Revised, ‘Tom Holland’s Hang-Up Over Islam’s Origins: a Critique’

Tom Holland’s Obsession with Islam’s Origins: A Critique

Tom Holland wears his Indiana Jones hat

 The search for origins can lead us into some strange places: it often leads us nowhere, especially when it is the origins of others that are under investigation. While searches for origins generally run the risk of essentialism, deconstructing what we perceive to be the essentialisms of others while leaving our own intact, carries particular risks. Tom Holland’s Channel 4 documentary Islam: the Untold Story (note the definite article ‘An Untold Story’ might have been more modest) falls into precisely this trap, and thus represents a missed opportunity to engage in a discussion of early Islam and the meanings given to it today that takes us out of the comfort zones of our respective essentialisms.

During the 2000s, I taught Comparative Literature at the University of Bahrain. At that time, at the political and cultural moment bracketed between 11th September 2001 and the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings to come, the subject was controversial. Western essentialisms had been buttressed by the new significance given to Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), while within the centrally-controlled education systems of the Arab World rival essentialisms were promoted in a way that was both defensive and reactionary, and, in the politically fraught context of Bahrain, were sectarian. By virtue of the subject they had chosen to study, the undergraduate and postgraduate students I taught had, to a greater or lesser extent, decided to try to go beyond the limitations of essentialism. Some of them would go on to become leading figures in the 2011 uprising.

I decided to approach the essentialism question head on, and designed a course that explored the literary coming-into-being of both English and Arabic, exploring with my students pre-Islamic and early-Islamic texts and cultural products side-by-side with those of late Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxon period through to about 800 CE. My aims was to show how, very real cultural differences notwithstanding, both societies could meaningfully be seen through their texts and artefacts as different aspects of a wider post-Roman world: both shared a history that began in tribal paganism and a violent warrior ethos; both were perceived by the ‘civilized’ world as irredeemably ‘barbarian’ and ‘Other’.

Yet both adopted monotheistic faith, both eventually attempted to synthesise this with Classical learning, both adopted methods of ruling derived through a combination of tribal law and Roman government, both went on to establish empires that would eventually outstrip Rome in power and wealth, both would bequeath world languages of the first order of significance, both a heritage of science and learning that on balance would prove progressive and world-changing. These classes were, I believe, transformational experiences both for myself as a tutor and for the Bahraini students. We began, by the end of the course, to be able to see each other through each other’s eyes. Given its subject matter, therefore, I eagerly awaited Tom Holland’s documentary.

I’ll begin my critique of it where Holland begins. The Roman Empire, perhaps the greatest power on earth at the time, is tottering under the pressure of barbarian invasion. From the fringes of empire, people the Romans regarded as ‘notorious savages’, ‘the most despised and insignificant people on earth’ – slaves, pirates, raiders, mercenaries and brigands – are the ‘shock troops’ who invade and take over one of the empire’s most important provinces, eradicating Christianity and classical learning seemingly at a stroke. In time, these barbarian conquerors will adopt Roman ways and a monotheistic faith which they will spread, along with their language and culture, to the farthest corners of the earth. The story of the rise of this nomadic tribal people, how they became heirs of the Romans, then far surpassed the Romans’ greatest achievements on a divinely inspired mission to civilize will be presented right through to our time as the example for the rest of the world to emulate – one of the most decisive conquests in history.

All this is supposed to take place in the ‘full light of history’, yet when we try to investigate the evidence, we find nothing of the sort, only a kind of darkness. Everything is up for grabs, and researchers into the rise of this people can so easily feel as if they are being sucked into a kind of black hole, an utter absence of evidence, nothing that really helps tell the story – but there’s nothing there, silence.

