“Holland’s claim that the Prophet does not appear in records until 60 years after his death is historically obnoxious”
Just in case you missed the point, the IERA response to Tom Holland’s documentary, “Islam: The Untold Story,” aired on Britain’s Channel 4, claims that
Holland’s claim that the Prophet does not appear in records until 60 years after his death is historically obnoxious. [my italics]
Despite its title, this organisation — the Islamic Education and Research Academy – constitutes a problem for academic research. Tom Holland may be, as the IERA response claims, wrong, but calling his mistake, if mistake it is, obnoxious, is a worrying example of religious amour propre — if it does not constitute, in itself, a veiled threat.
As it turns out, a scheduled screening of the film has been cancelled (although it is still available — in the UK, at least — online, here, and thanks to DutchA, we now have the link to it on Vimeo) because a deluge of threats was made on Twitter (presumably by outraged Muslims, since the cancellation was said to be due to security concerns). And so the old story is repeated once again, of how radical Muslims manage to censor what they do not want anyone to hear or to read, and this control over speech is having a seriously degrading effect on our freedoms — while at the same time making them look as stupid as religions deserve to look. In the West over a period of many years, the right to freely criticise religions and world-views is readily accepted even by those who may resent criticism (although the Roman Catholic Church, behind the scenes, does its best to control the criticism), other religions are regularly criticised and held up to deserved contempt — the New York Times even accepted a full-page advertisement encouraging Roman Catholics to abandon their church, while refusing one about Islam. Nevertheless, Islam, by the violent response of a minority, and by credible threats against the lives of those who dare to criticise Islam, has managed to control and limit the criticism of Islam, and thus (unbelievably) to ensure that public discourse about Islam is largely confined to endorsements of Islam as a religion of peace, and the chief source of Western science and progress, despite manifest evidence to the contrary.
I cannot comment in any detail on the historical details of this particular dispute — the book is listed on amazon.ca, but reports that it is normally available in 2 to 3 weeks – but I can comment on the spirit in which it is being carried out. The IERA response is typical of the Muslim response, even by seasoned journalists, as the review in the New Statesman by Ziauddin Sardar amply demonstrates. Indeed, I have read a number of reviews of Holland’s book, and Sardar’s stands out as one of the least measured and responsible of the lot (at least in the secular press). Some, like Peter Webb, speak critically of the book, suggesting that Holland has gone far beyond his remit, suggesting that
[u]ltimately, Holland’s work is another selective recollection of the past, carefully constructed according to his own revisionist agenda.
This may be true, but Holland claims, with some show of reason, to be seeking an explanation for the rise of Islam which does not presuppose a supernatural cause, and without some of the qualifications that Holland adds, it is hard to see how this is possible.
One of the things that has largely been taken for granted is that the Islamic account of its own history is reliable. This comes out clearly in Sardar’s review, where he leaves very little room for the possibility of a critical revision of that account. Indeed, he accuses Holland of “Orientalism” for his presumption in addressing himself to that history, an accusation which is surely the kiss of death for the credibility of his account. The problem with Sardar’s criticism is that it is not clear that he has read the book. For example, the reasons for Holland situating Muhammad roughly in the region of Transjordan, instead of in the Hijaz, which Sardar thinks risible, is that it makes sense of the syncretistic nature of the Qu’ran, undoubtedly made up of partly understood and remembered Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian sources, which its supposed origin in the environs of Mecca would not. There is no reason whatever to think that the Qu’ran is the actual revelation of a god. It is too much of a pastiche of identifiably different source materials, or, as Christopher Hitchens said, a plagiarism, for that. And, if it is true, as is now apparently acknowledged, that Mecca was not on any major trade route, and so was not likely to have been a meeting place where these ideas were held aloft in the cultural mix, the only explanation for the origins of the Qu’ran, which we may assume originated in some form from the original Muhammad – whose existence, as Sardar suggests, Holland was not so foolish as to deny – though greatly edited and transformed over the years, lie in Muhammad’s (or at least its later authors’ or redactors’) being conversant with the traditions that are represented in Islam’s holy text. Holland adds that, if his hypothesis were true, there is every likelihood that Muhammad was a literate man, and that the stories of his illiteracy are a fabrication to make the apparent “miracle” of the text that much more potent. All this is compelling.
