As a Baha’i, it’s important to know about other religions – actually it doesn’t really matter if you’re a Baha’i or not, the fact is that we live in a religiously diverse world and the more we know and learn about each other and our belief systems, the better we can hopefully get along.
I really love watching documentaries, and there are some great documentaries out there which focus on some of the various world religions and/or certain aspects of them. I thought I’d share a list of 10 interesting and informative documentaries I’ve seen about some of these world religions, and I know there are a lot of other great documentaries about religion out there, but I thought these 10 would be a good place to start:
1) The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha
Narrated by Hollywood heartthrob Richard Gere, a long time practicing Buddhist himself, The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha tells the story of the life and spiritual journey of the Buddha (the founder of Buddhism), from his childhood to his final days. .
DVD blurb: Two and a half millennia ago, a new religion was born in northern India, generated from the ideas of a single man, the Buddha, a mysterious Indian sage who famously gained enlightenment while he sat under a large, shapely fig tree. The Buddha never claimed to be God or his emissary on earth. He said only that he was a human being who, in a world of unavoidable pain and suffering, had found a kind of serenity that others could find, too. This documentary by award-winning filmmaker David Grubin tells the story of his life, a journey especially relevant in our own bewildering times of violent change and spiritual confusion.
2) Islam: Empire of Faith
Narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Ben Kingsley, this great three part series looks into everything from the life of Muhammad to the birth and rise of Islam, including many of the changes and challenges faced by the worlds second largest religion, and the contributions Islam has made to the world as we know it.
DVD Blurb: Islam: Empire of Faith, a three-part series, re-creates the spectacular sweep of Islamic power and faith during its first 1,000 years, from Muhammad’s birth to the Ottoman Empire under Suleyman the Magnificent. Evocative re-enactments and art, artifacts, and architecture combine with scholarly interviews to recount the rise and glory of Islamic civilization.
3) Walking The Bible
Based on his book with the same title, author Bruse Feiler journeys on land through the five books of Moses, while recounting the early religious history of the Jewish faith in order to give us a better understanding of what it may have been like during those times, and to remind us of the significance of what took place and where certain events occurred.
DVD Blurb: Both a heart-racing adventure and an uplifting quest, Walking the Bible presents one man’s epic journey–by foot, jeep, rowboat, and camel–through the greatest stories ever told. From crossing the Red Sea to climbing Mount Sinai to touching the burning bush, bestselling author Bruce Feiler’s inspiring odyssey will forever change your view of history’s most legendary events.
4) Jerusalem: Center of the World
The city of Jerusalem is probably the most religiously rich and contested cities on earth. Similarly this documentary was also the cause of a lot of critique and contention, but it’s definitely worth watching no matter what side of the fence you’re on or what your beliefs may be.
DVD Blurb: Jerusalem: Center of the World tells the epic story of the world s most incredible city, capturing the rich mosaic of the city’s Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. Covering a sweeping history of over 4,000 years, the film explores the founding of the city; the birth and convergence of the world s three major monotheistic religions; and the key events in Jerusalem s history as described in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Talmud, the Hagaddah, the Koran, and the Hadith. Highlights include: Mount Moriah, the site of the First and Second Temples; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; the Dome of the Rock; and the Western Wall. Directed by Andrew Goldberg, and hosted by Ray Suarez (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer), the film includes interviews with locals, top scholars and clergy.
5) A History of Christianity: The First 3000 Years
Oxford history professor Diarmaid MacCulloch takes viewers on an epic six hour journey explaining and unveiling the origins of Christianity, the way in which it spread, and the diverse theological directions which have shaped the worlds largest and most widespread religion over the course of its first 3000 years.
DVD Blurb: A History Of Christianity will reveal the true origins of Christianity and delve into what it means to be a Christian. Intelligent, thought-provoking and magisterial in its scope the series will uncover how a small Jewish sect that preached humility became the biggest religion in the world. Most Christian histories start with St Paul’s mission to Rome, but Diarmaid MacCulloch argues that the first Christianity stayed much closer to its Middle-Eastern roots. He describes not only the main ideas and personalities of Christian history, its organization and spirituality, but how it has changed politics, sex, and human society. The series includes subjects from Palestine in the first century to India in the third, from Damascus to China in the seventh century and from San Francisco to Korea in the twentieth. MacCulloch is one of the most widely travelled of Christian historians and conveys a sense of place as arrestingly as he does the power of ideas. He presents the development of Christian history differently from any of his predecessors. He shows how, after a semblance of unity in its earliest centuries, the Christian church divided during the next 1400 years into three increasingly distanced parts, of which the western Church was by no means always the most important: he observes that at the end of the first eight centuries of Christian history, Baghdad might have seemed a more likely capital for worldwide Christianity than Rome. This is the first truly global history of Christianity. Diarmaid MacCulloch is one of the world’s leading historians and Professor of History of the Church and Fellow at St. Cross College Oxford. The series is a BBC co-production with the Open University and Jerusalem Productions.
6) The Story of India
Based on the title, you wouldn’t necessarily think that this documentary is about religion, but don’t let the title fool you. This beautifully shot and fascinating documentary about India actually covers a lot of ground on Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religious beliefs which are so intertwined with Indian culture and history, that you end up learning a lot not just about India, but about the nations extremely rich religious heritage .
DVD Blurb: Sixty years after Indian independence, British historian Michael Wood presents the tale of the oldest and most diverse civilization, and largest democracy. A nuclear power and a rising giant, India’s population will overtake China’s within 10 years and its economy is predicted to overtake that of the U.S. in the 2030s. This journey of sights and sounds, and achievements takes him from the deserts of Turkmenistan to the Khyber Pass.
7) Around The World in 80 Faiths
This fantastic documentary follows the journey of Anglican vicar Peter Owen Jones, who sets off on a global adventure to investigate 80 of the worlds religions and faiths, and yep, he even covers the Baha’i Faith. Clocking in at religion number 39, he makes a couple of factual mistakes about the Baha’i Faith, but he seems to get the spirit of the Faith and speaks very highly of it. An awesome documentary!
DVD Blurb: Church of England vicar Peter Owen Jones has been given a year’s sabbatical to travel the world with a BBC crew to explore different faiths around the world at the beginning of the 21st Century.
8) A History of God
Based on theologian Karen Armstrong’s best-selling book of the same name, this documentary mainly looks at how the concept of God has evolved by looking at various religions (with an emphasis on Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and how this has shaped the world and certain cultures over time.
DVD Blurb: Theologian Karen Armstrong’s book forms the basis for this History Channel program. Looking at the way that humans have perceived the idea of a supreme being throughout history, A HISTORY OF GOD gathers interviews with representative’s of several different religions to discuss the role that god plays in their lives. Discussing religious practices from various points in history, the program considers the many ways that the idea of a god situates itself in different cultures and communities. Religious scholars also offer their opinions on how various religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have affected and shaped one another.
This beautifully filmed masterpiece was not made in the traditional sense of what we may think of as a documentary, as it’s simply made up of some stunning camera work and imagery, with no narration – just footage showcasing the many sights and sounds of various peoples and things happening around the world. Although Baraka doesn’t focus purely on religion, I thought it’s worth adding to the list because a lot of the footage is of various people around the world practicing their religious ceremonies, and it’s awesome!
DVD blurb: Shot in breathtaking 70mm in 24 countries on six continents, BARAKA is a transcendent global tour that explores the sights and sounds of the human condition like nothing you’ve ever seen or felt before. These are the wonders of a world without words, viewed through man and nature’s own prisms of symmetry, savagery, harmony and chaos.
10) Beyond Our Differences
This five-star documentary simply drives home the fact that the essence of all religions is the same, and it urges us to realize that that there are more similarities in the world’s religions than there are differences. This is definitely a documentary where many of us will find ourselves nodding our heads as we watch it.
DVD Blurb: With all of the problems facing the world today, people are longing for meaning. Many find answers in religion or spirituality, but as a result faith and religion are often hijacked by those seeking to enhance their own power. With this dichotomy in mind, “Beyond Our Differences” calls upon key religious leaders, politicians, and luminaries in their fields and it asks what it is that inspires them to affect positive change.
I hope you enjoy this list of documentaries about world religions and you find them as interesting and informative as I have.
Let me know if you’ve seen any of these and what your thoughts are on them in the ‘Comments’ section below. Happy watching!
Naysan is passionate about using the arts and media to explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. Back in 2011, Naysan started up the Baha’i Blog project, channeling his experiences in both media and technology companies to help create a hub for Baha’i-inspired content online.