This evening, Channel Four broadcast ‘Islam – The Untold Story‘. It was a 90 minute (including ad breaks) documentary by the historian Tom Holland who has also written a book ‘In the Shadow of the Sword‘ which seeks to look at the earliest history of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and to try and ascertain how much of what we think we know is actually true.
Holland informs the viewer that he is a lapsed Christian and therefore does not, of course, believe the traditional Muslim account that Muhammad was inspired by God and that the Qur’an constitutes the collection of revelations that Muhammad received from God. He is a writer of history books and wishes to deal with facts and find corroborative evidence for stories be they written or oral traditions. That is not an unreasonable approach by any means and the Muslim scholar Sayyid Hussein Nasr is shown as commending Holland if that is indeed the methodology he intends to follow.
Unfortunately, Holland makes a series of statements in the documentary that are ill-judged and undermines one’s confidence in his ability to deal with facts. Commenting on the alleged paucity of facts about the historical Muhammad in the 7th century, Holland says: “There’s nothing there. I can’t find anything.” Holland marvels at the remarkable conquests of the Arabs in the years immediately following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE but he then wonders why those who were conquered seem to say nothing about the religion of their conquerors. “So did Islam even exist in the 30 years after Muhammad?” Holland asks.
Remarkably, Holland does not seem to deal at all with the historicity of the Qur’an itself. He mentions that Muslims believe it is the Word of God but as a writer of history one would expect him to say something about when the Qur’an was compiled and what evidence it offers about the historical Muhammad and the implications relating to such evidence.
Towards the end of the programme, Holland visits the magnificent Dome of the Rock in al-Quds (Jerusalem) which was completed by the Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691CE. The building is adorned with verses from the Qur’an which emphasise Islam’s teaching of monotheism and the Prophethood of Muhammad. So here was clear evidence that less than 60 years after Muhammad’s death, his followers clearly saw themselves as Muslims, whose religion was Islam and whose Prophet was Muhammad. All Holland could offer in return was – well, why did they not say so before?
Indeed, Holland said that rather than Islam moulding the Arabs and inspiring them to build a huge empire and civilisation, perhaps it was their empire that inspired them to create their religion of Islam. This appeared to be an entirely conjectural notion with ironically – no facts to back up the theory. Holland moved on to even more fanciful realms by questioning whether the birthplace of Islam really was Makka. He said –
accurately inaccurately (see update below) – that Makka is not mentioned anywhere in the Qur’an but that “Bakka” is. Holland informs the viewer that the Qur’an is talking in the language of agriculturalists but that there is no agriculture in Makka, hence, Makka cannot be where Islam began. He then told us that he personally favoured a birthplace much farther north and took us to Avdat in modern day Israel.
Again, these conjectures were very disappointing and poorly argued.
While it is true (see Update below) It is untrue that Makka is not mentioned in the Qur’an, and also both Yathrib and Madina (the post hijrah name for Yathrib) are clearly mentioned in the Qur’an, but Holland does not mention this. Why not? And as for agriculture in Makka, has Holland not heard of Ta’if – which is just outside Makka and is famous for its fertile land?
The conjectures seemed to get ever more ridiculous. Holland visited Sodom and then related the Qur’anic story about its destruction and the Qur’an’s warning that the destroyed site was visible during the day and during the night. Holland asked “What is it doing here – 1000km from Makka?” Holland did not tell the viewers that the Quraysh were famous traders and that they travelled north to Syria and south to Yemen and so would have been familiar with the territory of Sodom.
Early on in the documentary there was some nice footage of Holland questioning some Bedouin about their beliefs and even praying with them and seeming to try and grapple with their views. It was a promising start. Unfortunately, the documentary quickly descended into a series of very poorly argued and sensationalised conjectures. Disappointing.
Update: I made an error in my blog above by conceding that Tom Holland was accurate in his statement that Makka is not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. As Aicha and Afaq point out in the comments below, Makka is directly mentioned at 48:24. Apologies to all and may Allah forgive me!
Update 2: I should in fairness point out that Tom Holland has now posted a tweet saying that he did say that Makka is mentioned once by name in the Qur’an. This makes his conjecture that the true birthplace of Islam was Avdat in Israel even more bizarre – but I shall post a new blog about that shortly as I have been in touch with him through twitter to question him about that…
Update 3: Read about my Twitter exchange with Tom Holland ‘Tom Holland’s Bizarre Conjecture About Islam’s Birthplace’
Update 4: Read about my further Twitter exchanges with Tom Holland ‘Questioning Tom Holland and his ‘Islam: The Untold Story’
See also: My review of Tom Holland’s book In The Shadow of the Sword