Islam’s Origins, the Historical Problem — notes on the reading Tom Holland’s “In the Shadow of the Sword”

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by Neil Godfrey

shadowA few weeks ago I posted Islam – the Untold Story as a response to my introduction (through a radio program and an online video) to narrative historian Tom Holland’s controversial book on the rise of the Arab empire and the origins of Islam. I was interested in some of the comments expressing Muslim viewpoints but not having read the book, and not having studied Islamic history in any depth, there was not much I could say in response.

Now I can at least make a few comments on Tom Holland’s approach to the question after having read his 58 page introduction.

(Coincidentally today I heard another radio interview with Tom Holland, one in which he discusses the way he writes history, the modern relevance of his other historical works, Millennium and Rubicon, as well as further comments on In the Shadow of the Sword.)


But first, let me confess my bias: I believe the most reliable way for any historian to work is to begin with data that can be tested for its genre (hence likely authorial intent), its provenance, and the independent verification of its content. As a result I have come to lean towards the views of those scholars who are derisively labelled “minimalists” and who question the authenticity of the Bible’s account of Israel’s origins and the course of its kingdoms of Israel and Judah. I have also been persuaded by the view of at least one of those “minimalists” who — again via the same touchstone questions concerning sources — has come to think the Gospel narratives of Jesus are as fictitious as the the Old Testament’s narrative of Israel.

I approach the origins of Islam with the same set of questions about sources.


Tom Holland knows how to surprise a western reader who has been fed a diet of Islamophobia. In the front pages we read words attributed to Mohammad from which the title is drawn:

Do not look for a fight with the enemy. Beg God for peace and security. But if you do end up facing the enemy, then show endurance, and remember that the gates of Paradise lie in the shadow of the sword.

Another quotation, this one at the beginning of the Introduction, is by Salman Rushdie. It will strike a chord with anyone interested in what we know of Christian origins, but it serves the cause of irony — and a warning that the nature of historical evidence is not always what it seems — since we know that the wealth of detail taken for granted about the life of Muhammad will soon be shown to be nothing more than a facade.

The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time.

Two Voices

Tom Holland writes with two voices, as he explains in his latest Radio National interview, and together they make for gripping reading. He writes as the historical researcher of cause and effect, commenting on the degree of certainty or less so of our knowledge, guiding readers to the raw materials and current scholarship upon which his narrative is built. At the same time he writes as a novelist, entering into the experiences of the actants, named and anonymous alike, drawing the reader into their world as inevitably as a Spielberg movie.

He knows how to write history for both popular and informed audiences.

Two Worlds

Historians don’t write history the way they used to.

The fourth century bishop Eusebius wrote a history of the Church that viewed past events as the evidence of God’s guidance in human affairs and demonstrated that his beloved religion was faithfully preserved from its inception to his own day. Historians don’t write like that anymore. Origins of religions are not considered divine interventions but messy and confused evolutions of ideas and practices from earlier cultural influences.

Nevertheless, [the] underlying presumption that religions have some mysterious and fundamental essence, immune to the processes of time, remains widely taken for granted. In large part, this is due to Eusebius and others like him. (Shadow, p. 10)

Evangelical and conservative Christians, and no doubt others among other faiths, find the idea that their religion was born and shaped by historical evolutionary processes an alarming heresy.

A more complex difficulty facing the historian of Islam (or any religion with ancient roots) lies in recovering the human experiences and meanings of the distant past:

A narrative that features the persecution of veiled Christian women in Arabia by a Jewish king is clearly one set in a world at some remove from our own. (p. 11)

The Greatest Story

Isochronic Map of Arab Empire

Isochronic Map of Arab Empire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tom Holland segues into a colorful narration of “the greatest story ever told”, the traditional Muslim view of how Islam began. I won’t cover that here, but only to note a few details that connect with questions raised in an earlier discussion.

Did the Arab Muslims look back on their astonishingly rapid and vast conquests as “proof” that they were inspired by the “true religion”?

A West Syriac Christian text records a disputation between a monk and “a man of the Arabs”. Though the date of the text is unknown it is thought to be unlikely earlier than the eighth century. While debating the truth of the Prophet’s claims with the monk, the Arab points to the sheer vastness of the Arab conquests and pronounces:

This is a sign that God loves us and is pleased with our faith, namely that he has given us dominion over all peoples and religions.

Knowledge of the mass of detail of Mohammad’s life grew with each succeeding generation:

Fresh evidence — wholly unexpected by Muhammad’s earliest biographers — would see him revered as a man able to foretell the future, to receive messages from camels, and palm trees, and joints of meat, and to pick up a soldier’s eyeball, reinsert it, and make it work better than before. The result was one yet additional miracle: the further in time from the Prophet a biographer, the more extensive his biography was likely to be.(p. 25)

Those revelations that came to Muhammad, it emerged,

embodied . . . a quite exceptional body of law, one that touched upon every conceivable facet of human existence and left almost nothing unregulated, almost nothing to chance: “Sunna,” as hadith scholars termed it. Here, then, was yet another of the glories of the Muslim people. Not for them laws dredged up from the sump of worldly invention — their laws, they proudly boasted, derived directly from heaven. . . .

Those who lived by its tenets viewed this as an accomplishment so miraculous that they never doubted its divine origin. (p. 26, bolded text and paragraph formatting is mine, as in all quotations.)

The Hard Task of Questioning the Word of God

English: This copy of the Qur'an is believed t...

