Saturday, September 15, 2012

Islam: the Untold Story

Tom Holland wrote and presented Islam: The Untold Story for Channel 4.  The show follows on from his book In the Shadow of the Sword on the early history of Islam.  Most commentary on the show has concentrated on the complaints and threats it has engendered from the Muslim community. Holland himself deserves a great deal of praise for tackling this subject. I caught the show on Channel 4’s internet service (a screening for journalists and experts was cancelled due to security concerns). I haven’t read Holland’s book, so the comments below are based on the show rather than his more detailed written treatment.
Holland takes a sceptical approach to early Islamic history that echoes the work of the nineteenth-century higher critics on Christianity.  His thesis is that the Arab invaders who destroyed the Persian Empire and took over the Levantine provinces of Byzantium was not originally Muslim.  Islam only arrived sixty years later when it was introduced to hold the disparate Caliphate together.  
The early written sources for Islam are indeed scarce. So, what do we know?  Professor Patricia Krone, the dean of critical studies of Early Islam, summarised the situation in Holland’s film.  There is the Koran, which dates from the early-seventh century.  Muhammad certainly lived about that time.  But the Koran contains almost no historical information and exists in a vacuum.  There is no way to connect it to Mecca (which it only mentions once) and no evidence of the Arabs being Muslims until sixty years after Muhammad died.  Holland and the critics assume this absence of written evidence is evidence of absence and fill it in with their own speculations.
Let me say from the outset that I think Holland is wrong and that the traditional account of Islam’s origins, in its rough contours, is basically correct.  We can’t trust the early biographies of Muhammad to be completely accurate, but alternative accounts (that Mecca was in Syria, or that the Arab invaders weren’t Muslims) are simply implausible.  Looking only at the evidence presented by Holland in his show (which, you’d hope, is the best he’s got), his alternative hypothesis of a late adoption of Islam by the Arabs simply falls apart. 
For instance, he notes that the Arabs initially worshipped at the Jewish temple.  They were certainly monotheists, but not Christians or Jews.  Early Christian sources have no idea what they were and they would surely have recognised a Jew if they saw one.  But sixty years later, we are asked to believe that these Arabs became Muslims; that they did so right across there now vast Empire; and that no one else converted at the same time.  We know the early conquerors made no effort to proselytise their subject populations.  But a new religion coming from outside after the conquests would surely have led to conversions across the board and not just in a single narrow strata of society.  Far more likely that the Arabs were Muslims from square one and that Islam spread across their new Empire as they conquered it, not following a couple of generations later.
In fact, the earliest record of Muhammad comes from a coin minted by a pretender to the throne of the Umayyads called Ibn al-Zubair.  But, al-Zubair, who was based in Medina and controlled Mecca, lost the resulting civil war. So, Holland asks us to believe that the Umayyads defeated the rebel and then successfully adopted his new religion over their vast domains.  Again, it is far easier to imagine that both sides were already Muslims and that the rebellion only prompted the Umayyads to advertise their religious adherence more widely.  This they did with spectacular effect at the Dome of the Rock.  
Holland also notes that much of the Koran is addressed to farmers.  This is odd because Mecca was a trading entrepĂ´t in the middle of the desert.  There were no farmers to address.  What Holland forgets to mention is that Muhammad spent much of his life in Medina (he is even buried there) and it was here that he made his first converts.  Medina is an oasis city which had plenty of agriculture.  Of course, the Saudi authorities have been industriously destroying all trace of early Islam from Mecca and Medina in their misguided iconoclasm.  Many ancient mosques and monuments have been bulldozed and dynamited in an orgy of destruction that makes the Taliban look like museum curators.
Still, the traditional story of Islam’s origins is likely to be accurate in its main themes.  Admittedly, a huge bundle of traditions grew up around Muhammad’s life, many of which are not true.  These were culled into the received version of his biography and teachings between one and two hundred years after his death.  Critical analysis of these texts is likely to give us a picture of Islam’s origins with more nuance than we currently possess.  But today’s critical scholars have, like Christianity’s higher critics, gone too far in their scepticism.  None of this means this isn’t a debate worth having.  But non-Muslims need to be careful that they don’t gleefully turn it into a rod to beat Islam.  This, at least, is something Tom Holland could never be accused of. 

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Anonymous said...

