“People talk about Islamophobia [but] the real Islamophobia … is to assume that if you say anything that might be controversial or upsetting to Muslims, they might come and kill you.”
– Tom Holland
After the furore surrounding Tom Holland’s documentary Islam – The Untold Story I thought I’d check it out (note this is not the more controversial Innocence of Muslims film). Here’s a quick overview:
He presented the investigation within the construct of a personal journey, no doubt to have his audience empathise with him more and minimise any backlash. He says he started out with an interest in the origins of the Arabian – and at some point Islamic – empire that conquered both the Persian and Roman empires. He set out to answer the question: “The muslim conquest has little evidence. What can we say about Mohammed, what do we know about the origins of islam?”
He was surprised to find that there was minimal historical evidence from the 7th century when Mohammed lived, saying that the first evidence of Mohammed was on coins 60 years after his death. He says the Koran was written too long after the death of Mohammed so it’s an unreliable source, as well as being a biased account.
He spent too long sensitively setting the scene with comments to soften up the listener such as Guy Stroumsa saying “Sometimes the belief of the believer and the understanding of the scholar cannot be squared” and historian Patricia Crone saying “There’s a choice between doing the history and not doing the history, and so I do the history even though it may hurt some people”.
His question then became more refined; Bedouin Arabs swept out of the desert in the 7th century and conquered half the world. Muslims now say it was all on the back of islam and the prophet but Holland questions that.
The Arabs say it started “In a mountain cave [where Mohammed] heard the voice of an angel. The message: ‘There is only one god. Mohammed is the prophet of god. Islam is submission to god’. And it was this message that gave them an empire… or was it? No one doubts the conquest took place but the question is: was it because of islam?”
Crone says of Mohammed: “We know that he existed. We know that he was active in Arabia. We know that he’s associated with a book the Koran. But we have absence of evidence. We have the Koran but we can’t tell the story on the basis of the Koran.”
Five years after the death of Mohammed the Arab conquest took Jerusalem from christians. “The conquered residents knew the invaders believed in one god, but what were the details? Nobody had any notion that the Arabs were doing what they were doing in the name of a freshly minted and coherent religion, still less that what they were doing was in the name of islam”. The new Arab rulers were closer to the Jews – they began praying on the ruins of the Jewish temples, rather than the christian ones. Both christians and Jews were still practising in Jerusalem decades after this invasion. In fact, the christians suspected a Jewish source behind the invasion of the Arabs. The Jews hoped that the Arab invaders would enable them to get their holy places back. They began to believe they were messianic, hoping they would be liberated.
The next section questioned the evidence for Mecca being the birth place of Mohammed. There is “only a single ambiguous mention of Mecca in the Koran, or indeed in any single datable text for over 100 years after Muhammed’s death”. The Koran never states that Mohammed lived in Mecca or that he received his revelations there. It mentions a sanctuary but doesn’t say where it was. He says that most historians are equivocal on its location.
So here is how he interprets the evidence:
This Arabian empire was big and there were fights over who had the right to rule it. In 680 (50 years after Mohammed’s death) Abdullah Iben al Zabayyah laid a claim to the empire but was beaten. Holland theorised that this warlord realised that the Roman empire used religion to “buttress power”. This warlord got defeated, but his defeater Abd al-Malik saw this idea then claimed it as his own and used it to consolidate his power. He built a holy building, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem over the old Jewish temple, also holy to the christians, which is very telling as he was saying that his rule is divinely sanctioned. Then over time he and others built the stories and traditions around the prophet. Holland also proposed that islam’s birthplace and the hajj were moved by the Caliph Abd al-Malik. It was about power.
Holland is clear to say that this is a theory, but a theory that fits the sparse evidence better than the islamic traditions.
After watching it I was very surprised by the response. He was so sensitive it was ridiculous: he tiptoed around the issues, and was very humble in his presentation. He made it clear that his conclusions were simply his best interpretation given the historical clues available, nothing more.
So it is an interesting documentary that questions the received opinions about the origins of islam. It’s very slow moving and takes its time to get to the core message, but then most TV documentaries are dumbed-down these days. It’s worth a watch if you’re interested in the history of the time.
The following post gives an overview of a debate I attended to discuss the issues raised by this film…