English: This copy of the Qur’an is believed to be one of the oldest, compiled during Caliph Uthman’s reign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Bible and the Qur’an may both be holy books but for Tom Holland (TH) there is an important difference that has left its mark on their respective histories of scholarship.

The revelations given to Muhammad are thought to be collated and written down under the direction of Uthman, the third of the Caliphs.

To the Muslim people, this “recitation” [qur’an] was a prize beyond compare. Not a word of it, not a letter, but it was touched with the fire of God. Undimmed, undimmable, the Qur’an offered to all those who dwelt on earth something infinitely precious: nothing less than a glimpse of the radiance of heaven.

But here’s TH’s significant point:

A prize such as this, it seemed to many, could only ever have existed uncreated, beyond the dimensions of time and space: for to imagine that God might somehow be distinct from His words was, of course, to commit the mortal offence of shirk.

It’s not easy for a devout to bring a truly critical mind to such words.

The history of how Muhammad received his revelations was far from clear in the Qur’an itself. So commentaries (tafsirs) appeared:

Only by reading the holy text with a commentary was it possible, for instance, to distinguish between the various revelations given in Mecca, and those given in Medina; to identify the precise verses that had followed the Battle of Badr; to recognize the allusions to the Prophet’s concealment in a cave during the course of the hijra, or to his villainous uncle, or to the domestic arrangements of his wives. Authentication, as with all the other fruits of Muslim scholarship, was provided by unimpeachable witnesses. Isnads stretched back resplendent to the moment of each original recitation. Proofs bristled everywhere.

Immortal and uncreated the Qur’an may have been; but it had also been firmly tethered to the bedrock of the human past. . . . Islam was to be regarded both as eternal, and as born of a specific moment in time, a specific place, a specific prophet. . . . (pp. 29-30. Contrast Christian scholarship that has relied upon the criterion of embarrassment to find “historical authentication” on the basis of the most unlikely of witnesses.)

For the Muslims, the origins of their faith

were to be interpreted not merely as a matter of historical record, but as indubitable and irrefutable proof of the shaping hand of God himself.

Centuries of debate and argument eventually brought the scholars of the Sunna into agreement on the nature of the Qur’an:

that it was eternal, not created, and divine, not a reflection of God. (p. 30)

Comparing Early Christian Scholarship

Just as Muslim scholars long debated the nature of the Qur’an so Christian scholars debated the nature of the person into whom they believed the deity revealed himself.

Just as the civilisation of Islam would be transfigured by the musings of philosophers, so would Christendom. East and west, much of the world was destined to bear witness to what had been, perhaps, the most startling discovery of late antiquity: that pondering how God might have manifested Himself on earth could serve to transform the way entire peoples have behaved and thought. (p. 31)

So, as I understand the point, Christians believed God revealed himself in, or identified himself with, a person while Muslims believed he did so in a book.

If so, how could such words be subject to “rational analysis”?

Even to contemplate such a project was blasphemy. Devout Muslims were no more likely to question the origins of the Qur’an than devout Christians were to start ransacking Jerusalem for the skeleton of a man with holes in his hands and feet. This was because the nearest Christian analogy to the role played in Islam by the Prophet’s revelations was not the Bible but Jesus — the Son of God.

The record of Christ’s life, for all that it lay at the heart of the Christian faith, was not considered divine — unlike Christ Himself. Although Christians certainly believed it to be the word of God, they also knew that it had been mediated through eminently fallible mortals. Not only were there four different accounts of Christ’s life in the Bible, but it contained as well a whole host of other books, written over a vast expanse of time, and positively demanding to be sifted, compared and weighed the one against the other. As a result, the contextualising of ancient texts came to be second nature to the scholars of the Bible, and the skills required to attempt it hard-wired into the Christian brain. (pp. 31-32)

Against the Age of Reason and Today

Look at the state of affairs, then, around the European “Age of Enlightenment” (18th century), that seed bed of scepticism and scientific thought. As TH presents it, when the the critical Edward Gibbon was undertaking his great history of Rome,

Muslim jurists were concluding they had at last learned every lesson to be gleaned from the example of the Prophet., and that the “gate of interpretation” was therefore closed.

Even Gibbon, the inveterate sceptic, had been impressed by the reams of evidence that the would-be biographer of Muhammad seemed able to draw upon. To him, and to other European scholars, the depth and detail of Muslim writings on the origins of Islam came as a revelation; nor did they ever doubt that Muhammad’s career and character could authentically be known. (pp. 33-34)

But there is one moment where TH does catch Gibbon possibly expressing just a sliver of doubt. It is in a footnote to his treatment of the life of Muhammad. The footnote in chapter 50 of Rise and Fall can be found in full online. The last part of the last sentence acknowledges that no historian can appeal to any writings from the lifetime of the Prophet himself! TH laments that Gibbon

chose not to pursue the implications of this striking confession. (p. 34)

By the nineteenth century Charles Darwin had published On the Origin of Species and Ernest Renan a life of Jesus that shocked readers by treating Jesus as a mere man, not a god. As critical scholars questioned many of the sources buttressing the narratives of the origins of Judaism and Christianity, it was inevitable that some questions would likewise be asked of Muslim sources.

Not that Muslim scholars were undiscerning. Back in the early years of Islam, in the wake of Arab conquests, Muslim scholars acknowledged that many of the unscrupulous had manufactured hadiths (sayings of Muhammad) for their own purposes. Accordingly, diligent scholarship of the day managed to whittle 600,000 sayings of the Prophet down to little more than around 7000 genuine nuggets.