Nobody doubts the invasions actually took place, but there is not a single contemporary English text, not a single contemporary inscription or coin to help us. The Romano-British priest Gildas (500-570 CE) is one of the few contemporary non-English witnesses whose writing has survived. He provides us with highly stylised account of the invasions, but his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’) is useful only in so far as it provides the names of kings and tribes, and some insight into how an educated monk would have seen the English invasion as a punishment from God. We have to wait nearly two hundred and fifty years for the first account written by an Englishman, the Venerable Bede’s 731 CE Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’). The next most authoritative account, Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum – which includes the first mention of story of King Canute’s (985-1035) failure to stem the tide, taught in English schools until the 1980s –  wasn’t written until 1129.

By then the English kings had learned that the maintenance of their power was best served by emulating the Romans’ combination of ‘God and Empire’. Go back to the 500s and 600s, and all we find is silence: we only have Bede’s word as to who the English were, what happened to the Romano-Britons, and how the English escaped the ‘black hole’ around their beginnings through their conversion to Christianity….

These of course are the terms in which Tom Holland problematizes the history of early Islam in Islam the Untold Story. Having done so the show has the narrator sort-of praying with Jordanians of Bedouin descent, ‘the face of the Arab conquest, shock troops that in the seventh century spread out of Arabia, founding a colossal empire spanning half the world ….’ But these are thoroughly modern people, dressed in modern clothes, revealing thoroughly modern attitudes, explaining in a modern dialect of Arabic the understanding of early Islam they gained from the education they received in modern Jordanian schools.

 Tom Holland with ‘The face of the Arab invasion’, made-in-China thobes, mobile phones, modern education, modern Arabic and all; oh, and some camels ….

At this point I imagine an Arab TV researcher on the origins of England, seeking out blunt-nosed, ruddy-faced, blue-eyed, blonde-haired farmers from a remote village in East Anglia or Northumbria, letting them explain – these rural voices the only English voices in a documentary entirely in highly educated Arabic – the history of the English as they understand it from their education in the village school, the Arab narrator adding the authoritative voiceover ‘the face of the Anglo-Saxon conquest…’ as he pretended to take Holy Communion with them in their village church.

Possible field research locations for the forthcoming Al Jazeera documentary ‘England: the Untold Story’  ;-) 

One might object that, unlike the history of Islam, the history of the English is not a sacred history, that what Holland is seeking to do is to recover the human history by deconstructing Islam’s sacred history, that he concedes that the centrality of the human history of the Arabs, and that the documentary seeks to rescue ‘the city of man from the city of God … to map the human past in human terms … to make the maps fit the facts … instead of  ‘a heavenly plan’. From the perspective of secular history these are perfectly laudable aims. But Holland’s position is not unproblematic, not least of all because it forgets the religious fervour with which the English and their history were foisted upon the subject peoples of the British Empire.

John Ruskin, 1819-1900

John Ruskin provides a prime example of this evangelical Englishness in an 1869 Oxford lecture that was to fuel the young Cecil Rhodes’ hubristic aspiration to be the ‘Colossus of Africa’, one foot in Alexandria, the other in Cape Town:

There is a destiny now possible to us—the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted or refused. We are still undegenerate in race; a race mingled of the best northern blood. We are not yet dissolute in temper, but still have the firmness to govern, and the grace to obey. We have been taught a religion of pure mercy, which we must either now betray, or learn to defend by fulfilling. And we are rich in an inheritance of honour, bequeathed to us through a thousand years of noble history, which it should be our daily thirst to increase with splendid avarice, so that Englishmen, if it be a sin to covet honour, should be the most offending souls alive.’

Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) as ‘Colossus of Africa’

This is a vision of sacred history if ever there was one. Tom Holland is right to suggest that history today should be about ‘doubt and scepticism’, but he is less than even-handed in his deployment of these. His voice drips with privilege, his Middle Eastern travelogue offers a secularised version of know-it-all Englishness, reinforced by his use, as a televisual trope to denote ‘the deep past’, grainy black and white newsreel footage from the Middle East of the British Empire. Holland’s documentary apparently stimulated some 1,000 complains to Channel 4 and Ofcom from ‘British Muslims’. It’s easy to dismiss this as another example of ‘Muslim Rage’, but is it unreasonable for people who have endured racism in the UK and whose recent ancestors endured the yoke of colonialism to be enraged at such as selective deployment of ‘doubt and scepticism’ in the deconstruction of ‘sacred history’?

