is not to tell a story – it does not relate the history of Mohammed or the origin of the world – but rather to provide practical advice on how to live a moral life.

The first episode details the life of Mohammed, including his days as a successful merchant, his conversion (or awakening, if you prefer), and his later flight to Medina to avoid persecution by the ruling powers in Mecca. His biography is strictly whitewashed in this episode; he is depicted as a holy man who was almost killed for his beliefs, but later led his people to victory an united Mecca, previously a pilgrimage sight for many religions, under the Muslim faith.

The second episode covers events after Mohammed’s death in 632 A.D. The Muslim religion spread with breathtaking speed. Just a century later (approx. 750 A.D.), the Muslim Abbasid Empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Sea, and became one of the great centers of science and culture in the region. In fact, it was Islamic scholars, not Europeans suffering through that little slump known as the Dark Ages, who preserved much Greek literature which might otherwise have been lost. The episode also briefly touches on the development of Wahhabism (now the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia) from the 18th century until today. With only forty-five minutes to cover over one-thousand years of history, this episode is understandably far sketchier than the first episode which focuses exclusively on Mohammed, but there is still plenty of useful information here.

The visual choices in the film are depressingly redundant – endless shots of desert landscapes, or close-ups of Muslim men looking very devout – but it can’t be easy to figure out what to shoot for a centuries-spanning educational documentary like this, especially since there’s a wee bit of touchiness regarding any depiction of your main character. A few talking head expert-types contribute to the discussion, though mostly in superficial sound-bite form.

There are no “secrets” to be found in “Secrets of the Koran,” but these two episodes serve as a useful primer for Western audiences who may know next to nothing about both the founder and the fundamental text of Islam.

Video

The episodes are presented in 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The photography is top-notch, like most of the History Channel’s recent projects.

Audio

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. There are no subtitles or closed-captions to support the audio.

Extras

A Biography episode of “Muhammad” (45 min.) is included as an extra. Though it is informative, it covers most of the same ground as episode one of “Secrets of the Koran” so it’s a rather redundant feature. And, of course, we have the fabled “Interactive Menus” and “Scene Selection” extras – haven’t we reached a point where we can stop listing these as extras?

Closing Thoughts

“Secrets of the Koran” has a rather inauspicious start as the narrator informs us in a somber tone that the Koran “is one of the most influential books of all-time” which is kind of like saying that the Sun is one of the most influential stars in Earth’s history. Fortunately, the rest of the program offers more valuable insights, even though it assiduously avoids any controversy. In an hour and a half, you won’t become an expert on Islam, but at least you’ll know more than people who rely on CNN or Fox for all their Islam-related information.

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