Modern (post 1890) Muslim scholars have recognized that even among those sifted sayings there are those that

  • bear the unmistakable stamp of controversies that were raging two whole centuries after the hijra.
  • Over and again, the Prophet had been made to serve as the mouthpiece for a whole host of rival, and often directly antagonistic, traditions.
  • Many of these, far from deriving from Muhammad, were not even Arabic in origin, but originated instead in the laws, the customs, or the superstitions of infidel peoples. (p. 36)

Joseph Schacht

TH quotes the German professor Joseph Schacht who in 1950 examined these sayings of Muhammad and concluded:

We must abandon the gratuitous assumptions that there existed originally an authentic core of information going back to the time of the Prophet.

But what about realistic details? I know there are Christian laity and scholars alike who point to vivid detail in narratives as evidence of eyewitness authenticity. Experienced textual critic Schacht knew better:

The more perfect the isnad, the later the tradition.

TH underscores the point:

The lavish name-dropping of references, in anything affecting to cite the Prophet, was a mark, not of reliability, but of precisely the opposite. (p. 37. One wonders what would happen to Christian studies if the same scholarly acumen were applied there.)

In the last forty years there has been an eroding of confidence in what the sources can truly tell us about the origins of Islam. Some historians hold firm, however, continuing to confuse literary accounts (probably with more in common with Homer than Herodotus) with history. Homer spoke of gods intervening; Islamic sources speak of angels in their place.

Why, then, should we believe that the account of the Prophet’s first great victory is any more authentic than the legend of the siege of Troy?

The Precise State of Play

Over the course of almost two hundred years, the Arabs, a people never noted for their reticence, and whose motivation, we are told, had been an utterly consuming sense of religious certitude, had set themselves to conquering the world — and yet in all that time, they composed not a single record of their victories, not one, that has survived to the present day.

How could this possibly have been so, when even on the most barbarous fringes of civilisation, even in Britain, even in the north of England, books of history were being written during the same period, and copied, and lovingly tended?

Why, when the savage Northumbrians were capable of preserving the writings of a scholar such as Bede, do we have no Muslim records from the age of Muhammad: Why not a single account of his life, nor of his followers’ conquests, nor of the progress of his religion, from the whole of the near two centuries that followed his death? (p. 39)

TH drives home the point:

It is as though we had no eye-witness accounts of the Protestant Reformation, or the French Revolution, or the two World Wars.

Did Muhammad even exist?

TH believes he did, and that there are only “very few” scholars who say he did not. Among these are Yehuda D. Nevo and Judith Koren. There is also Muhammad Sven Kalisch to whom we return below.

TH notes the following, however:

Someone by the name of Muhammad does certainly appear to have intruded upon the consciousness of his near-contemporaries. One Christian source describes “a false prophet” leading the Saracens in an invasion of Palestine. This was written in AD 634 — just two years after the traditional date of Muhammad’s death. Another, written six years later, refers to him by name. (p. 41)

In the ensuing decades we have a growing number of cryptic references to an Arab “instructor”, “king”, “general”, among the writings of Christian priests and monks. Yet nothing from among the Arabs themselves. It was not until 690 that the find evidence of the first Muslim inscribing the name of Muhammad on a public monument. And only decades later do we find that “the first tentative references to him start to appear in private inscriptions.” The first biographies do not appear until around 800.

A Western Challenge?

sirat_Ibn_HishamIbn Hisham, in the early 800s, was responsible for the first enduring and “correct” version of the life of Muhammad. What had been written about the Prophet earlier, he warned, was “either bogus, irrelevant, or sacrilegious.” The “true version” of his life was not a mere matter of history, but of the eternal welfare of a believer’s soul. So

the precise details of what Muhammad might have said and done some two hundred years previously had come to provide, for vast numbers of people, a roadmap that they believed led straight to heaven. (p. 42)

“History” or “biography” was thus a matter of personal religious concern. To doubt the “official version” was to risk hellfire. The Prophet’s life was studied for spiritual edification, not historical reconstruction.

So what is left among reliable sources for the historians of today? Francis Edwards Peters thinks not much. The questions begin to cascade:

After all, if the entire colossal edifice of Muslim tradition depends upon isnads for its veracity, and if the isnads cannot be trusted, then how can we know for sure that the Qur’an dates from the time of Muhammad? How can we know who compiled it, from what sources, for what motives? Can we even be sure that its origins lay in Arabia? In short, do we really know anything at all about the birth of Islam? (pp. 42-43)

So the past forty years has seen radical revisions of Islamic history:

Such research has not impacted on the public, TH suggests, because it has been presented in impenetrably dense scholarly prose.

There is another reason for the shyness of academics from making too much fuss over the challenging questions facing historians about Islam’s origins:

Just as Darwin was physically prostrated by anxiety over how his theories might be received by his family and friends, there are many today no less nervous about causing offence to people whose whole lives are grounded in their faith. (p. 43)

The regrettable consequence has been that questioning the traditional account of Islam’s birth has been a preserve of Western scholars. We mentioned above Muhammad Sven Kalisch, one Western scholar who was also a Muslim. He is apparently best known for his arguments that Muhammad is entirely mythical. See

Such views have understandably led to strong reactions among Muslims who begin to wonder if such scholarship is fueled by some sort of conspiracy against Islam. Parvez Manzoor has even said these academic “iconoclastic attacks” are worse than the fury of the historical crusaders!