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent in the early second century CE

The Roman Empire begins to fragment around the second century CE. Then, Arabia and the Germania that was the urheimat of the English, like the Roman Empire’s African and Slavic provinces, were sources of slaves and mercenaries to the struggling and embattled Empire, their peoples demonised as ‘notorious savages’, ‘the most despised and insignificant people on earth’ – we see a fictional depiction of this period in the 2000 movie Gladiator.

Slaves and mercenaries began to get the upper hand after about 150 CE

The period from then to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the early 400s, through to the conquest of the Western provinces by Germanic tribes in the 500s, the rise of Islam in the 600s until the rise of relatively stable post-Roman kingdoms in the 800s in the West and in the Middle East is notoriously tricky to define. The early part of this period might be called ‘late Classical’, the latter part ‘early Medieval’. British archaeology calls the period from 400 to 600 ‘sub-Roman’, while the ‘Eastern Roman’ or Byzantine Empire of 320-1453 is sometimes called ‘the Enduring Roman Empire’; historians of Islam might talk about a ‘pre-Islamic’ period followed by an ‘early Islamic’ period followed by periods named after major dynasties – Umayyad, Fatimid, Abbasid. But all this terminology is highly problematic.

The Enlightenment term ‘the Dark Ages’ for the period roughly 400-800 – invoked by Tom Holland when he talks about a ‘black hole’ and ‘darkness’ – has generally been abandoned by respectable academic historians on account of its pejorative connotations vis-à-vis non-Roman peoples. The period is obscure, the German term Völkerwanderung ‘the migration of peoples’, what Classicists used to call the ‘Barbarian Invasions’, is sometimes used to describe the invasion of the Empire by Germanic peoples: the Goths’ sack of Rome, the conquest of much of Italy by the Lombards, of Gaul by the Franks, of Spain and North Africa by the Vandals and Visigoths, of Britainnia by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – although Hunnic, Semitic, Slavic and Turkic migrations also hastened the collapse of much of the Roman Empire.

More is known from late Classical sources about the invasions that struck at the epicentre of Empire than those at its periphery. Such sources tell us quite a lot, for example, about the Lombards and Arian Goths in Italy — although not from the Goths themselves, their Germanic language is known mainly from a translation of the New Testament.

Yet we know next to nothing about this period on the periphery in Britannia and GermaniaJudea and Arabia Felix we find a similar ‘silence’ a similar ‘darkness’, none of the texts, coins or inscriptions demanded by Tom Holland of early Islam. For example, even though the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo burials in Suffolk were excavated back in 1939, we are still not entirely certain that the person buried in the main burial mound there was Rædwald, King of East Anglia (599-624), one of the first English warlords to convert to Christianity following the 597 mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury from Rome to convert the pagan invaders. We think it is he, but we just don’t know …  there’s just a black hole …..

Both with the early history of England and of Islam we are obliged reconstruct events either from a small handful of late Classical texts of limited reliability, or from later histories written hundreds of year later. One failing of Islam: the Untold Story is that it fails to contextualise the ‘silence’ and ‘darkness’ that Holland says surrounds early Islam in the context of the more general ‘silence’ and ‘darkness’ that covers the rest of the early post-Roman world. It might well be the case that we only know detail of early Islam from Islamic sources written hundreds of years later, but the same is true of the history of England and most of Europe.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the mouth of the Thames is to the Romans what the mouth of the Congo was to C19th Belgian imperialists …. darkness!

