Charles Annenberg Weingarten – Traveling with Jihad: Explore Film Transcends Boundaries
Look at my character, my heart…and you tell me who I am. –
Charles Annenberg Weingarten, when asked to which faith he belonged.
“Muhammad (PBUH) was a prophet that did not come with a miracle, he came with a message that was universal that made sense to one’s mind and heart.”
The miracle was the script of the Qur’an and its universal appeal – Jihad Turk
On a Friday evening in late October, Los Angeles residents had the opportunity to see the new film Traveling with Jihad and to meet the film’s producer and one of its subjects, Charles Annenberg Weingarten, founder and Director of Explore.org, a multi-media organization aimed at documenting the work of visionaries around the world. The event was organized by MECA SoCal (Muslims Establishing Community in America)in collaboration with the Islamic Center of Southern California.
Traveling with Jihad is a deeply moving film, one which will not only stay with the viewer for a long time, but will also pick away at and dispel culturally imbedded myths.The film chronicles one man’s ongoing struggle (Jihad) to portray the religion of Islam in its truest light to the non-Muslim public, while at the same time it chronicles another man, Charles Annenberg Weingarten’s own fact-finding search for the deepest bezels of truth in the three great western religions and their books: the Torah, the Gospels and the Qur’an.
The film may be thought of as the completion, or final ascent of Annenberg Weingarten’s search, as he converted to Islam not long before embarking upon this journey. But it is the poetic clarity and deep sensitivity with which multiple narratives are captured in this film that make his spiritual journey, and that of his friend and mentor Jihad’s own quest here in the west, accessible to all, leading to a treasure of a film that not only softens the lines of misunderstanding between faiths, but in most all cases, dispenses with them altogether.
…Some of the stars wander widely; others stand fixed in their stations.
(Excerpted from Sufi mystic Dhu’n-Nun’s: Hymn of Creation)
As the film opens, we learn that after completing a month long intensive study of the aforementioned trilogy of books, Annenberg Weingarten has decided to travel to the three main spiritual cradles of the Near East: the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also known as the blue Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey, the Grand Mosque of Mecca (in Medina, Saudi Arabia) and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
But Annenberg does not walk alone. He decides, instead, to embark upon his journey with his good friend Jihad Turk…a man who happens to be the Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, Los Angeles. And this is a wise choice. For Jihad is a very likable individual.
A wonderful representative of the Islamic faith as Turk is not only someone who is easy to relate to – he is also a highly cogent orator – getting to the heart of the matter quickly and with earnest intent. He is particularly adept at connecting the most salient dots between complex issues of spiritual relevance and in this sense is perhaps the embodiment of the truest meaning of the concept for which he was so named.
By its very nature, Jihad is an action word, and it is one which has plagued mainstream western media (partly because of a core lack of understanding and partly because of its misuse among Muslims themselves), becoming a word instead which is almost always synonymous with violence. But the word, simply put, refers to ‘a great spiritual struggle’ the quest to do the right thing, and as such it implies the most personal of all struggles, the internal battle waged from deep within the heart to do good in the world, manifesting the higher more evolved elements of the soul which can ultimately lead to a higher spiritual life.
And so in Traveling with Jihad, the viewer is given a dualistic gift, a most apt narrator and tour guide through the inner heart of Islam.
The biggest challenge we face as a Muslim community is that we are so misunderstood. A lot of what I spend my time on is inter-faith relations” Jihad Turk)
Through compelling dialogue and spectacular film footage, Explore’s film crew takes the viewer on a rare journey through the Near East. We begin in the mystical country of Turkey, former seat of Constantinople, land of the great Persian mystical poet Maulana Jallallodin Rumi, and arrive at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, where one is immediately struck not only by the sheer number of minarets on the mosque (6), but the sonorous beauty of the Adhan, or Islamic ‘Call to Prayer’ itself which flows into the viewer’s ears and then heart, like fine honey.
The duo then proceeds to Jerusalem, and it is this moving footage of the Dome of the Rock that captures our hearts next. Here we witness Annenberg Weingarten undergoing the ritual cleansing of the outer body or ‘Wuthu’ before entering the sacred spiritual dimension of prayer as well as partake in a moment in which Jihad is caught staring, face up into the starry light-filled recesses of the dome itself.
But it is the duo’s next stop, the slow, dusty journey to Mecca in order to perform one of the five pillars of Islam, the Haj, which is perhaps the most beautiful of all…. as it is in this journey that the full embodiment of the faith may be viewed by the actualized intent of its followers. Simply put, the Haj not only commemorates the believer’s deep faith in the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and in Islam but also underlies a belief in Abraham and the famous story of Ishmael, his banished son.