Implicit in this bellow of indignation is the presumption that non-believers have no business poking their noses into Islam’s origins. As one Saudi professor sternly tells his co-religionists, “Only the writings of a practising Muslim are worthy of our attention.”

(TH observes with some amusement that the same professor is an ardent supporter of critical deconstruction of Jewish and Christian religions!)

I know some Muslims see such Western scholarship as another form of Orientalism, of Westerners attempting to impose once again their own narrative on the East. Such a criticism implies less blatantly that the only correct view is a Muslim view, or that only Muslims can write the history of their origins.

Many Muslim scholars today acknowledge that there are problems with their sources for early Islam. At the same time, however, many are engaged in efforts to find bedrock foundations among those sources that can indeed be relied upon.

Paradoxically . . . these attempts to repair the damage done to the mighty edifice of Muslim tradition do more than anything else to highlight the full scale of the paradigm shift that is afflicting it. Clearly, when two scholars can devote their entire careers to studying the same languages and sources, and yet arrive at wholly contradictory conclusions, it is no longer possible to presume that there is anything remotely self-evident about the birth of Islam. (p. 45)

But western scholars are also entitled to have an interest in the origins of a religion they have believed for centuries took a certain form and historic provenance.

Nothing is born in a total vacuum

But if the traditional sources are so unreliable how can a historian write anything about the birth of Islam?

The rise of Islam through the Arab conquests changed the world. A new civilization was ushered in. To the historian it looks on the surface as if this whole new civilization burst from the desert and replaced all that had gone before it — as if all ancient history came to a complete halt around AD 600.

The inherent implausibility of this is rarely considered. Instead, at a time when most historians are profoundly suspicious of any notion that great civilisations might emerge from nowhere, owing nothing to what went before, and transforming human behaviour in the merest blinking of an eye, Islam continues to be portrayed as somehow exceptional: lightning from a clear blue sky. (p. 51)

If the sources from the seventh century are meagre, fortunately those from the preceding two centuries are in abundance. TH sees the rise of Islam as part of the larger story of the shaping of the great monotheistic religions out of the turmoils and innovations of late antiquity.

No other revolution in human thought, perhaps, has done more to transform the world. No other revolution, then, it might be argued, demands more urgently to be put in proper context.

TH begins his history in in the late fifth and sixth centuries of the Persian and Roman empires.

The monotheisms that would end up established as state religions from the Atlantic to central Asia had ancient, and possibly unexpected, roots. To trace them is to cast a searchlight across the entire civilisation of late antiquity. From the dental hygiene of Zoroastrian priests to the frontier policy of Roman strategists; from fantasies about Alexander the Great in Syria to tales of buried books of spells in Iraq; from Jews who thought Christ the messiah to Christians who lived like Jews: all are pieces in the jigsaw. (p. 57)

So begins Tom Holland’s narrative of his historical search for the origins of Islam and the rise of the Arab empire.

Tom Holland - Cambridge - November 2012

Tom Holland – Cambridge – November 2012 (Photo credit: Chris Boland: Chris Boland’s photography website is www.distantcloud.co.uk)

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  • M. Gould
    2013-03-31 05:37:20 UTC - 05:37 | Permalink

    Nothing is born in a total vacuum? Indeed. Perhaps if Jesus-mythers understood that they would stop peddling tripe?

    • geoff
      2013-03-31 05:57:11 UTC - 05:57 | Permalink

      M.– What doe “Jesus mythers” have to do with the proposition that “nothing is born in a total vacuum?” No myth position entails the inverse proposition. In fact, the myth position is that Jesus-belief evolved out of ideas and motifs that were cultural current at the time. No vacuum was necessary for the emergence of Jesus-belief in the mythicist world. Do you believe there need have been a living Zeus as inspiration for the more Godly form living on Mt. Olympus? Do you believe that anyone who holds that Zeus is entirely a mythical being believes that Zeus-belief was born in a total vacuum?

    • 2013-03-31 08:16:17 UTC - 08:16 | Permalink

      M. Gould reacts to the Christ myth theory (he does not even know the true meaning of “myther”) in the same way the some fearful Muslims react to proponents of the theory that Mohammad himself is a myth. He does not even consider it worthy of serious understanding and discussion. Ironically the evidence for Jesus being a myth is stronger than that for Mohammad being a myth. He has no interest in understanding that the theories of Thompson, Doherty, Price are indeed all about how the Christ myth emerged from rich traditions of religious ideas. He may even assume that there is some sort of conspiracy being argued or presumed. He fails to recognized from this post that my own views are grounded in the same historical methods as those of TH.

      In fact, it is many historical Jesus arguments that in effect argue that Christianity was born from a vacuum — all it took was some mysterious event no longer recoverable by historians that transformed disciples and made them go out and preach and make converts.

      • M. Gould
        2013-03-31 21:38:48 UTC - 21:38 | Permalink


        Have you ever thought of gaining some relevant qualifications and publishing some peer-reviewed research to explain to academia where it is going wrong? Or is it just easier to peddle tripe on the internet?

        As for Tom Holland, I don’t doubt that there are questions to be explored about the origins of The Koran, and who Mohammed might have been, but (and I have Tom Holland’s book and have read it and enjoyed it – and admire his courage) – his book does not make what I think is his case – very clearly. It is also rather easy for his critics to question his qualifications to raise a properly-evidenced argument against the traditional Islamic explanation of the origins of Islam.

