Jewish filmmaker follows rise of Islam, Muhammad

An elaborate Arabic inscription, all swirls and flourishes, decorates the wall of Michael Schwarz's San Carlos office. "It says, 'Let there be no harm or retaliation for harm,'" says the award-winning documentary filmmaker, who runs a production company called Kikim Media. "It's a saying of the prophet Muhammad — it's the golden rule of Islam."

The phrase appears in the film that Schwarz has been working on for the last three years. "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" is premiering nationwide Dec. 18 on PBS. The two-hour documentary, with a budget of $2.5 million, provides a very personal view of the world's second largest religion.

Schwarz is Jewish, and, like most non-Muslims, previously knew nothing about the 7th century Islamic leader. Then Michael Wolfe, a friend who had written two books about pilgrimages to Mecca, approached him with the idea for a documentary about Muhammad. It was a revelation for Schwarz.

"As a producer, you don't find many big stories that haven't been told before," he says, "and this story is classic. It's almost Shakespearean — here's someone who has an idea that's very unpopular, and is persecuted with multiple assassination attempts on his life. After a 13-year exile, he returns to the city of Mecca and conquers it peacefully."

Muhammad was a spiritual leader, but unlike Buddha or Jesus, he also was a politician and a general. Muhammad was a successful trader with a family, and then, at age 40, he had a revelatory experience during a visit to a cave. He started proclaiming the word of a single God, which was antithetical to other Meccans. Faced with persecution, Muhammad led the followers of his fledgling faith into battle several times.

Schwarz collaborated on the film with Wolfe and Alex Kroenemer, both of whom converted to Islam from a half-Christian, half-Jewish background. To ensure that the documentary wouldn't be "overly reverential," says Schwarz, they put together an advisory board made of Muslim and non-Muslim members. They also consulted many academic experts, including Reuben Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College.

"We're careful to say that this is the story that Muslims have handed down for centuries, not some sort of investigation into 'the real Muhammad,'" stresses Schwarz, who has produced Emmy-award winning documentaries about the welfare system and abortion clinics for the newsmagazine "Frontline." "Most non-Muslims don't even have the most basic understanding of the story, so we felt that this was the right place to start."

Muhammad was a difficult subject to bring to film. To prevent himself from becoming an object of worship, Muhammad prohibited his followers from creating images of him — or of his family or associates. Imagine a documentary about the life of Jesus, for example, but without pictures of him, the Virgin Mary, or any of the disciples. The 1970s movie epic "The Message," starring Anthony Quinn as Muhammad's uncle, got around this issue by having the characters address the camera directly as a stand-in for the prophet.

In this case, to bring faces into the picture — and make the story more relevant to a contemporary audience — Schwarz intersperses the events of Muhammad's life with the stories of four American Muslims and how they try to live by the prophet's example. On Sept. 11 of last year, two-thirds of the footage for the documentary had been shot. After that day's attacks, Schwarz sought out Kevin James, a New York firefighter who had converted to Islam from a mixed background. His poignant testimony gives an sense of how American Muslims reacted to the tragedy.

"What hurt me most of all out of the World Trade Center attack," says James, a supervising fire marshal, "is here's a religion I entered because of its universality and tolerance, which is throughout the book and sayings of Muhammad, yet these people who planned it were so intolerant and so disregarding of their own tenets that they could do something so horrific and kill people in such a horrible way."

Schwarz says he grew up thinking Islam was hostile to Judaism, but after working on this film he no longer believes that to be true. "The Arab-Israeli conflict has colored people's impressions," he says. "It's easy to confuse political conflicts over land with conflicts over spiritual issues or religious dogma, and I think it's important to disentangle all that. The Muslims I met were trying to live their lives according to the same values I believe in as a Jew — it focuses on social justice and treating other people the way you want to be treated."