Another failing is that Holland demands of the Arabs of the 600s the same sorts of proofs he would expect of the Romans – coins, inscriptions, lengthy continuous texts – ignoring the fact that the Arabs, like the Anglo-Saxons of that period, produced no minted coinage of their own, built no monumental buildings to inscribe, and were a largely oral culture for whom writing was still a recent technology. This is perhaps a typical prejudice of the Classicist. Certainly, it raises real issues concerning the historiography of the period, but Holland’s problematizing it as a problem that uniquely concerns the Arabs and Islam is in itself problematic – a twenty-first century manifestation of the Besserwissen of the nineteenth-century German pioneers of the ‘Critical Method’, which underpins the creation of modern Classics in Britain’s elite universities of the mid-nineteen century, and which informs so much of Holland’s approach to history: a ‘knowing better’, a cultural and temporal arrogance whereby the ‘objective’ historian, doubting and sceptical, ‘knows better than’ hitherto subject peoples, people who lived in a different time and place, people who, perhaps, followed or follow a faith better known for its radical difference from ‘us’.

 Crone

So Tom Holland knows better than Arabians ancient and modern about the climate, topography and agriculture of the Hijaz, in which Mecca is situated. His Besserwissen is informed by that of Danish writer Patricia Crone. Her contested 1987 book Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam argued that Qur’anic references to farming, olives and other ‘Mediterranean’ crops suggested that early Islamic events took place not in Mecca, but closer to the Mediterranean: ‘there was no agriculture in Mecca’, Holland insists, ‘a barren and infertile place’. Mecca was not ‘the source of Islam’, and, Da Vinci Code style, ‘the clues in the Qur’an itself’ lead to the now abandoned Nabataean city of Abdad, in the Negev desert in today’s Israel.

Unfortunately for Crone and Holland, while Mecca is situated in a ‘dry valley’, the Hijaz region is well-supplied with springs and Oases. The city of Medina, to which Muhammad and the first Muslims fled from Mecca in 622, was a significant oasis city that was noted for its groves and irrigation. There is substantial textual evidence for ‘Mediterranean’ type agricultural produce being grown in the area one to four days’ ride by pack animal from Mecca. There is also well-attested archaeological evidence for large-scale irrigation works in the Hijaz, in use until the modern period until the electric pump and desalination took over. Although these have been refurbished during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, many certainly date from Roman and some from Hellenistic times. One does not have to travel north over 1,000 kilometres to Abdad to find figs and farmers.

Madina’s Sadaqiyya Oasis, one of very many in the Hijaz … so no farmers there?

Despite knowing no Arabic whatsoever, Holland’s Besserwissen gives him liberty to ponder over ‘where all the various component parts of the Qur’an are coming from, are they necessarily to be attributed to one person living at one time … when you ask that kind of question how far to push it’. Normally, it is possible, through the analysis of discourse and dialect, to map out the different linguistic and temporal layers of ancient texts that are compiled in the way Holland suggests for the Qur’an. This is a well-trodden path in, for example, the study of texts as diverse as Gilgamesh, Homer, the Torah, the New Testament, Beowulf, even plays attributed to Shakespeare. Yet there is little evidence of the Qur’an having been layered in the way Holland suggests – it shows a linguistic unity consistent with it having been composed within one lifetime.

Holland bases his better knowledge on his reading of Sura Al-Saffat, verses 137-138. Standing by what he says are the ruins of Sodom by the Dead Sea he reads them ‘ … you pass them by morning and at night ….’, suggesting, perhaps, the way in which a London taxi driver might pass the Tower of London every few hours. He then suggests this as evidence that the Qur’an was written there, not Mecca (he makes no mention of Medina). But this is a distortion because he reads to verses as if they were one, interpreting the Arabic conjunction ‘wa’ as ‘and’, whereas in the context of two separate verses it is better read as ‘and also’. The Quranic verses suggest that these ruins will be passed on long journeys (these taking place by moonlight in the hot summer months), not that they will be passed ‘several times each day’.

According to this map, Sodom’s underwater!

Tom Holland moans that, unlike the Bible, there is no depiction of landscape in the Qur’an. Yet the Qur’an is a single book, whereas the Bible is a compilation of many. Certain parts of the Bible, notably some of the Psalms, richly evoke the natural world of the Holy Land in a way that resembles lyrical poetry (especially in modern translation), the Qur’an tends not to do this of Arabia. That said, those parts of the Bible that are most clearly expressed in a prophetic idiom, say the prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament or the book’ of Revelation in the New, read very much like the Qur’an. If Holland knew Arabic he would know that there are passages in the Meccan suras that richly evoke what was most important to the survival the desert Arabs – the alternation of day and night and of the seasons, and the movements of the sun, stars, and planets – in rhymed prose of great power and dignity.

