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.”