        • 2013-03-31 23:18:30 UTC - 23:18 | Permalink

          M. Gould, you clearly are offended by my hobby and personal interest and think I have no business posting my reflections and experiences in a public blog. Have you ever thought of seriously engaging in an honest discussion of the issues or are you incapable of doing anything more than uttering crude put-downs and sarcasm?

          As for my critical views appearing in peer-review publications and in books by authors with highly respected qualifications, they are already there. You have read very little of anything I have posted or you would know I am merely quoting or referencing what is already in the scholarly literature.

          And most of what I quote or reference is done to share points I find of special interest and because I highly respect the work I am discussing.

          So what on earth is your problem? If I offend you then ignore my blog.

          • 2013-03-31 23:37:08 UTC - 23:37 | Permalink

            “M. Gould, you clearly are offended by my hobby and personal interest”

            No, I am merely not taken in by bluster and tripe.

            “and think I have no business posting my reflections and experiences in a public blog.”

            Anyone may advertise their ignorance if they wish.

            “As for my critical views appearing in peer-review publications and in books by authors with highly respected qualifications, they are already there.”

            Where’s that then?

            “So what on earth is your problem?”

            Requiring evidence, from qualified sources? Obviously a problem for you?

            Happy Easter by the way.

            • 2013-04-01 08:07:09 UTC - 08:07 | Permalink

              Silly me. I had some glimmer of hope that you would actually reply with evidence of having read some of my arguments and responded with intellectual seriousness instead of fatuous sarcasm. Welcome to my spam list.

  • 2013-03-31 11:30:21 UTC - 11:30 | Permalink

    I have just finished Tom Holland’s excellent book. He writes extremely well and I am grateful for the pointer to his work. He seems to come down on the side of Mohammad having existed at some point in the early 7th Century, but that we know almost nothing about him. He judges the hadiths as totally unreliable but

    I can’t help feeling he takes the Qu’ran at face value a bit too much really. I think the evidence struggles to support an actual Mohammad who wrote the suras in the Qu’ran, though he may have. The violence that people, who critically engage with Islam and who doubt the traditional evaluation of the Qu’ran are inevitably threatened with, makes discussion of the provenance of the Qu’ran difficult at best and life threatening at worst.

    I’d also like to take issue with the use of the word “Islamophobia”. A phobia is defined as an irrational fear, and I feel very strongly that fear of Islam is hardly irrational. As a woman, I particularly find Islam to be frightening and oppressive and I don’t think there is anything irrational about it. The example of Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran is hardly comforting. Saudi women are still not allowed to get driving licenses for example, and the religious police roam the cities doling out punishment as they choose. Bans on red around St Valentine’s day may seem quaint to us living in relative safety in the West, but they are no joke if you are beaten in the streets of Medina for being insufficiently modest. Islam is a proselytizing religion which seeks to make the whole world submit to god and is making considerable inroads in many parts of the world. It should not be held to lower standards of behaviour than western religions.

    • 2013-03-31 12:01:23 UTC - 12:01 | Permalink

      Thankfully the extremist forms of Islam (and that rules in Saudi Arabia as a direct result of Western political backing, and that captured Iran as a direct result of the Western backed oppression there) are not representative of the faith as a whole. And thankfully no nation in recent history has sought to forcefully extend the rule of Islam as some have sought to bomb others into accepting liberal economies and democracy.

      • muuh-gnu
        2013-04-01 21:12:42 UTC - 21:12 | Permalink

        > Thankfully the extremist forms of Islam are not representative of the faith as a whole.

        The founder of the faith, if he ever existed, was by any measure an extremist, probably even more extreme than any extreme form of Islam existing today. So while Saudi Arabia and all the other Sharia states may not be representative of any random Muslim in the world, they are pretty representative of Islam itself.

        • 2013-04-01 21:30:17 UTC - 21:30 | Permalink

          It is because too many people hold views like yours that I can see a need to post more on this topic. You are clearly ignorant of some fundamental facts about the world. Truly Islam is well and truly entrenched as the replacement for the Reds of the Cold War era. Your ignorance is appalling. Where to begin!?

          Maybe this can be a small start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011%E2%80%932013_Saudi_Arabian_protests — Saudi citizens are brutally oppressed under a fearsome military dictatorship that is backed to the hilt by the United States and UK in particular. To equate the Saudi State with Islam as practiced and understood by the overwhelming majority of that religion’s followers indicates gross ignorance of the real world.

          • 2013-04-01 23:56:33 UTC - 23:56 | Permalink

            Since a pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam, and Mecca is in Saudi Arabia, I have recently been wondering how those less extreme or moderate forms of Islam handle their pilgrimage to Mecca, so that while staying there whether they associate much with the Muslims who make up that religion’s more extreme forms, or whether those who are part of Islam’s more moderate forms might not even bother with traveling to Mecca in light of that difference. I haven’t taken the time as of yet to look in that question. I don’t know if anyone here has looked into that potential problem already.

          • muuh-gnu
            2013-04-02 16:23:07 UTC - 16:23 | Permalink

            > To equate the Saudi State with Islam as practiced and understood by the overwhelming majority of that religion’s followers indicates gross ignorance of the real world.

            If you reread my post more carefully, you will observe that I in fact did not equate Saudi Arabia with the majority of today’s Muslims, I equated Saudi Arabia to the Islam as it obviously was understood by the religion’s founder (if he ever existed), who was a warmonger, hater, warlord, mass murderer and last but not least a child rapist.