Holland is anxious to demonstrate ‘influence’, specifically that of Christianity and Judaism, on the ‘pagan’ Arabs. While such influence certainly took place, his ignorance of the languages involved prevents him from understanding far deeper connections between the different monotheistic traditions than superficial influence. Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Syraic and the Arabic of the Quran are all closely related – Aramaic is the spoken language of Christ’s time and the lingua franca of the northern part of the Middle East from about 600 BCE to about 800 CE, Syraic is the learned language of Middle Eastern Christendom from about 200 to 1000.

Arabic certainly contains loan words from these languages to do with theological concepts and devotional practices. But much more importantly the four languages share cognates – ‘blood brother’ words that share a common etymological origin between closely related languages. Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew and Syriac share ‘religious’ cognates, but they also share cognates for abstractions like ‘freedom’ or ‘wisdom’, emotions like ‘love’ or ‘fear’, common man-made objects like ‘book’, ’house’, or ’tent’, numbers, a plethora of animals and plants, heavenly bodies, really basic things like ‘water’, ‘earth’ and ‘air’.

Understanding this deep relationship between the Semitic languages of the Middle East allows one to go beyond mere ‘influence’ (always, for Holland, a one-way influence), to understand the deep inter-relatedness of the Semitic monotheisms. Viewed this way, that Arabic-Islamic discourse emerges as an equal and authentic variation on a wider theme explored in different but parallel ways by Jewish tradition expressed in Aramaic and Hebrew (modern ‘Hebrew’ letters are actually Aramaic ones), and in the Christian tradition in Syriac and the Semeticised Greek of the Middle East. But Holland’s better knowledge prevents him from making such ecumenical and inter-faith connections. Rather, his crude reworking of the ‘critical method’ of the nineteenth century enhances division and misunderstanding.

Just as Holland fails to contextualise what he sees as the ‘silence’ or ‘darkness’ surrounding early Islam in terms of what was happening in the wider post-Roman world, so he also ignores the diversity within Islam of opinions about the events of the early Islamic period. While it might be objected that Islamic disagreements on early Islam are peripheral to his core thesis, Holland’s ignoring (or ignorance) of this diversity undermines his central argument. Turning his attention to Jerusalem and Muawiya I , first ruler of the Umayyad state (what Holland – and nobody else these days – calls ‘the Arab Empire’), he asserts ‘If Muawiya was a Muslim, he showed precious little sign of it … on not one of his coins, on not one of his documents, is there a single mention of Muhammad ….’

Muawiya on a coin: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, render unto God what is God’s; few Shia Muslims would be surprised that Muawiya — barbarian warrior-emperor par excellence — showed few signs of being a Muslim

Holland uses this to introduce his core argument, that ‘Islam didn’t make the Arab Empire, rather the Arab Empire made Islam.’ For Holland, Islam as it has historically developed and as we know it today is the retrospective creation of the Umayyads developed to justify and maintain their ‘imperial’ rule. Thus, according to this view, Muhammad becomes a shadowy figure who may or may not have had much to do with the Qur’an, which anyway was created or compiled somewhere up by the Dead Sea from fragmentary fables from all over Arabia and ‘influences’ from Judaism and Christianity.

The Dome of the Rock, in the far, frozen North …. 

