The main argument about the criticisms of Early Islamic history has been put forward in recent times by Tom Holland, the fiction writer and historian (Islam – The Untold Story). His argument can be summarised as:
- The religion was invented – about a century after the Arab Conquest – to justify Muslim rule; and
- Prophet Muhammad did not exist at all (in the way history, so far, has told us).
Putting aside the absolute hilarity of his claims, his points have, nonetheless, been critiqued – as weak – in many places, the most succinct of which (on the net) includes:
الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله
All praise is due to ALLAH and peace and blessing upon His Messenger
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the Name of ALLAH, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful
1. CRITIQUING THE CRITIQUE: RE: The Documentary
A) Dr Nafees Mosaddeq Ahmed’s In the Shadow of Fiction (How Television is Making (up) Muslim History)
Excerpt: “In Channel 4’s Islam: the Untold Story, aired 28 August, British writer Tom Holland – garbed Indiana Jones-style in billowing shirt and trusty hat – treks across the Arabian desert, talking to local Bedouins, and inspecting historical artefacts to investigate the origins of Islam. Muhammed, he concludes, probably never came from Mecca, but from Transjordania; the Qur’an and its teachings are largely borrowed from local religious traditions, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism; and it is questionable whether ‘Islam’ ever really existed as a distinctive, coherent faith during Muhammed’s reign. Rather, the religion of Islam was an innovation of the Arab empires, cynically manufactured to legitamise its expansion by conquest over much of what we now know as the Middle East.
To vindicate this thesis – based largely on his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword – Holland interviews a handful of sceptical Western scholars of Islam. But his narrative is replete with elementary, often laughable, errors. Perhaps the most glaring is his insistence that Mecca is only mentioned once, ambiguously, in the Qur’an – evidence for Holland that the Prophet never came from Mecca. But this is a strange inaccuracy, for the Qur’an mentions Mecca clearly: “And He it is Who held back their hands from you and your hands from them in the valley of Mecca after He had given you victory over them.” (48:24) He then makes much of the Qur’an’s references to “Becca”, as if this must be a completely different place, oblivious to the fact that in South Arabic, the language used in the south of the Arabian peninsula during the time of Muhammed, the sounds b and m were interchangeable – as documented in 1973 by Princeton University Arabist, professor Philip Hitti…” LEARN MORE >
B) Dr Mike Diboll’s ‘Tom Holland’s Obsession with Islam’s Origins: A Critical Response’
Excerpt: “…I’ll begin my critique of it where Holland begins. The Roman Empire, perhaps the greatest power on earth at the time, is tottering under the pressure of barbarian invasion. From the fringes of empire, people the Romans regarded as ‘notorious savages’, ‘the most despised and insignificant people on earth’ – slaves, pirates, raiders, mercenaries and brigands – are the ‘shock troops’ who invade and take over one of the empire’s most important provinces, eradicating Christianity and classical learning seemingly at a stroke. In time, these barbarian conquerors will adopt Roman ways and a monotheistic faith which they will spread, along with their language and culture, to the farthest corners of the earth. The story of the rise of this nomadic tribal people, how they became heirs of the Romans, then far surpassed the Romans’ greatest achievements on a divinely inspired mission to civilize will be presented right through to our time as the example for the rest of the world to emulate – one of the most decisive conquests in history.
All this is supposed to take place in the ‘full light of history’, yet when we try to investigate the evidence, we find nothing of the sort, only a kind of darkness. Everything is up for grabs, and researchers into the rise of this people can so easily feel as if they are being sucked into a kind of black hole, an utter absence of evidence, nothing that really helps tell the story – but there’s nothing there, silence.
Nobody doubts the invasions actually took place, but there is not a single contemporary English text, not a single contemporary inscription or coin to help us. The Romano-British priest Gildas (500-570 CE) is one of the few contemporary non-English witnesses whose writing has survived. He provides us with highly stylised account of the invasions, but his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’) is useful only in so far as it provides the names of kings and tribes, and some insight into how an educated monk would have seen the English invasion as a punishment from God. We have to wait nearly two hundred and fifty years for the first account written by an Englishman, the Venerable Bede’s 731 CE Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’). The next most authoritative account, Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum – which includes the first mention of story of King Canute’s (985-1035) failure to stem the tide, taught in English schools until the 1980s – wasn’t written until 1129…” LEARN MORE >
C) Abdullah Al-Andalusi’s Summary: My Thoughts on ‘Islam- The Untold Story’
Excerpt: “I just saw the Channel 4 program ‘Islam: the untold story’ by author Tom Holland. I found it very amusing, he tried to come up with a alternative explanation for Islam (presumably the ‘untold story’) and admitted failure (along with arch orientalist, Patricia Crone).