            > Saudi citizens are brutally oppressed under a fearsome military dictatorship

            So was basically everybody under the reign of Muhammad, Islam’s founder and the brutal regime he built, or at least how it is described in the Quran and the Hadith.

            • 2013-04-02 19:33:33 UTC - 19:33 | Permalink

              You have cast some ugly aspersions upon those who claim to be devout Muslems. I think you owe it to them to justify your claims.

              Firstly, my own comments.

              I am glad you do not equate “the majority of today’s Muslims” with the religious beliefs and practices of the regime we see in power in Saudi Arabia. I am sure “the majority of today’s Muslims” would appreciate your disclaimer, too.

              But I am confused by your other claim. You say that a figure who could well be fictitious adhered to some very unsavory characteristics. What is the significance of your assertion given that (I presume you will accept) “the majority of today’s Muslims” do not believe that those characteristics lie at the core of the Islamic faith?

              Further, do you believe the historical evidence supports your portrayal of the early rule of Islam?

              Are there any redeeming characteristics in the character of Muhammad? If not, how do you explain the apparent wholesale embracing of a prophet with this sick personality? Are you implying that Arabs, or more generally, Muslims, love such loathesome characteristics?

              Are Muslims who take contrary views to your portrayal of Islam living in self-denial about their own beliefs while you know better about what they really believe and what motivates them?

  • steve1942
    2013-03-31 12:44:56 UTC - 12:44 | Permalink

    It seems that all religions evolve from earlier forms and continue to evolve after separating from their antecedents. Judaism started as a polytheistic Near Eastern tribal faith similar to other religions in the region, and gradually changed into the Judaism we know and love today. Its early heroes, such as God, Adam, Abraham, and Moses were fictional characters in the Jewish holy book, which itself is an almost totally fictional account of the history of the world and of the Jews, and which is known to Christians as the Old Testament. Then, the Christian religion slowly developed as a sect of Judaism, and emerged as a religion in its own right, complete with its de rigeur trappings of a fictional founder, known as Jesus, and its own holy writings (the New Testament), which describe its hero Jesus in stories borrowed almost totally from the Old Testament.

    By the same token, when one looks at the Islamic holy writings such as the Quran, one immediately sees that much of it consists of garbled bible stories, which of course betrays the religion’s origin in Christianity and Judaism. And, of course, no self-respecting religion can be considered complete without its own mythical and fictional founder, and so now we have Muhammad.

    My advice to anyone who wishes to found what will become a major world religion is that he should start out as a fictional character, for this is the proven route to success.

  • anon
    2013-03-31 17:09:03 UTC - 17:09 | Permalink

    The other side of the coin—-

    Western revisionist scholars—–who have a different opinion than TH

    Robert Hoyland

    Richard Bulliet

    Fred Donner

    Angelika Newirth

    Carole Hillenbrand

    Gerd R. Puin


    other writers

    Montgomery Watt

    Karen Armstrong

    Thomas Carlyle


    • 2013-03-31 18:35:53 UTC - 18:35 | Permalink

      A list of names like this is meaningless. Add notes to inform us where they differ from TH. Or if you find TH wanting then tell us where. I’d be interested in some constructive criticism of the thoughts expressed in the post.

      • MIck The Red
        2013-04-02 03:04:53 UTC - 03:04 | Permalink

        I’d be interested to see a proper response from you rather than banning anyone who doubts your half-baked opinions.

        • 2013-04-02 07:07:45 UTC - 07:07 | Permalink

          Well the comment of mine you are responding to claims to be pointing to views contrary to the ones I expressed in my post, and in it I am begging the author to say more to inform us of the contrary views.

          I have never “banned” anyone for arguing contrary views. I wish I had more of them expressed here. If you yourself would like to argue against my views then you are more than welcome.

          If you are referring to M. Gould (presumably you are given the “gould” in your email address and that you share his IP), you will observe I was hoping he would actually engage in a discussion. You are welcome to pick up where he failed. But I do not consider sarcastic insult an argument.

  • 2013-04-01 10:46:07 UTC - 10:46 | Permalink

    Here is a link to Part 2 of a series that was presented by PBS in 2009 about Islam: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1PxJomypQE

    It appears that the loss of Islamic writings, that is noted in the post above, might have been due to the Mongolian invasion of the Islamic Middle East during the thirteenth century, where the amassed contents of great libraries, as the one in Baghdad, were destroyed, even as that invasion could have accounted for a massive loss of nearly all of the earliest Islamic writings from the seventh and eighth centuries, or perhaps many or the most important copies of those. However, according to this PBS program, the Mongols themselves eventually converted to Islam about a century after that conquest which then led to the Turkish Ottoman (Muslim) Empire’s rise, therefore not all Islamic religious literature would have been destroyed by that invasion since some of those that would have been owned by individuals as well.

    By the way, I personally think there is good reason to believe that a historical Abraham existed and a believable Jesus also… but of course not Moses, Elijah, Joshua, Aaron, etc. I see Jewish and Christian literature as a particularly crafty mix of historical fact and fiction, instead of it being entirely fiction like that of Zeus and the other Pagan gods—that literature being of a whole different flavor and character than those Pagan writings, in my opinion, which in my mind is why Christianity replaced Paganism since it was so superior to Paganism in a number of ways.

