Middle East Resources

Islam: Empire of Faith (A Review)

As Seen on Public Television, WTTW Channel 11, Chicago
on 8 May 2001, 8-10:30 P.M.

Reviewed by: Bassam M. Madany


In his Foreword to Bat Ye'or's book, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: from Jihad to Dhimmitude, Jacques Ellul, the late Protestant scholar, was concerned about what he called the "Dhimmitude of the West." He was referring to those Western writers and intellectuals who would adopt self-censorship when dealing with Islam. Such behavior is similar to that of the Jews and Christians who came under Islam. The conquering Arab Muslims called them, "Dhimmis." This status conferred upon them the freedom to practice their religion on the condition that they refrain from any criticism of Islam. Furthermore, they were not to propagate their faith. Once a Dhimmi embraced Islam, he or she, could no longer go back to his former faith. Apostasy was punishable by death.

I could not help thinking of his words when viewing a Public Television production, Islam: Empire of Faith. In Chicago, it was aired on May 8, 2001, from 8-10:30 p.m. The majority of the speakers and commentators are Western, and are associated with such institutions as the University of Saint Louis, Columbia University, Boston College, and Edinburgh University. At several intermissions during the two and half hour show, we heard the usual refrain that the documentary was being made available "through viewers like you."

At this point, someone may question whether I am eligible to undertake a review of "Islam: Empire of Faith." After all, I am an Eastern Christian. How could I be free from the prejudices that my people have harbored regarding Islam, ever since the conquest of their homeland in the early seventh century? I admit that I am not entirely free from some bias. But it is an attitude that has a legitimate and reasonable foundation. Furthermore, I do have the credentials to make an assessment of this documentary. I have lived a good deal of my life in the Middle East. I experienced some of the great upheavals that took place in that area in the aftermath of World War II. Even after moving to North America, I have kept up my studies of the history of the Arabs and of Islam, both in Arabic and in English. My credentials are just as valid as those of the speakers who voiced their comments on "Islam: Empire of Faith."

As the documentary proceeded, I felt I was watching a thoroughly revisionist history of the Middle East since the rise of Islam. I have read Arabic books written by Muslim scholars and intellectuals that were far more objective than what I was watching. Western scholars seldom show such a sympathetic attitude toward Christianity, as these "experts" showed towards Islam.

The airing of "Islam: Empire of Faith" had hardly begun before we were told that one fourth of mankind were followers of Islam. This is a preposterous claim. The world population today is around six billion. The Muslim world has, at the most, one billion adherents. That inflated ratio alerted me right away that I was watching a piece of propaganda.

When dealing with the experience of Muhammad in a cave near Mecca, the commentator made no qualification when saying the Prophet's "mission was given by Divine revelation." While it is accurate to report that in 622, Muhammad and some of his followers moved to Medina on account of the hostility of the leaders of Mecca, it is not accurate to state, "Hostility always began from Meccan side." Muslim historians extol the ability of the Prophet to organize attacks against the Meccan caravans that were on their way to Syria. Details in the life of the Prophet that may offend Western viewers were totally left out. Indeed, it was a truly sanitized biography!

As to the early years of Islam, the age of the caliphate and the conquests, the impression was given that the spread of this theistic religion was primarily due to the power of the faith. But this is not the whole story. Certainly, the early Muslims were fired with a tremendous zeal as they burst out of Arabia and entered the territories of the Byzantine and Persian Empires. But the rapid success of their conquests was not exclusively due to the "power of the faith."

The two super powers of the time, Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) had been in violent conflict for several decades. They had exhausted their resources and emptied their treasuries in that rivalry. So, they were no longer able to subsidize the Arabized kingdoms on the borders of the Arabian Peninsula that had kept the Bedouin tribes in their homeland. Thus, when the Arab horsemen came from the south, Persia crumbled like a house of cards, while Byzantium lost its hold on Egypt and Syria.

Muslims revere the early "golden" era of their history. It lasted a little over 25 years and was called the age of the "Rightly Guided Caliphs." The conquest of the Middle East had begun, and soon North Africa was to come within the Empire. At the same time, the golden age was not so golden! Of the four Caliphs that succeeded Muhammad after 632, three were assassinated. Ali, the fourth Caliph, who was a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was murdered by some of his disgruntled followers. After his death, the Caliphate became dynastic. The capital of the growing empire was moved from Medina to Damascus, Syria. The Caliphs of this era, now belonging to the Sunni division of Islam, bore a fierce hostility to the family of Ali and to their Shi'ite followers. One of their Caliphs ordered the massacre of Husein, Ali's son and his entire family. Eventually, in 750 this Damascus-based Caliphate came to an abrupt end in a horrible blood bath. The leader of the revolt, Abul 'Abbas is known in Arab history as As-Saffah (the blood letter). He became the first caliph in the new dynasty, which ruled the Islamic world from Baghdad for almost 500 years. There was no mention of this tragic part of their history in "Empire of Faith."