To support this argument, Holland suggests that the Umayyads learned from the Romans the ‘lesson’ of justifying state with church and church with state as an imperial modus operandi. It is true that the Umayyads affected a self-consciously imperial style. It is with them that we first see the systematic Arab coinage, and the monumental architecture and inscriptions that mean so much to Tom Holland, and that these generally follow late-Roman patterns. The Dome of the Rock (691 CE), for example, shares its basic dimensions with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (326), and its plan with buildings like the Basilica of San Vitale (546) in Ravenna, the Church of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus (537), the ‘Little Aya Sofia’ in Constantinople, and ultimately ‘double octagon’ Roman temples such as the third-century one at ‘Pagans Hill’ in Somerset. Surviving Umayyad palaces in geographical Syria reveal resolutely secular decoration showing scenes of hunting, drinking and dancing, with little or no obviously Islamic content.

The ‘Pagan Hill’ temple, Somerset

Yet one important group of Muslims – the Shia – would find the statement that ‘If Muawiya was a Muslim, he showed precious little sign of it …’ completely uncontroversial. For them, the Umayyads were not only theologically illegitimate, they were tyrants and usurpers who, with one or two possible exceptions, turned their backs on Islam and pursued a thoroughly secular lifestyle. The Umayyads – who liked to enrich themselves with all the trappings of pomp and luxury one might expect from a post-Roman potentate in any other former Roman province – might thus be compared to the Germanic princes who, having conquered the Western provinces, then copied Roman methods of rule to entrench their power, and adopted the lifestyle, fashions and art of ruling class Romans as an expression of their status.

Indeed, the Shia are full of ‘doubt and scepticism’ as to the sincerity of the last minute conversion to Islam of Muawiya (602-680) and his father Abu Sufyan (560-652) at the time of Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca (630), who had both been implacable enemies to Muhammad up until that point. Tom Holland makes no mention of the Shia view of early Islamic history because it utterly undermines his core argument. Holland makes no mention whatsoever of the first four ‘Rightly Guided’ Caliphs (632-661), the assassination of Ali (598-661), the rebellion of Muhammad’s grandson Al Husayn (626-680) against Umayyad rule and the massacre at Karbala (680). Instead, he talks vaguely of a ‘civil war’ in the ‘Arab Empire’, focusing instead on the far less significant rebellion of ‘Abdullah ibn Zubair (624-692) against the fifth Umayyad ruler ‘Abd al-Malik (646-705). It is this ruler who minted the first ‘Islamic’ coin that is so fundamental to Tom Holland’s retrospective construction of Islam from the ‘Arab Empire’ as a way of delegitimising future rebellions though creating a Roman style theological legitimacy for the Umayyad state.

Muawiya and Yazid had a vested interest in diminishing the status of Mecca, ditto Tom Holland?

The problem with this argument is the Shia. The Shi’i sects see the legitimate spiritual and temporal leadership of Islam as being exercised by a number of ‘Imams’ who are direct descendants of Muhammad through ‘Ali. The largest Shi’i sect acknowledges twelve of these Imams, the last of which disappears from the pages of history in 941 CE. Each of these Imams generates collections of Hadith that are, for the Shia, as authoritative as those of Muhammad.

This creates two difficulties for Tom Holland. Firstly, Holland might be able to deny that the life of Muhammad (540-632) was not really ‘in the full blaze of history’, but this can hardly be said of figures who are attested to well into the tenth century, most of who produced extensive literatures and interacted before hundreds of credible witnesses with the leading figures of that time. I make this point not to argue for the superiority of Shi’i sources over Sunni ones, but to undermine the argument that there is a discontinuity of some two centuries between the events of early Islam and the composition of the Hadith literature. In the Shi’i tradition there is a continuous and uninterrupted extension of the Hadith literature into the 900s. This enables the Hadith literature of the Imamate to engage with the pressing issues of the period 700 to 900, for instance the reconciliation of the Abrahamic tradition of revelation and Hellenistic rationalism, without that literature being accused of retrospective compilation, anachronism, ahistoricism, or discontinuity.