In its final few minutes, Travelling with Jihad turns to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Here, in the Church of the Nativity, he speaks of the reverence for Jesus in the Qur’an, and how his message of living by the spirit of the law rather than by the law itself, is of central importance in connecting to God. As Annenberg Weingarten and Turk head back to Jerusalem, we are privy to one last meeting taking place.
This time it is with Rabi Yehoshua Engelman who resides in the Yakar Synagogue. It is here that Annenberg Weingarten is allowed to open the ancient scroll that is the Torah, or the direct word of God to Moses. As he cradles the sacred tome in his right arm and proceeds to carefully lay it flat commenting on how it all began here – with this very document – he then opens it slowly and with reverence. “What section did I open to?’ he asks the Rabbi. ‘The 10 Commandments’ the Rabbi replies.
This prompts Turk to interject about how in the Qur’an, stories of Moses abound and occur 44 times and in great detail… making the mention of Moses a regular occurrence in the Qur’an and one which happens more than the mention of any other prophet, including that of Muhammad.
“We really don’t do a good job of narrating the story of Muhammad to our fellow Americans” –Jihad Turk
Full of wonderful dialogues between the various locals and religious scholars that Annenberg Weingarten and Turk come across, Traveling with Jihad leaves one feeling privileged to witness these encounters. There is, for instance, what Annenberg Weingarten calls ‘The Council of Wise Men’ in Saudi Arabia, who are a group of scholars that get together on a regular basis to discuss religious topics. In one such instance, Annenberg Weingarten sits amongst them and asks pointed questions such as, ‘when I mention the Prophet, why is it that I should say, Peace be Upon Him (PBUH)?’ And then there is the unforgettable goat Sheppard and his wife in Mount Hor, a remote, barren area of Jordan, who cheerfully serves the men tea in his tasteful Bedouin tent while his small son swings back and forth on a homemade swing hanging from the ceiling. And it is within this simple tent that the camera immediately fixes its lens on a colorful, large tapestry hanging on the wall of Jesus Christ leading his flock of sheep. “This is more symbolic of anything I’ve seen on this trip,” exclaims Annenberg Weingarten. And I think he is right.
As an audience watching Traveling with Jihad, we learn of the true bezels of divinity that unite three of the world’s major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And statements such as: If the prophet was alive today, we would see how he would interact with what we call enemies…and he would interact with them in such a way that he would win them over, he would capture their hearts…rather than talk to them with the language of the sword. And: People never really wrap their minds around the fact that Muslims revere Jesus and believe in the Immaculate Conception, are peppered throughout, appearing as though woven through the movie like the golden threads of truth that they are.
Here are just some of the main points to consider:
1. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all recognize Abraham, the ‘Khalil Allah,’ or true friend of God. Muhammad (PBUH) is a descendent of him.
2. Mecca is the place that Ishmael goes to after being banished to the desert by his father Abraham. But Abraham does not leave his son alone and thus joins him there. Together they build the Ka’aba as a place to worship God. Later, it becomes the place where Muhammad (PBUH) is born, and a place which he helped re-build and restore. The trip to the Ka’aba, by way of ‘the Haj,’ is one of the five main pillars of Islam incumbent upon every true Muslim believer.
3. Muslims, like Christians, revere Jesus and believe in the Immaculate Conception.
4. There is nothing in the Qur’an that states that non-believers should be killed, or done away with. The Qur’an does not espouse terrorism in any way.
5. Moses plays an important role in Islam and this is mentioned in the Qur’an a total of 44 times
6. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have at their core, the same message of connecting with that of the Divine.
And so in the end, we the viewers leave this documentary far more enlightened than when we first began. For it is through the physical journey and spiritual intent of these two men that we encounter the full expression of the inner spiritual one. And hence, the concept of jihad is best realized, as we now find ourselves traveling through the inner meaning of the word itself.
But perhaps most befittingly, it is Charles Annenberg Weingarten’s repeated attempts to master the Sura al-Fatiha, or opening chapter of the Qur’an in Arabic, that stays with us the end, echoing in the ears and hearts of the viewer long after the film has stopped playing: Bismillah il Rahman il Rahim
Al Hamdullilah raba ‘ala meen, ar Rahman ar Rahim
Maliki yowm it deen…(excerpted)
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the world;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
Show us the straight way,
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace,
those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.
(The Holy Qur’an, Sura al-Fatiha,Yusuf Ali, Trans)
Katherine is the host of the Mystic Pen Series. She holds an undergraduate degree from Berklee College of Music and a graduate degree from Harvard University. Her research interests are focused on both the significance and the impact of the aural and visual in cultures and societies around the world (as told through art and music) along with the nature of artistic creation itself. Her area of specialty is the transmission of Near Eastern motifs in Italian art.
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