    Also, I did see a post about a month or two ago which claimed that some very early Islamic writings were found in the wall of a mosque recently, but I’m not sure where or if that is actually true. That post claimed that the writings discredited Islam quite a bit. But there is both a PBS series and BBC series on Islam like what’s in the youtube link above, with the BBC series having been produced more recently, with both of those emphasizing much of what’s held as traditional about Islam as being the most believable scenario for what really happened, despite those programs obviously alluding to Muhammad as having been mistaken about receiving real communications from a real God of course. These programs attempt to credit several Muslims who in the past contributed quite a lot to science, trading, architecture, and great textiles. This is a topic that I need to research a great deal more, and just have barely begun to do so earlier this year.

  • 2013-04-01 23:17:29 UTC - 23:17 | Permalink

    “One wonders what would happen to Christian studies if the same scholarly acumen were applied there.”

    This reminds me of how NT scholars generally read a passage and claim that it just seems like it’s true because of all of the details. Little do they know that this is a fallacy known in cognitive science for a couple of decades. In one experiment in 1981, 68% of the subjects ranked it more likely that “Reagan will provide federal support for unwed mothers and cut federal support to local governments” than that “Reagan will provide federal support for unwed mothers.”

    A long series of cleverly designed experiments, which weeded out alternative hypotheses and nailed down the standard interpretation, confirmed that this conjunction fallacy occurs because we “substitute judgment of representativeness for judgment of probability”. By adding extra details, you can make an outcome seem more characteristic of the process that generates it. You can make it sound more plausible that Reagan will support unwed mothers, by adding the claim that Reagan will also cut support to local governments. The implausibility of one claim is compensated by the plausibility of the other; they “average out”.

    Which is to say: Adding detail can make a scenario sound more plausible, even though the event necessarily becomes less probable.

    • 2013-04-02 01:04:02 UTC - 01:04 | Permalink

      J. Quinton: Personally, it seems like the various authors of the books in the OT, even then, knew the value of the criterion of embarrassment to make their writings appear to be authentic records of factual events, similar to what you have stated in the above comment. They were quite sophisticated in that way, I think. Of course they also had that ongoing theme, which constantly comes up when reading, about how their nation’s political problems were always the result of the sinfulness of their people instead of that being blamed on the actual impotence of their man-made national deity, which theme most likely led to including many embarrassing details–probably fiction much more often that not, however–to help add believability and of course browbeat their people psycholically a little more. None of that, however, is why I believe there was an historical Abraham and Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and Esau (even though your comment as #6 wasn’t necessarily a response to that). I do most definitely plan to read the book Neil recommended to me on that, however, and to take what it explains very much to heart.

  • anon
    2013-04-03 15:31:57 UTC - 15:31 | Permalink

    @ Neil—thankyou for the invitation

    To those who may be interested……

    “…the religion’s founder (if he ever existed), who was a warmonger, hater, warlord, mass murderer and last but not least a child rapist.”

    1) “religions founder”—-For muslims, the first Prophet is Prophet Adam(pbuh) who brought the message of Tawheed (Unity).

    Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) is the last of many Prophets and wisdom teachers sent by God to all peoples at various times and geography.

    2)warmonger/warlord—a) During his time in Mecca when he and his followers were being persecuted, the prophet advised emigration—not fighting back. Migration to Abysinnia (present day Ethiopia) took place between 613 to 615 CE. Some say this is because the muslims were too weak to fight—however, in the battle of Badr approx 624 CE, the muslim army was vastly outnumbered, yet they still defended their city (Medina).

    b) The Prophet(pbuh) was invited to Yathrib (later called Medina) in order to arbitrate and settle longstanding disputes/feuds between the tribes of Yathrib. Terms were negotiated in approx 621 CE and the Prophet left for the city in 622CE.

    c) Upon his arrival in Yathrib/Medina, he commenced on making alliances through peace treaties with various tribes in the region.

    d) the Charter of Medina was also instituted and these gave rights of equality to non-muslims (see wikepedia Charter of Medina)

    3)hater—the battle of Badr (624 CE) and the battle of Uhud (625 CE) created casualties, however the battle of the trench (627 CE) ended with the Meccan side leaving and in 628 CE a peace treaty was negotiated–the treaty of Hudaibiya. After violations of the treaty by Meccans, the Prophet(pbuh) took his army to Mecca, whereupon the Meccans surrendered and the Prophet(pbuh) declared a general amnesty.

    4) mass murderer—Perhaps this refers to the Jewish tribe who were charged with treason?–the banu Qurayza—if so, the facts are….The tribe of Qurayza were under a peace treaty in which they had to refrain from siding with the enemies of the city (—this would be the Meccans)—however during the battle of the trench they betrayed the terms of the treaty. After the battle, the Qurayza were charged with treason. The Qurayza asked for arbitration by a person of their choice. This was agreed as Saad ibn Muadh —an arab ally of the Qurayza. He used Jewish law to arbitrate—and according to Jewish law, the penalty for treason is death. The Prophet(pbuh) accepted the arbitration.

    5) child rapist—a) if this is a general accusation—-then—Marriage is highly regarded in Quran/Islam and sexual intimacy must take place within this framework. Marriage is a contract (pre-nuptial agreement) and cannot take place without the consent of both parties.

    This is how the Quran views marriage—–

    Quran Sura 30:21]—Among His proofs is that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, in order to have tranquility and contentment with each other, and He placed in your hearts love and care towards your spouses. In this, there are sufficient proofs for people who think.

    b) if this accusation is somehow related to the age of Aisha at the time of her marriage—a)there are varying accounts within Islam about her age at the time of marriage.

    b) Aisha was the daughter of Abu Bakr, long time companion and friend of the Prophet(pbuh) and the first of the 4 “rightfully guided” Caliphs. Any mistreatment of Aisha would have seriously affected this relationship.

    c) The Prophet(pbuh) treated his wives as “partners” and consulted with them on various matters of the community.

