As I mentioned in my previous blog, following the broadcast of his Channel Four documentary ‘Islam: The Untold Story’ on Tuesday evening, I got in touch with the presenter, Tom Holland, via Twitter to ask him some questions about the rather bizarre conjectures he had made – particularly given that he had said at the outset that he was interested in facts.
Tom responded to a number of my questions via Twitter which I thought was very kind of him, especially as he may have received messages from a lot of people. I thought it would be worthwhile reproducing some of our exchanges below.
Just to set the scene, remember that Tom stated in his documentary that he did not accept the traditional Muslim account of Islam’s history in a number of areas including:
1. He argued that the Makka we know today was not the birthplace of Islam. He speculated that the true birthplace was most likely near Avdat a region bordering Palestine.
2. He argued that rather than Islam giving birth to the early Arab/Muslim empire, he believed it was the other way round ie the early Arab empire gave birth to Islam – most probably under the rule of the Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan who ruled between 685 – 705 CE.
3. He argued that Islam and Muslims did not exist for at least thirty years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE.
Now these conjectures are rather spectacular departures from the traditional Muslim account of the history of Islam so I thought it was worthwhile questioning Tom about them.
I first questioned him about his theory that Makka was not the birthplace of Islam.
The theory that a later Arab Caliph moved the birthplace of Islam is a hugely problematic one, not least because it would also mean that the Hajj – which predated the Prophet Muhammad of course – was moved. But I have already blogged about this in a previous post so let’s move on.
The academic paper that Tom Holland was referring was Robert Hoyland’s paper ‘Writing the Biography of the Prophet Muhammad: Problems and Solutions’ which can be read here for free (the link Tom Holland provided requires you to register first). Anyway, to come back to Tom’s argument, he says that the reason we cannot find written testimony from Muslims in those first early decades after Muhammad’s death (632CE) is that Muslims did not in fact exist. The religion of Islam was a later invention of the Arab empire. However, Hoyland’s paper clearly mentions that several Christian sources do refer to Muhammad and Islam in the early decades after Muhammad. Where would these Christian sources have obtained that information from – surely from their encounters with Arabs and Muslims, right?
I thought Tom’s mention of the ‘Doctrina Iacobi’ from 634CE was quite significant. I had not heard of this before. Now if a Christian document in 634CE – just two years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad – was referring to a ‘Prophet of the Saracens’ that would certainly call into question Tom’s assertion that Islam and Muslims did not even exist at this time.
To that last question, I am still awaiting a response from Tom Holland. Remember, Tom argued in his documentary that Muslims and Islam did not exist and were a later creation of the Arab empire. However, the Doctrina Iacobi document from 634 CE that Holland himself referred me to talks of a ‘Prophet of the Saracens’ – and this is just two years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE in the traditional Muslim account of history. If – as Holland argues – Muslims and Islam did not exist at the time, then who was this ‘Prophet of the Saracens’ and what religion were his followers?
If Tom Holland does respond to what I think is a very reasonable question, I will happily reproduce his answer below in the comments section.
Update: Tom Holland has now posted a brief response to some of the criticisms made of his documentary by others but it does not seem to cover the questions I have asked above.
Update 2: The full transcript of Tom Holland’s ‘Islam: The Untold Story’ can be read here.
Update 3: Fozia Bora on Deenport has kindly provided a link to an excellent article about the current state of academic knowledge regarding the mention of the Prophet Muhammad in non-Muslim texts.
Update 5: The Independent quotes University academics dismissing Tom Holland’s arguments as ‘unconvincing’