"These were culled into the received version of his biography and teachings between one and two hundred years after his death. Critical analysis of these texts is likely to give us a picture of Islam’s origins with more nuance than we currently possess."
---You are correct, Islamic sources should not have been dismissed so easily without reason---this is because though the oral history was written down 100 or so years later---the process used was very vigorous---so that these are even today, divided into levels of authenticity---a critical re-evaluation of these sources is welcome but to dismiss them out of hand is unwise scholarship.
The Quran has always been understood in its historical context (through tafsir and other sholarship) so which surahs (chapters) are Meccan/Medinian are well understood---though not all verses in a surah (chapter) belong in the same time-frame---Muslims already know this because as the verses were revealed---the Prophet specified were to put them. Therefore to assume that the origins of the Quran are a mystery is incorrect---unless once again, Muslim sources are dismissed out of hand. Holland came to the history of Islam with the presumption that because Christianity had a certain historical trajectory---that this would also apply to other religions---this is an arrogant assumption....If he were really a historian he should have approached the subject in a neutral manner...examined all the evidence and sources and concluded based on that rather than preconcieved assumptions.
The Quran discourages Muslims from blind faith....which is why many Muslims are well aware of Early Islamic history/Quranic origins...etc----and is a reason that shoddy "Western" efforts that are taken as "scholarship" can generate ridicule.
If the west is interested in creative revisionist theories then Fred Donner has better arguments.....(As a Muslim I don't agree with those arguments...but he at least looks at Muslim sources)

Pedro Erik said...

Sorry James, i do not know if you or Holland are right, but it seems to me that you make the same mistake you said about Holland and you make still another mistake:

1) You did not convince that "Far more likely that the Arabs were Muslims from square one", you jumped to the conclusion;

2) It is not "far easier to imagine that both sides were already Muslims in the civil war".

3) Muhammad did not spend much of his life in Medina, he began to teach Islam too late in Mecca (he was 40 years). After 13 years in Mecca, he went to Medina.

But above all, the worst part it is the cancellation of the Holland series, because Muslims threats all to death (you should stress this point)

Best regards,

Jamie Robertson said...

@Anonymous: you say that the Quran discourages blind faith. Can you substantiate this with relevant passages?

Anonymous said...

There are several ways the Quran discourages blind belief---I will try to give an overview of some of them with Quran verses if possible---but this is a theme throughout the Quran so I may not be able to do full justice.....

The Quran uses the word "Allah" for God---this is a generic Arabic word for God and the Meccans used it for their God also (As did the Arab Christians)---but the Meccan God was polytheist(had daughters). The argument the Quran uses is to encourage the use of intellect and reason and discourage the use of superstition and blind belief by telling people to ask questions and "discard the traditions of their forefathers"---one example Surah 5 verses 101-104.
The Quran also gives the example of Prophet Abraham (pbuh) and how he arrived at monotheism through the use of his intellect and reason. Surah 6 verses 74-83.
The Quran discourages the use of arbitrary, illogical speculation on the concept of Divine in Surah 7 verse 33--(not to say about God things that go against reason)
Throughout, the Quran encourages people to reflect and think and acquire does so by asking questions for people to think and reflect on as well as pointing out ways in which they can search for knowledge. Another way is by catagorizing the "believer"....though english transaltions use the generic "believer" the Quran has categories---for example a "muslim" is "one who submits" but this submission is through rules and law. A "momeneen" is one who has Iman (Iman= the use of ones intellect and reason to arrive at conviction)...other levels of "believer" are also mentioned in the Quran but I won't go into it unless you are interested....

claudio said...

Having read the three former Holland books, I found the TV program extremly dissapointing, taking isolated frases from the historians appearing as guests and making them into inuendos. This was a pity in the case of Mrs. Crone, who has so much to say about Islam. Frankly, it seemed to me a program about UFOs.

David B Marshall said...

I trust the Muslim account is essentially correct. This because I don't think if the early Muslims had invented a prophet to compete with Jesus, he would have provided better competition. He wouldn't have started so many wars. He wouldn't have wed a 9-year old, or stole his son-in-law's wife, by convenient divine decree. He wouldn't have engaged in assassination and torture. He wouldn't have been afflicted by a demon, or whatever was responsible for the Satanic veres. And he probably would have worked a few impressive miracles.

No doubt there are false details, but the basic story-line seems plausible enough. It parallels those of Hong Xiuquan in China, Karl Marx in Germany, and Joseph Smith in the US, pretty well.

David B Marshall said...

Correction -- I DO think what I said in sentence two. The word "don't" was added later by a mischievous jinn. : - )

Jeff Marx said...

Hot topic indeed. I have long thought that Islam is, in its intellectual sources, a Judaic/Christian heresy. Many of its teachings are variations of those two earlier religions. I follow John of Damascus on this. I am assuming some social interactions and influence, obviously, and I am sure a true beleiver in Islam would reject such an approach recognizing instead divine inspiration. To engage peaceably in such discussions is difficult but necessary, especially as we are bound to disagree (if we are all true believers!). But one can disagree and be respectful. Thanks James for your insights.

