For television critics, it was an "exemplary piece of programme-making" which kicked off a week of coverage of Islam. But Channel 4's The Qur'an has prompted a backlash among the global Shia community and caused deep personal offence to one of its most liberal clerics. Indeed, the Iranian Grand Ayatollah Saanei has written to the documentary's award-winning British film-maker to berate the portrayal of him and Shia Muslims as a whole. The complaint has also been passed to the media regulator, Ofcom.
Grand Ayatollah Saanei, a reformist Islamic scholar and one of the most senior Shias, has made comparatively liberal pronouncements in Iran on women's political involvement and abortion. Now, though, he has issued a blistering denunciation of the programme, directed by Antony Thomas and broadcast on 14 July. It examined references to violence, relationships with other faiths and equality in Islam's holy book.
In particular, the Grand Ayatollah objects to perceived links between the Shia faith and violence, including scenes which showed Iranians chanting anti-Western slogans, burning effigies and advocating terrorism.
"We beg to inform you that the broadcasting of the documentary ... a part of which was based on the remarks by His Eminence Grand Ayatollah Saanei, has led to a wave of Shia protest," reads the letter from an aide to the Ayatollah and seen by The Independent.
"Out of the 90-minute interview with His Eminence, the director had taken only two minutes without attending to the preceding and following parts, and had purposely mixed this two-minute part with some inappropriate and irrelevant images, and had deliberately altered the totality of the discussion held in the interview."
The Grand Ayatollah's representative adds: "In the said documentary, the director had tried to introduce Shi'ism as a superstitious sect. The way it was narrated, the selection of the words, and the anti-Shia faces interviewed, all indicate that the director had intended to unfairly satisfy their anti-Shia sentiments. Out of more than 200 interviews foreign correspondents and reporters have had with His Eminence during the past several years, this was the only case in which we witnessed the mass media [compromise its] professional integrity."
Muhammad Abdul Bari, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, has written to Channel 4's chief executive, Andy Duncan, upset by "specific misrepresentations" of Islam.
Dr Bari said: "The programme unfairly maligns Muslims following the Shia tradition by accusing them of heresy based on a collection of age-old polemics and misinformation. With respect, this is an irresponsible portrayal which plays into the hands of those who wish to seek discord."
A spokesman for the programme said: "In the film is a balanced representation of a broad range of Islamic opinion. The Grand Ayatollah's complete answers to two questions are included. Also the film was meticulously researched and checked by four Islamic advisers."
Mr Thomas dismissed the allegations as “nonsense”. He said that it was “standard practise for all interviewees to be asked a broad range of questions”, adding that they often took an hour before being edited down for broadcast.
The controversy comes at a bad time for Channel 4, which has prided itself on its plurality and coverage of multiculturalism, but finds its relations with Muslims at an all-time low.
Channel 4's documentary series Undercover Mosque returned to the screen last week after the film-maker's successful libel action against West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service, who had falsely claimed it "completely distorted what the [mosque] speakers were saying".Reuse content