Meanwhile the brutality of the Crusaders was described in great detail. No Christian scholar would defend that tragic episode in the history of Western Christianity. To the Western Christians at the time, the Crusades were a type of Reconquista. Eventually they failed. Centuries later, the Spanish did mount their own Reconquista, and in 1492, they were successful in driving out all the Muslims and regaining their homeland. To this very day, in the eyes of Muslims, their conquests were divinely mandated. Thus, no criticism may be leveled against them. But non-Muslims may not and should not claim any right to re-conquer what once was their own homeland!

In commenting on this documentary in the Winter 2002 issue of Middle East Quarterly, its editor, Martin Kramer wrote: "The depiction of the Islamic empire as an 'empire of faith' is already a limiting one, since Islam was spread by fear as well as faith, by conquest as well as commerce. Anyone who has taken an elementary course in Islamic history will know this. Anyone who has only watched this film will not." (Page 73)

I don't have time to go over all the other details that were thrust at the viewers by those scholarly men and women, who kept on extolling the greatness of Islam. But the apex of my horror was reached when the Ottoman period of Islamic history was being recounted. The Ottoman Turks had come from Central Asia, and served the Caliphs as mercenaries. Eventually, they adopted Islam. They became the defenders and spreaders of their new faith. They pushed the boundaries of the Islamic Empire into Eastern and Central Europe. They devised a military system known as the "Devshirme." This involved the seizure of Christian boys from their families in the conquered parts of Europe, and forcing them to Islamize. After rigid training they were formed into an elite army corps that would go on to expand the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. This army was known as the Jannisary.

How did the commentator describe this barbaric act that deprived Christian families of some of their male offspring? With a tone of full approval she said that the Ottomans "recruited Christian children" as if it were a privilege. Is "recruited" the proper word to use here? What a blatant camouflage of an evil system that lasted so long in Eastern Europe that it left scars on its inhabitants to this very day!

In referring to the deliberate omission of the dark side of the history of Islam, Martin Kramer wrote:

"The imbalance caused by this omission is particularly unfortunate now that Islam: Empire of Faith has been trotted out to do service as an antidote to September 11. Gardner [reference is to the producer for PBS] made a deliberate and legitimate choice not to bring the film up to the present. But the decision by PBS to rebroadcast it after the attacks effectively revokes the choice. It the film has some relevant message, it is the one made by a raft of "experts" who claim that violence is not a part of Islam and that jihad was never anything more than peaceful persuasion. But it's not true. Wars of conquest expanded Islam's frontiers and every one of them was conducted under the banner of jihad. And if anyone doubts the Islamic legitimacy of slaughtering innocents in the assault on an enemy city, they have only to look to the fall of Constantinople. They just won't be able to find it in this film." (Page 76)

It is not my intention to sound very critical of the history of Islam. My point is that the documentary that cost PBS $1.54 million should have included an objective and balanced view of this history. The PBS documentary did not accomplish that. And there was too much deference shown to the Muslim organizations in the USA which played quite a role in deciding what might and might not be included in the film. More than that, this whole production would not help us in our relationship with the Islamic world. One of the most urgent needs for its leadership is to realize that we are living in a new era of global history. No past empire can be resurrected. We all live in an age of interdependence. We need one another. We have global problems that require global solutions.

In summary, it is very difficult for Muslims, whose religion has always had a political component, to relinquish the dream of founding another great Islamic empire. In the past, they conquered vast areas of Europe, Africa and Asia. So it is not easy to expect them to jettison every notion of resurrecting their past glory. But they must. The task before Western leaders today is to speak honestly and openly with their Muslim counterparts. Their people face some gigantic challenges, such as population explosion, the lack of water resources, and too much dependence on one major source of income, such as oil. The Islamists ignore these facts and repeat the mantra, "Islam is the solution." They can and do resort to awful measures of destruction. Unlike the Marxists of the 20th century whose dream was to establish an earthly paradise, the Muslim worldview contains a supernatural element. This belief in an after-death paradise of bliss and unending pleasure, allows the radicals to contemplate unimaginable acts of violence.


The following books are relevant to this topic and offer us a more balanced view.

The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, by Bat Ye’or. Associated University Presses, Cranbury, NJ  08512, 1996

Any of Prof. Bernard Lewis’s books.  He taught at the University of London, and during the 1990s, he moved to the USA, and taught at Princeton University. His books are available at major bookstores.  The Arabs in History and The Middle East and the West, Harper & Row, New York 1960’s.  The Political Language of Islam, University of Chicago Press 1988 and Race and Slavery in the Middle East, Oxford University Press, 1990.

What You Need to Know About Islam & Muslims, by George W. Braswell Jr. Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2000

Faith & Power: The Politics of Islam, by Edward Mortimer. Random House, New York, 1982

In the Path of God: Islam And Political Power, by Daniel Pipes, Basic Books, Inc. New York, 1983

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, by V. S. Naipaul, Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1981

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted People, by V. S. Naipaul, Random House, New York, 1998

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel P. Huntington, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996