    I hope this information was helpful to those who seek knowledge…….

  • Nazeer
    2013-04-06 14:10:28 UTC - 14:10 | Permalink

    Foolish and inventive tales by a historian who wants to detract from Islam magnificence by belittling the prophetic tradition. The fool being born and raised in a non prophetic civilization of the West does not understand the basic premise of Islam, that of the universal connection of God’s prophets and similarity of messages. He considers it patch work put together when he finds similarities across the Mideast and Western Asia. What he identifies are left overs from the same discourse. He also confuses clarification to an immediate audience and universal truths explained in local experience. Is Holland’s scholarship completely shoddy, or is it mere animus. There is whole coterie of Truth Deniers, lead by the Chief Denier Crone (witch?). She and the intellectual incubi spawned by her has earned many a faculty tenure. So attacking the historical basis of Islam comes with rewards in the West.

    Holland is perhaps not aware that the tradition of the Quran and Hadith is oral, handed down generation to generation. Even today families of Huffaz can trace their ancestry to the time of the Prophet. Verbal rote memorization has greater fidelity than writing by hand. The latter leads to copyists mistakes and sometimes complete sentences by non-Huffaz. The Yemen manuscripts are nothing but the cemetery of such non certifiable copyist errors that could only be buried. A tradition similar to the Geniza of the Jews. In fact Muslim scholars would not let their students write the Hadith of the Prophet unless they were first memorized and then read back. The students were then given a sanad, and ijazat to teach that material. Neither Schacht nor other Jewish orientalists like Goldziher appear to have been aware of how the oral tradition worked in the Islamic world. Having never studied in a traditional madrasah.

    Holland and his cronies (Crone, pun) have cooked up this storm in a climate of rising fury against Muslims and Islam, further inflamed by Zionist kooks. This is no news to Muslims, they have been attacked in every generation since the Prophet, resolutely facing the hatred and falsity generated in the West. Looking at the activities of the propaganda departments of the different countries in conflict

    In World War II, it would not be surprising if Mr Holland may have landed such a contract. On the other hand coming from a long tradition of Islam envy, it could merely be a convenient marriage of hatred and notoriety.

    • 2013-04-06 15:11:08 UTC - 15:11 | Permalink

      If you are correct then it is impossible for anyone to study the origins of Islam with the same critical tools that are applied to the study of Christianity and Judaism without being motivated by a hatred for Islam and a desire to mock or destroy Islam or being suspected of being involved in some conspiracy with Zionists.

      Your response is what we have come to expect from one who has never been exposed to a tradition of critical study of one’s religion. There is no hatred for Islam in Tom Holland’s work. He is very aware of the claims for oral tradition and discusses them in some detail. The same types of claim have been made for Christianity and Judaism, too. Such traditions do, however, raise questions in the mind of a critical historian.

  • 2013-04-16 02:25:56 UTC - 02:25 | Permalink

    Holland raises some interesting questions, but the specific “radical revisions of Islamic history” he cites suggest that he’s a bit out of his depth here. In particular, Luxenberg’s readings frequently force him to invent unattested Syriac forms, and force far-fetched, mutually contradictory Syriac readings on perfectly straightforward Arabic sentences. A far from pro-Islamic review by the archeologist Richard Kroes (http://www.livius.org/opinion/Luxenberg.htm) concludes that

    “Certainly not everything Luxenberg writes is nonsense or too far-fetched, but quite a few of his theories are doubtful and motivated too much by a Christian apologetic agenda… In fact, his investigations should be done again, taking into account all the scholarly work that Luxenberg doesn’t seem to know.”

    Francois de Blois, a scholar better acquainted with Arabic and not reluctant to oppose traditional interpretations, is even harsher, concluding that

    “any reader who wants to take the trouble to plough through Luxenberg’s ‘new reading’ of any of the numerous passages discussed in this book will concede that the ‘new reading’ does not actually make better sense than a straight classical Arabic reading of the traditional text. It is a reading that is potentially attractive only in its novelty, or shall I say its perversity, not in that it sheds any light on the meaning of the book or on the history of Islam… It is, I think, sufficiently clear from this review that the person in question is not ‘a scholar of ancient Semitic languages’. He is someone who evidently speaks some Arabic dialect, has a passable, but not flawless command of classical Arabic, knows enough Syriac so as to be able to consult a dictionary, but is innocent of any real understanding of the methodology of comparative Semitic linguistics. His book is not a work of scholarship but of dilettantism.” (reproduced on http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Quran/Text/luxreview2.html

    As for Ohlig, well, that claim is not exactly brand new. In interfaith polemics since at least the Abbasid period, Muslims have identified Muhammad with the Paraclete of the Gospels (based on the Syriac form of that word), whom Christians identify with Jesus and whom the Manicheans identified with Mani.

    • 2013-04-16 07:15:52 UTC - 07:15 | Permalink

      Thanks for these notes. I haven’t read Luxemberg or Ohlig so I cannot comment. I would need to do that before I could make my own judgments. I usually keep in mind various reviews when I do read a book and sometimes find myself agreeing with the reviewer and other times finding the reviewer was unfair or missing the point.

      Meanwhile, I have finished reading Tom Holland’s book and will be posting more on aspects of his argument (not Luxemberg’s or Ohlig’s) here.

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