Lost in translation

Eighty minutes doesn't do justice to one of the world's seminal texts

<strong>The Quran</strong>

Some subjects are just too complicatedly vast for a single documentary, or they are if the film-maker decides to take an A-Z approach. The Quran (14 July, 8pm) was made by Antony Thomas, who in 1980 brought us Death of a Princess, a film that ushered in a fresh approach to factual TV (though based on the true story of the execution of a Saudi princess for adultery, it was mostly dramatised, a style that has been aped ever since, with increasingly queasy results).

Thomas has won many awards in a long and distinguished career, but there were signs here that his touch has abandoned him. Taking on Islam's holy book seemed to have intimidated him to such a degree that he was unable to edit his material. Too comprehensive, he only skated on the ice of the terrifyingly pressing dilemmas that any interpretation of the Quran presents; too even-handed, he ended up by being only boring, the worst sin that any film-maker can commit.

Timothy Winter, a faun-like academic from the school of divinity at Cambridge University, described the Quran, rather wonderfully, as a "radioactive, glorious piece of thunder". But as Thomas diligently noted the difference between Sunni and Shia, I heard not thunder, but the scratch of Biro on foolscap. This was the York Notes version of Islam, and all the coppery sand dunes in the world couldn't disguise it.

It had its striking moments, of course. How could it not? The Quran is the most ideologically significant and influential text in the world: beautiful, captivating, deeply confusing. Oh, its power. Wouldn't the Archbishop of Canterbury love to buy even a tenth of that right now? An Egyptian human rights activist, Ghada Shahbandar, recalled that, in the 1970s, it was rare to see women in Cairo who were veiled - cut to a photograph of Gamal Abdel Nasser's funeral in 1970, in which, sure enough, every woman's hair was uncovered. These days, as she pointed out, it takes a strong woman, or a foolish one, to go about unveiled.

It was also amazing, if horrifying, to see the clattering might of the King Fahd printing press in Saudi Arabia, turning out Qurans to be sent around the world, all of which had been subtly edited to include new, anti-Semitic verses. But most astonishing of all was the dramatic way that Thomas's film illustrated the Quran's greatest strength as a text. Unlike the Bible, written by men who were inspired by God, the Quran, according to those who believe, was dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by God; thus, to unpack it as you might any other historical text is to commit blasphemy. One German academic who has worked on the Quran, and who has suggested that some early translations from the Syriac may have been wrong, would only appear with his identity disguised.

Thomas had gathered an impressive line-up of imams and other scholars from around the Muslim world to pronounce on such things as the death penalty, hijab, female circumcision and the role of clerics (a relatively new class in Islam) but, as they were largely without context, it was hard to know how seriously to take them.

Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss academic, appeared often. I enjoy listening to him, but I also know that controversy follows him wherever he goes (or doesn't go, in the case of the United States). While Prospect magazine anoints him a great thinker, others believe that he tailors his words according to his audience, soothing the west's anxious liberals even as he stokes righteous anger elsewhere.

We got no sense of this from Thomas, mostly because of the tension between his desire to cover every aspect of Islam and his time slot (80 minutes). You could almost feel him thinking: "But I haven't even yet mentioned paradise and the debate over whether a man will be greeted by 72 virgins, or merely a bunch of grapes!" (On this last point, incidentally, Ramadan was the voice of sanity: these things are metaphorical, he said, a way of suggesting goodness and bounty beyond a mere man's imagination.)

Oh, well. I cannot be too cross. The more information - flawed or otherwise - that we're given about Islam, the better. I, for one, drink it up. I don't believe in the war on terror, but even if I did, the only weapon that would be of any real use, surely, is understanding.

Pick of the week

Can’t Read, Can’t Write
21 July, 9pm, Channel 4Illiterate adults, taught by inspiring Phil Beadle. Moving and depressing.

Burn Up
23 and 25 July, 9pm, BBC2
Ecodrama, starring the big-headed Rupert Penry-Jones.

The Making of Me
24 July, 9pm, BBC1
Nature? Nurture? John Barrowman tries to prove he was born gay.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism