656 Think you know Islam or Buddhism? Surprises from Youssou N’Dour and PBS

his week, we’re helping you understand the world’s dramatically and rapidly evolving religious landscape. As Dr. John Esposito pointed out in the excerpt we published Monday, this is far more than a matter of spiritual inquiry. Nothing less than world peace hangs in the balance.
    Tomorrow, we’ll publish an in-depth interview with Esposito.
    TODAY, we’ve got important news on two films you might overlook without these recommendations:


New on DVD this week from Oscilloscope Laboratories is a truly startling documentary on Senegalese singer-songwriter Youssou N’Dour.
    You may recall the high-spirited and high-voiced African singer who burst on the world stage in 1988 as part of the Amnesty International human rights tour that year with Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel. By the 1990s, N’Dour was an internationally famous performer and composer in his own right, selling millions of albums. He crossed over into all kinds of other venues: composing an opera that was welcomed in Europe, demonstrating for political change in South Africa and even writing theme music for World Cup soccer.
Then, in 2004, he released “Egypt,” an album of sacred songs using traditional African instruments and languages. The world premiere in Morocco was a hit and he soon took Europe by storm.
But “Egypt” hit a brick wall in his beloved Senegal. Worse yet, traditionalist Muslims in his homeland began to turn against him. They shipped back entire truckloads of his CDs.
    What was their problem? “Egypt” is a beautiful suite of songs based on sacred Muslim themes. I own the album and enjoy it myself. So … what was the problem in Senegal? The answer to that question is truly eye opening as the documentary unfolds. Basically, Senegalese knew N’Dour as merely a sexy pop star. In stark contrast, he saw himself as a Griot, a traditional African storyteller and musician. In “Eygpt,” he used his talents as would-be Griot to tell the stories of a series of Senegalese Muslim saints.
Of course, N’Dour seems incapable of making anything less than joyous music. Even the sacred songs lift one’s spirits and many of the songs encourage people to move their feet. In Egypt, he was inviting the world to dance to sacred stories.

Why should Americans care about such an esoteric debate in Africa? Because, halfway through this gripping film, you’ll realize that Islam is far more diverse than even well-informed Americans may have guessed. As a long-time journalist specializing in covering world religions, I had never heard of the annual Senegalese pilgrimage to the mosque of the saint known a Sheikh Bamba. After this film, I know quite a bit! Every year, a million Senegalese make their way to Bamba’s tomb and mosque.
Throughout this new film, N’Dour talks about his vision for mobilizing peaceful movements across the Islamic world. He advocates human rights, women’s rights and world peace. His music has become a prayer that Islam can make the world a better place, if only peaceful inspirations will surface in individuals, families and communities.
The controversy in Senegal doesn’t stop him from touring the rest of the world and this film is flat-out beautiful in the wide array of places it takes us and music it shares with us. In the end, I can say: N’Dour figures out a very clever semi-solution to the “Egypt” controversy.
But his overall response to this career-changing experience in recent years is to declare, as the title of this documentary proclaims, “I Bring What I Love.” N’Dour tells us—sincerely and believably—that his only motive is connecting his deep faith with his love for the world’s many peoples.
    Click Here to visit Amazon for the DVD, “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love.”


The PBS network is devoting a big slice of prime time this week to “The Buddha,” a major new documentary on the founder of Buddhism.
Unlike “I Bring What I Love,” this film is a more … well, a more traditional travelogue through Buddhist history and culture. The story opens with sacred accounts of Buddha’s birth and his pathway to enlightenment.
We meet lots of creative Buddhist scholars, including Howard Thurman—the father of actress Uma Thurman. The filmmakers use animation, Ken Burns-style film footage of Buddhist art from around the world—and we eventually visit exotic lands as well. The Dalai Lama shows up.
If you want to learn more about world religions, you’ll enjoy this journey into the heart of one of our greatest spiritual traditions.

    Click Here to visit the PBS network page for “The Buddha” to learn more and check broadcast times.




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