In Channel 4’s Islam: the Untold Story, aired 28 August, British writer Tom Holland – garbed Indiana Jones-style in billowing shirt and trusty hat – treks across the Arabian desert, talking to local Bedouins, and inspecting historical artefacts to investigate the origins of Islam. Muhammed, he concludes, probably never came from Mecca, but from Transjordania; the Qur’an and its teachings are largely borrowed from local religious traditions, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism; and it is questionable whether ‘Islam’ ever really existed as a distinctive, coherent faith during Muhammed’s reign. Rather, the religion of Islam was an innovation of the Arab empires, cynically manufactured to legitamise its expansion by conquest over much of what we now know as the Middle East.
To vindicate this thesis – based largely on his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword – Holland interviews a handful of sceptical Western scholars of Islam. But his narrative is replete with elementary, often laughable, errors. Perhaps the most glaring is his insistence that Mecca is only mentioned once, ambiguously, in the Qur’an – evidence for Holland that the Prophet never came from Mecca. But this is a strange inaccuracy, for the Qur’an mentions Mecca clearly: “And He it is Who held back their hands from you and your hands from them in the valley of Mecca after He had given you victory over them.” (48:24) He then makes much of the Qur’an’s references to “Becca”, as if this must be a completely different place, oblivious to the fact that in South Arabic, the language used in the south of the Arabian peninsula during the time of Muhammed, the sounds b and m were interchangeable – as documented in 1973 by Princeton University Arabist, professor Philip Hitti.
Holland also argues that the Qur’an’s frequent references to vines and olives points to the existence of an agricultural society. Mecca was barren and lacked agriculture; therefore, hey presto!, Muhammed’s message originated elsewhere. The inference is truly bizarre: neighbouring Medina, where Muhammed emigrated fleeing persecution in Mecca – and where he continued to receive a large bulk of the revelations of the Qur’an – was a thriving “agricultural settlement, with widely scattered palm groves and armed farmsteads.”
Holland’s other pillar of evidence is equally meaningless. Holland visits the site of Sodom, and highlights the Qur’an’s statement that its readers “pass by them in the morning and at night” (47:133-8) Flabbergasted, Holland asks: “What is it doing here – a thousand kilometres from Mecca?” That the Meccans were frequent travelling traders who would have routinely passed through this area – as widely documented by scholars such as William Montgomery Watt in the Encyclopedia of Islam (2008) and Ira Lapidus in his Cambridge University study (1988) – appears to be lost on Holland.
Holland’s lack of familiarity with the wider literature in Western scholarship on Islam is thus painfully obvious to serious historians. Early on, Holland speaks of the study of history in Western universities as based on “scepticism and doubt” – in contrast, presumably, to Muslim historians, who simply shape ‘facts’ to fit their faith. The problem is that even though Holland looks dapper in his Indiana outfit, he is not really a historian – and in his latest work, it shows.
Although for the last nine years Holland has written popular history, the bulk of his writing is fiction – including titles such as The Vampyre (1995), Supping with Panthers (1996), The Sleeper in the Sands (1998), and The Bone Hunter (2001). Yet he has no qualifications in history, and cannot even speak Arabic – which is why he employed a Syriac and Arabic-speaking researcher.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, to find him – in true Indy-style – adopting a 1930s colonial mindset early on, informing viewers that: “To the ancients, the Arabs were regarded as notorious savages.” As if to hit this point home, the only people he finds to endorse orthodox accounts of Islam’s origins are Bedouin Arabs living in the desert. At one symbolic point, Holland prays amongst them, then suddenly – for no apparent reason – extracts himself from the congregation in the middle of the prayer only to peer, wonderingly, around him, as if to underscore the questionable origins of one of Islam’s most sacred rituals.
Strangely, the only other Muslim who makes an appearance to represent the ‘canonical’ view of Islam’s origins is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. Troubled by what he conceives as gaps in the historical record, and inconsistencies between the scriptural account and hard evidence on the ground, Holland is confidently informed by Nasr that such an absence of evidence is irrelevant for Muslims who recognise the limits of reason in the face of transcendental realities.
But Channel 4’s sole selection of Nasr as representative of the orthodox historical account is disingenuous. Although he is a renowned philosopher specialising in comparative religion, Islamic esoterism, philosophy of science, and metaphysics, Nasr has contributed little on the minutiae of Islamic history. Through such selective production values and imagery, the film strikes a stark contrast between Western logic and Muslim belief. Muslims are portrayed as steeped in a strange, backward irrationality – out of touch with the modern world with its newfangled, super-scientific methods of historical analysis, and immune to the impact of reason when it comes to longstanding beliefs.
What Channel 4 viewers aren’t told is that the theories Holland regurgitates are not only heavily contested in the wider Western scholarly community, they were almost completely discarded some decades ago. One of their core proponents, Patricia Crone, makes a regular talking-head appearance in the film (as well as being heavily referenced in Holland’s book among others). Holland essentially resurrects their ideas – published back in the 1970s – with unnerving gullibility, accentuating the “black hole” of evidence on early Islam where one should expect abundance.
But, unbeknownst to Channel 4 researchers, he is simply wrong. Petra Sijpestein, Professor of Arabic at Leiden University, remarks: “In the writings of 12 years after the death of Muhammad, Muslims are referred to as a separate religious group, first using the term muhajiroun, migrants who had left hearth and home with a purpose, or Saracens, descendents of Sarah and Abraham. And from around 730AD, terms like Islam, Muslims and specific religious customs such as zakat (charity) were already being practiced and described.”
Yet Holland is a man on a mission. Uncritically parroting the Crone thesis that “there is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century” – he infers that the Arab empires self-servingly concocted Islam as a radically distinct faith. For one thing, there are numerous Qur’anic manuscripts from the first century of hijra, which possess no significant textual deviations. But worse, apart from the fact that Islam has never presented itself as an entirely new religion (rather as a continuation and confirmation of the Jewish and Christian traditions), this theory has almost no currency at all in the very Western universities that Holland claims to admire.
As noted by the late Robert Seargeant, Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University, Crone’s argument “is not only bitterly anti-Islamic in tone, but anti-Arabian. Its superficial fancies are so ridiculous that at first one wonders if it is just a ‘leg pull’, pure ‘spoof’.” No wonder that the theory of a “reconstructable past” which “relies only on sources outside of Islam”, has “been almost universally rejected” according to Gordon Newsby, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University. This is because, says David Waines, an Islamic Studies professor at Lancaster University, it is “far too tentative and conjectural (and possibly contradictory).”
Serious debate on Islamic historiography is welcome – including re-evaluation of hadith (oral traditions of the Prophet), and re-assessing regressive elements of ‘Shari’ah Law‘ belonging to the cultural conventions of Arab dynasties. Channel 4‘s film distracts from this urgent task by popularising outmoded anti-Arab theories, long ago dismissed by most serious Western academic institutions as Eurocentric Orientalist fictions.
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