Tag Archives: Tom Holland

Islam – Whose Story?

17 Nov

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. That which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
– The Hitch

After watching the documentary “Islam – The Untold Story” (here’s my quick overview) I went to a debate about the issues raised by the film, organised by some islamic organisations. The panelists were:
– Tom Holland, the novelist and historian who made the film
– Sajjad Rizvi, a professor of islamic history
– Rokhsana Fiaz, director of the Coexistence Trust
– Kevin Sim, the director of Holland’s documentary.

Holland began by talking about himself, what interests him, and how he got onto the topic of the origins of islam. Usually, he said, it would take 3 years for him to study an area and then produce a book with his findings, but this project took 5 years given its complexities and the lack of historical evidence available. While he seemed to be avoiding the core issues, he did attempt to separate the issue of faith from the historical origins of islam and the Arabic conquest.

Rizvi then spoke, attacking “revisionists”; he insisted he wasn’t directing his comments at Holland although it was very clear that he was. It became rather ad hominem, with attacks on his motives rather than addressing the points in his documentary. He was essentially answering the question posed in the title of the debate ‘Whose Story?’ with: ‘It’s ours. You’re not allowed to question it‘. The best answer to that is given in this clip: “islam claims that it is the total solution to all human problems, and the sooner that it’s imposed on everyone the better. Well, that’s a point of view. But if it’s going to make such claims, it has to drop the demand that it be immune from criticism and especially from satire.

Fiaz tried to downplay the reaction to the film by saying that the level of complaints to Ofcom about the documentary was initially low. However she then went on to say that Ofcom had a responsibility to protect the sensibilities of the religious. Ofcom state that they have a legal duty to ensure that “people who watch television and listen to the radio are protected from harmful or offensive material”. Of course this is a ludicrous proposition given that offence is in the eye of the beholder and, like section 5, this kind of approach gives people the right to censor views they don’t like under the pathetic cover of the offence argument.

Holland made the curious claim that the christian literary tradition has always had a rather harsh questioning approach, particularly because of the need to harmonise the contradictory events described in the four gospels, whereas the islamic tradition is a lot less critical. He said this is why we’ve ripped away the foundations of the christian religion in the west. I can’t disagree that this has happened, but I would question whether this is due to a peculiarly christian mindset. I’ve read a bit of the fun loving Omar Khayyam, the muslim polymath who was openly critical of islamic norms, and on the other side there is the obvious example of the inquisition. He then went on to say something more important: because the koran and islam are being put under increasing scrutiny and criticism, the foundations of believers will be increasingly challenged. He diplomatically suggested that muslims must decide how they are going to react to this trend.

While people were quick to point out that they didn’t sanction death threats or violence of any kind, there were snarky and sometimes angry argumentum ad hominem attacks from far too many of the muslim members of the audience. There were accusations of Holland talking nonsense, of a poor quality or “rather pathetic” documentary, of an attitude of superiority and there was even an accusation of him suggesting that Arabs were backward. It got a bit silly.

What I didn’t hear, at any point of the debate, was someone question either his historical evidence, or the conclusion he tentatively proposed in the film.

This was disappointing as I was hoping for the case to be made for the traditional view. Alas the counter argument I heard can be crudely simplified into two parts: i) attack the messenger; ii) well it just is, why would anyone question it? Being from a religious background I can understand this reaction from people that base their world view not on empiricism, but on faith.

After scouring the web for counter arguments I found a lot more vitriol along similar lines. After all, Channel 4 did cancel a repeat screening due to a death threat. However I did find that the Islamic Education and Research Academy has put forward some more comprehensive opposing arguments. Some of their rebuttal seemed silly, such as their justification of the reliability of the oral evidence. I’ll be honest and say I’m stepping into an area I know little about, however comments such as “the entire science of Hadith” seem to contradict what muslim friends have told me about how they pick and choose which parts of the Hadith they prefer and dismiss the rest as “unreliable“. That said it cites some interesting pieces of evidence from non-muslim sources, as well as opposing views from other historians, and I’d like to hear what Holland has to say about these.

The point I agreed with most during the debate was from a muslim chap on the front row who roughly said: “ideas should be open to criticism. Debate and criticism are important parts of a democratic and pluralistic society. If we truly believe that islam is the truth then we should be happy for it to be questioned as it will only strengthen it.

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Islam – The Untold Story by Tom Holland

15 Nov

“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…

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