Al Kulayni’s ‘al Kaafiy’ (c. 940 CE) contains over 16,000 narrations from the era of the Imamate, 632-900, around 5,500 are deemed saheeh

 Secondly, in the Shia traditions the Qur’an is most certainly first revealed in Mecca, and all the action of the Prophetic period takes place in the Hijaz around Mecca and Medina. If, as Holland’s better knowledge tells us, the Qur’an came into existence not in Mecca but up by the Dead Sea, why would the Imams, implacably opposed to Umayyad rule, have gone along with what they knew to be an Umayyad lie?  If the origins of Islam were up in the far north of Arabia, on the borders of the then Roman province of Judea, why wouldn’t the Imams and their followers said so? The only way out of this would be to argue that the Imams – acknowledged even by contemporary enemies as men of the highest moral standing – were so cynical and duplicitous that for generations they went along with what they knew to be an Umayyad lie, and that none of their followers ever raised any objection to this.

The ‘Abd Al Malik dinar bearing the shahaadah, so vitally important to Tom Holland

Not only this, but somehow the lie would have to pre-date Umayyad rule, then be adopted by the Umayyads, and survive their overthrow in 750. Significantly, even the earliest texts of the Qur’an, such as the ‘Uthmanic palimpsests discovered recently in Yemen, do not reflect any of the political and sectarian divisions of the seventh and eighth centuries. Likewise, while these divisions are sometimes manifested in the Hadith literature, the compilers of the Sunni literature were aware of this, and accorded a low level of reliability to Hadiths they thought reflected this. Even in Tom Holland’s less than deft hands the ‘Critical Method’ approach to history depends on the principle of ‘plausibility’ to establish viable revisionist readings: the only possible counter-argument to the Shia and Sunni narratives considered as a continuum stretches plausibility until it becomes mere conspiracy theory.

Anglo-Saxon king Offa (d.796)  also coined a dinar with the shahadah, cue spooky music and Tom with furrowed brow pacing around the library of some august academic institution, “‘Ere, mate, do you have a card?” ….

Then I’d say, ‘Cherchez la secte!’ The Middle East is replete with sects that represent survivals of ancient division, the smaller branches of the Abrahamic family tree, like the Samaritans, the Mandeans, the Khawarij, the Yazidis, the Druze, the Baha’is.

Even where these sects no longer flourish today, their texts are still extant, like those of the Essenes or the Manicheans, or they are at least known through the texts of others, such as the Sadducees. If there was a proto-Islamic sect pre-dating Meccan Islam existing at Abdad or elsewhere in Nabatene borderland between Arabia and the Roman Empire, an advanced and literate society with extensive trade links with the rest of the Roman world, it is surely utterly implausible that no sect, nor text of a sect, nor witness to the sect would have survived. The plausibility of the Holland-Crone line flies out of the window, when we look at the evidence, there’s nothing, just silence ….

Lastly, Tom Holland seems to have a problem with the idea of sacred histories and sacred geographies. A historian trained in advances in historical method developed since the Second World War – informed by critical theory contemporary archaeological, anthropological, and ethnographic practice – would have no difficulty in conceptualising the sacred within a human history and material geography. Respecting the scared and exploring its roles and meanings while avoiding essentialism and remaining firmly planted in the world of the human and social sciences, objective evidence, and cause and effect is at the heart of a twenty-first century approach to the history of religion. Tom Holland’s old-fashioned know-it-all approach does not allow him to do this.

The search for origins is often futile and divisive. Islam: the Untold Story is a missed opportunity to transcend an out-dated Besserwissen approach to comparative religion, and to establish an inter-faith dialogue based on insightful mutual understanding and acceptance of who we are today. While informed revisionist readings of the history of all faiths, Islam included, is to be encouraged, Tom Holland’s TV show, an anti-Islamic polemic dressed up as history, does not do what it says on the tin. In reality it’s just more post-9/11 telly fodder, a tired and clapped out continuation of the Clash of Civilizations by other means. It’s time to move on….

 Baghdad, a Muslim woman walks past a poster depicting Christ and Al Hussein, isn’t it time to dump the Clash of Civilizations in the dustbin of history?

3 thoughts on “Revised, ‘Tom Holland’s Hang-Up Over Islam’s Origins: a Critique’

  1. Wonderful. This should be part of a chapter in a book on “Pseudo-Knowledge”..the term used by professor Kevin reinhart to indicate those who come to class “knowing” all there is to know about islam.