Jim S. said...

I think I'll stick with W. Montgomery Watt (Muhammad at Mecca, Muhammad at Medina, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman)

Jonh Sebastian Milbank said...

I've been following this blog a while, now but I felt moved to comment on this excellent piece. I think its spot on in identifying that Holland is trying to do somthing interesting and important (subject Islams early history to the same sort of anaylsis that Christianity now receives), but that he goes too far in speculative, inflammatory and dismissed too easily the oral tradition, somthing that struck me as frankly outdated. As the author points the over-sceptical approach of the 19th century critics has since bene revised, and I don't think its neccersary or right to repeat those errors in looking at Islam. I have read the book, and many of the things it says; that Islam is part of a wider world of religous change in late antiquity, that its early sources are sparse, and that Islam lacks a scholarship of the kind the west has developed; are all worthy and interesting. But he goes too far in seeking popular interest by forwarding the most extreme sceptics and the wilder hypotheses. The channel 4 documentary removes much of his contextualistation, and concentrates on the dodgiest bits of the book, and returns to all the channels worst instincts (the climate change documentary springs to mind.)
It was a missed oppurtunity to show that a critical approach to Islamic history need not be threatening to Islam, nor be insulting. I think the reaction has been no less deplorable (indeed more so), but it was predictable, espcially by the television station, which seemed to be perveresley seeking that reaction.

Anonymous said...

@ Jeff Marx
"Many of its teachings are variations of those two earlier religions"---This is so--but from a Muslim perspective---these would be "corrections". Also from our perspective---there is only One God, therefore, the God of the Jews , Christians and others is that One God---we all worship. (also, from a Judeo-Islamic view---Christianity might seem like a heresy---its Trinitarian doctrine differs from the Judeo-Islamic understanding of "One God". The Judeo-Islamic framework has no place for original sin, rejects incarnation and salvation through crucifixion of God/son of God...etc....)

As for interactions---During the time of the Prophet (pbuh) the Coptic Church extended its hand in friendship to the Prophet(pbuh) by sending him a gift, and the Ethiopian Christian King gave asylum to persecuted Muslims who had fled to his kingdom. however, vigorous intellectual interaction between Jews, (Eastern) Christians, and Muslims happened at the time of the Golden Age of Islam when ancient knowledge was translated into Arabic and new advances in various scientific and philosophical fields were made. (IMO, there was more robust philosophical/theological exchanges between Jews and Muslims.)
What facilitated this explosion in knowledge was (Chinese) papermaking which Muslims turned into an industry by the 8th/9th century. It was a major industry from the 8th to the 15th century.

georgesdelatour said...

One reason Holland suspects that Muhammad and his earliest followers were based not in Mecca but in the Negev is because of Qur'anic references to the ruins of Sodom in Surah 37 133-8. The implication of this passage is that its intended audience lived very near these ruins. They are described a passing by the ruins each morning and each evening - which would be difficult if they were actually living in inner Arabia, 1000 km further south.

It's not preposterous to imagine later Muslims seeking to place Muhammad far deeper in inner Arabia for theological reasons. A Meccan Muhammad living among pagans gives stronger force to the idea of a discrete, unique, Arab revelation. A Muhammad living closer to the Roman world, possibly even alongside Arab Roman foederati, is more vulnerable to the Christian and Jewish accusation that he'd simply overheard, plagiarised and misunderstood previous revelations.

Muhammad -> Mecca is similar to Jesus -> Bethlehem.

Jesus was generally referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth". He may have been re-imagined as born in Bethlehem in two of the Gospels in order to fulfil Old Testament prophecies. The details of his nativity are difficult to square with other, non-Christian historical sources. Herod's Massacre of the Innocents is not mentioned in Josephus, for instance; and the Census of Quirinius happened ten years after Herod's death.

georgesdelatour said...

"During the time of the Prophet (pbuh) the Coptic Church extended its hand in friendship to the Prophet(pbuh) by sending him a gift, and the Ethiopian Christian King gave asylum to persecuted Muslims who had fled to his kingdom."

Are there Coptic and Ethiopian sources corroborating these claims? What was the Coptic gift? Does it survive?

SajidHussain said...

The Jinn And Tonic Show tomorrow will have Tom Holland as a guest - the producer of the Channel 4 documentary "Islam - The untold story" and author of "In the shadow of the sword." It is possible to watch the show live on BlogTV (link on the video) and if you wish you may also call in to the show with Skype.