A 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 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.
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.
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
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
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 seedbed of scepticism and scientific thought. As TH presents it, when 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)
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 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 they 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?
Ibn 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 have seen radical revisions of Islamic history:
- The Qur’an originated in Iraq, not Arabia (John Wansbrough);
- The Qur’an was originally written in Syriac, not Arabic (Christoph Luxenberg);
- Muhammad was originally a title referring to Jesus (Karl-Heinz Ohlig).
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 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.
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