  2. Hi.

    I don’t understand your interpretation of Surah 37, verses 133-138.

    I’m not an Arabic speaker, so I’m relying on this:
    http://www.multimediaquran.com/quran/037/037-138.htm
    It provides the Arabic original plus three different English translations.

    Here are the relevant six lines, in the first translation (by Ahmed Raza Khan & Mohammed Aqib Qadri):

    133 And indeed Lut is one of the Noble Messengers.
    134 When We rescued him and his entire household.
    135 Except an old woman, who became of those who stayed behind.
    136 We then destroyed the others.
    137 And indeed you pass over them in the morning.-
    138 And during the night; so do you not have sense?

    The passage is saying that the ruins of Sodom should serve as a vivid warning to the unbelievers as to what God can do when he’s displeased. It’s the second half of line 138 which delivers the lesson to be drawn from the previous six lines: “so do you not have sense?” (Raza/Quadri); “will ye not understand” (Ali); “have ye then no sense?” (Pickthall).

    In Holland’s defence, I’d say it’s a more vivid warning if it’s implying “you all pass by these ruins all the time”, rather than “some of you occasionally pass by these ruins on long distance trading trips”. The second interpretation is not impossible, just far less probable without further confirmation from the text.

    I don’t understand why you think beginning a line with “wa” (and) implies a significant break in the flow of meaning from line 137 to line 138. Hundreds, maybe thousands of lines of the Qur’an begin with “wa” (and). It feels like your’e trying to make a commonplace feature of the Qur’an do a lot of interpretative work. Are you really saying the placement of the word “wa” at the start of the line is enough to “suggest that these ruins will be passed on long journeys (these taking place by moonlight in the hot summer months), not that they will be passed ‘several times each day’.”?

    • The particle “wa” is a connective which is generally accurately translated from Modern Standard Arabic into English as “and”. However, in “Classical” Arabic it has a variety of other functions. The “wa” here is almost certainly what is called /al waaw li-muTlaq il jama’/ “The waaw denoting unrestricted conjunction”, i.e. not necessarily implying simultaneousness nor relative order. The difference is similar to that between the English “I drove past London Bridge and Tower Bridge” and “I drove cars and also lorries”, or “I drove cars; likewise, lorries.” This use of ‘wa’ is suggested by the break in the verses, and by its syntactical context.

      Also note that 137 says that “you” (pl.) pass them /muSbiHeen/ while 138 says /bi-layli/. In MSA /layl/ means “night”, but in CA it can also mean “night-journey”, hence phrases like /’akhu layl/ which means “nightfarer”. In 137 /muSbiHeen/ is an adjective describing the plural “you” /kum/, meaning “while you are active in the forenoon”: thus, we find two quite distinct activities suggested: passing by the ruins while active in the forenoon, and night-journeys.

      For the ancient Arabs the two sorts of journey would have required quite different preparation, and knowing at what time of the year to undertake one sort of travel, and at what time of the year to undertake the other could very easily become a life or death decision. Some night-journeys required different routes to day journeys, since things like potentially deadly sinking sand might not be seen at night, or some passes were inhabited by /ibnaa’ l-layl/ “bandits”. However, this is not the case with the ruins attributed to Lot, hence “Verily, will active in the forenoon you pass by them. / Likewise, by night [ or “on night-journeys”]: therefore, will not understand?”

      An excellent translation of the Qur’an into English has yet to be written. When it is, I suspect it will be done by some sort of committee of scholars, linguists and writers, as was the case with the King James Bible. Of the translations given on the link you cite, Pickthall is easily the best, although there a flaws with that. In the interpretation to these verses I’ve given above I’ve gone out of my way to put a different emphasis to that of the translation given on your link. A more straightforward one might be “Certainly you pass by them in the morning. Likewise by night: will you not understand?” In any case, Tom Holland’s reading of these verses to imply “which you pass by every few hours” really is clutching at straws.

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