To boil it down, the programs logic went like this:” [broken down into 6 points] LEARN MORE >
D) Inayat Bunglawala
Inayat shares his observations and charted an interesting conversation with Tom Holland via twitter, here:
- i) Review: Islam – The Untold Story
Excerpt: “…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…” LEARN MORE >
- ii) Tom Holland’s Bizarre Conjecture about Islam’s Birthplace
Excerpt: “…So, last night, I got in touch with Tom Holland through Twitter and you can read our exchange above (yes, I had to look up ‘synecdoche’ in a dictionary!). If Holland’s conjecture is correct then it would mean that the original birthplace of Islam at the time of the Prophet Muhammad was Avdat – a region near Palestine and it was only later under the Caliph Abd al-Malik (who ruled between 685 – 705 CE) that the Arabs for their own reasons changed the birthplace much further south to a new area that they also called Makka in the Hijaz.
This is a truly bizarre speculation especially as Tom Holland had said at the outset of his documentary that he was a writer of history who was interested in facts…” LEARN MORE >
- iii) Questioning Tom Holland and his ‘Islam – The Untold Story’
Excerpt: “…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, Holand’s paper clearly mentions that several Christian sources do refer to Muhammad and Islam in the early decades after Muhammad…” LEARN MORE >
E) iERA’s Respond to Tom Holland
Excerpt: “Tom Holland’s assertion that there is no historical evidence for the seventh century origins of Islam is historically inaccurate. This notion cannot be sustained in light of the contemporary non-Islamic as well as material evidence. For instance, early Christian chronicles in the seventh century elaborate on the origins of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and some of the laws practised by the early Muslims. Below are some examples of these chronicles:” LEARN MORE>
F) Dated Texts Mentioning the Prophet Muhammad by Islamic Awareness
Excerpt: “From the listings of the dated texts, it is clear that the name of Prophet Muhammad appears very early in the non-Muslim texts. The time period between the death of Muhammad (June, 632 CE) and the earliest mention of him (4th February, 634 CE) in the writings of Thomas the Presbyter (writing c. 640 CE / 19 AH), is slightly over a year and half! Interestingly enough, one of the earliest indications of stirrings in Arabia comes from the Doctrina Jacobi (“Teachings of Jacob”), a Greek anti-Jewish apologetic work which was presumably composed in Africa in July 634 during the Heraclean persecution…” LEARN MORE>
G) Dr Hugh Kennedy
Dr Kennedy is a historian with a specialism in Arab history. He identifies that there is complexity and there are some contradictions – but that they were accounted for by Muslim scholars as well as non-Muslim ones. That is what he means by ‘everybody knows that’. Moreover, newer evidences that come to light in conclusion, he says, simply reinforce the “general reliability of the Muslim narrative.”
2. CRITIQUING THE CRITIQUE: RE: Book Reviews
- Inayat Bunglawala’s Review of Tom Holland’s ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’
So, though there is much historians might debate regarding the advent of early Islam, it is clear that the work of Tom Holland in this regard, at least, deals less with actual facts and falls into the realm of fiction. It is clear that there are those ‘out there’ that seek to ‘make up history’ – and get paid for it (an easy cop-out) – and the Islamophobia Industry, for one, would certainly be on the look-out for such literary mercanaries. Those interested in ‘the actual truth’, which I appreciate is so passe nowadays, however, are advised to utilise the traditional method and put some effort to earnestly seek it out.
سبحان ربك رب العزة عما يصفون وسلام على المرسلين والحمد لله رب العالمين والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله محمد وعلى اله وصحبه أجمعين
Exalted be your Lord, the Lord of Glory, above what they attribute to Him, and peace be upon the Messengers, and all praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Universe. And the peace and blessing upon prophet Mohammed and his relatives and all his companions.