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Islam scrutinised

07 September 2012

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FOR at least 40 years, Christians have become accustomed to sceptical television documentaries about the historical foundations of their faith. All the way back to the '70s and later Don Cupitt in the '80s, there have been academics ready to demonstrate that there is hardly a single element of the biblical story that cannot be undermined.

It has been a long while coming, but, in a milk-and-water kind of way, at last Islam has been given the treatment. Islam: The untold story (Channel 4, Tuesday) cast the historian Tom Holland in the role of investigator, and the origins of Islamic as his subject.

How reliable historically, he asked, are the claims that Islam led to the great Arab conquests of the seventh century, and how strong are the links between the birth of Islam and its great Prophet, Muhammad? He trod delicately, but did enough to demonstrate that the reputed link between Muhammad and Mecca is dubious, and that, rather than Islam giving birth to the Arab conquests, it may well have been the other way round.

His findings were summed up in one sentence: "Begin by looking at the records and all you find is . . . a blank sheet where Muslims can put their prophet beyond the reach of history." This did not displease the Muslim philosopher Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr. "Not being able to know something," he said, "is no proof that it doesn't exist."

Apparently, 11 million people watched the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games (Channel 4, Wednesday of last week). It was as colourful and exuberant as the opening of the Olympics, but, whereas that was heritage, this was humanism. Professor Stephen Hawking, sitting in a wheelchair beneath a giant globe, introduced it with a call to fulfil our potential: "There should be no boundary to human endeavour." Our growing awareness of our cosmic environment led into a celebration of human achievement. These Games would reveal its potential: "However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at." Perhaps only Professor Hawking could say that without it sounding cheesy.

If anything, the biggest problem for the Paralympics is that they will be treated with unnecessary deference. Sport is meant to be fun, but no one wants to be seen to take these particular athletes less than seriously. What a relief, then, to find Channel 4 offering a nightly programme, The Last Leg, which does exactly that. The presenter (Adam Hills) and resident stand-up (Josh Widdicombe) are disabled, which makes it easier for them to laugh at the oddities of the Games.

In the procession of athletes, Widdicombe was fascinated by one man who carried an open lap-top around with him - watching himself on television, perhaps? He was also intrigued by the dressage horse that we saw dropping manure during its delicate prance. Apparently this is not penalised - quite the contrary: it can earn points by showing that the horse is "relaxed". Mind you, he pointed out, if the rider tried it, things might be different.

Some of the humour had an edge to it. Hills told of an Australian athlete who was asked by a journalist if it had always been his dream to win a gold at the Paralympics. "Not until I lost my ******* leg it wasn't," he replied.

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