Another thing that Holland’s analysis apparently does is to explain the sudden eruption of the Arabs into the civilised world of the Persian and Byzantine Empires. Weakened by warring with each other, the Byzantine and Persian Empires had been further reduced by an outbreak of the plague (during the reign of Justinian), which gave the increasingly warlike tribes from the Arabian peninsula an opportunity to make increasingly bold incursions from the confines of their desert fastnesses into the rich and settled lands of the Fertile Crescent. Islam, according to Holland, is the result, not the cause, of the Arabian imperial successes, and like those whose lands they occupied, and whose rule they assumed, they shaped a religion within the same traditions, only better, as they thought, supposing it to be a final revelation — a bold imperialist fiction. Holland’s is undoubtedly a bold, and certainly a revisionist interpretation of the events surrounding the origin and growth of Islam, and if, as Peter Webb says, there is no opposing counsel in Holland’s argument, this will now undoubtedly be endeavoured. However, it will not happen at all, and Holland will simply win the argument by default, if those who are so offended as to call Holland’s work historically obnoxious simply fall back on their dogmatic assumptions, and instead of making the historical case, simply rain down curses and violence on the heads those who offend them.
He wants to constantly bank on the devious and uncertain and disregard the apparent and the obvious. He seems to be a reverse incarnation of a fundamental teaching of Islam:
He (Allah) it is Who has sent down to thee (Muhammad) the Book; in it there are verses that are decisive in meaning — they are the basis of the Book — and there are others that are susceptible of different interpretations. But those in whose hearts is perversity pursue such thereof as are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and seeking wrong interpretation of it. And none knows its right interpretation except Allah and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge; they say, ‘We believe in it; the whole is from our Lord.’ — And none heed except those gifted with understanding. (Al Quran 3:8)
This verse is a fitting rebuttal of Holland’s work. Allah says about those with a negative and prejudiced approach, “those in whose hearts is perversity pursue such thereof as are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and seeking wrong interpretation of it,” achieving nothing, and true knowledge always escapes them.
But that is obviously already to concede the argument, for you cannot reasonably respond to argument with the dogma that the argument itself calls into question. Nor can the testimony of a text regarding itself be reasonably taken to support its own claims, though fundamentalist Christians, alas, still think so.
I do not say — how could I, not having read the book itself? — that many searching questions cannot be addressed to Holland’s hypothesis, but simply on the face of it he offers an answer to those who question Ernest Renan’s famous claim that, unlike other religions, Islam was born in the clear light of history. This is far from being the truth, though many Muslims may not want to acknowledge that their religion, just like all others, is a human creation through and through, and has a perfectly reasonable secular explanation. I am encouraged by the news of Holland’s new study (it was published earlier this year), which only came to my attention because Muslims thought it wise to threaten violence if a private screening of the documentary should take place. It seems to me, however, the most plausible explanation for the origins of Islam that I have yet heard. It is a sign, too, that the genie of the critical historical study of Islam is now out of the bottle, and not carefully tucked away in the halls of academe, and it cannot be put back in. However, since the critical historical study of the Bible has not stopped the Christian religion in its flights of fancy; it is doubtful that historical light shed on the origins of Islam will have any more effect in the end than to inform those who wish to be informed. Those who wish to continue to believe in legends will have of course continue to do so, and think they, and only they, know the truth. And if it were not for their threats and violence, we could leave them alone. But since the religions will not leave well enough alone, we must show that they are wrong. Holland’s may be an important step on this journey, for he brings to public attention things that have so far been under the wraps of polite academic discourse. Almost everyone who speaks about Holland praises his style. Malise Ruthven, in the Wall Street Journal, sums up his own review in this way:
Mr. Holland admits that his answers are “unashamedly provisional,” but he traces a broad arc that connects the rise of Islam with the religious themes that accompanied the decline of the imperial systems of Rome, Byzantium and Persia. His conclusions may be tentative, but they are convincing. His book is elegantly written and refreshingly free from specialist jargon. Marshaling its resources with dexterity, it is a veritable tour de force.
That is high praise from the author of many books about Islam, including one in the Oxford very short introductions series. Having read a dozen or more reviews today, this is a book which, in my estimation, invites close attention.