British broadcaster Channel 4 aired a programme “Islam: The Untold Story” on Tuesday 28th August 2012 with the show presented by Tom Holland. A number of absurd and outrageous claims were made by Holland against Islam such as Makkah not being mentioned in the Quran and that all historical information from about Islam from the earliest sources is fabricated and unreliable.
Holland relied on rogue scholarship and discredited academics to make his claims that Islam has no historical or intellectual basis and it is scandalous that a major broadcaster such as Channel 4 allowed this programme its airtime.
We urge all Muslims and non-Muslims alike to complain to Channel 4 and Ofcom as it is fundamentally irresponsible for flagrant untruths about one of the world’s most significant religions to be spread amongst millions of people
By complaining, we want to ensure that Channel 4 will not allow such programmes to be shown on their services again. Muslims need to make sure Islam is accurately portrayed in the media which already has a bias against our beautiful religion.
This paper is a response to the Channel 4 Programme “Islam: The Untold Story”, the paper will address each of the main claims made by Holland.
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:
“I, Abraham, went off to Sykamina and referred the matter to an old man very well-versed in the Scriptures. I asked him: “What is your view, master and teacher, of the prophet who has appeared among the Saracens”.(1)
Here it can be clearly seen that a prophet among Saracens [i.e. the Arabs] is mentioned. The questions is: who was this prophet among Arabs? And what does a prophet do? The Prophet of Arabs was non other than Muhammad (peace be upon him) and it appears that the meaning of the term “prophet” was clearly understood by the author of this narrative. A prophet, in a Judeo-Christian sense, leads his people and teaches them about God and this is exactly what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did. A Christian chronicler couldn’t have understood the term differently. Holland’s claim that there is no evidence of Islam before the early Islamic conquests is anachronistic. If there is evidence of a prophet among Arabs, why then one should doubt the existence of the teachings of that prophet?
A record of the Arab conquest of Syria written in 637 CE, just 5 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), clearly mentions him by name. Interestingly, the date of the document agrees with the best Arab date for the battle of Yarmuk:
“…and in January, they took the word for their lives did the sons of Emesa, and many villages were ruined with killing by the Arabs of Mụhammad and a great number of people were killed and captives were taken from Galilee as far as Bēth.” (2)
A mid seventh century account of Islam comes from Sebeos who was a bishop of the House of Bagratunis. This chronicle suggests that he lived through many of the events he relates. As for Muhammad (peace be upon him), he had the following to say:
“At that time a certain man from along those same sons of Ishmael, whose name was Mahmet [i.e., Mụhammad], a merchant, as if by God’s command appeared to them as a preacher [and] the path of truth. He taught them to recognize the God of Abraham, especially because he was learned and informed in the history of Moses. Now because the command was from on high, at a single order they all came together in unity of religion. Abandoning their vain cults, they turned to the living God who had appeared to their father, Abraham. So, Mahmet legislated for them: not to eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsely, and not to engage in fornication. He said: with an oath God promised this land to Abraham and his seed after him forever. And he brought about as he promised during that time while he loved Ishmael. But now you are the sons of Abraham and God is accomplishing his promise to Abraham and his seed for you. Love sincerely only the God of Abraham, and go and seize the land which God gave to your father Abraham. No one will be able to resist you in battle, because God is with you.” (3)
This narrative by Sebeos clearly undermines Holland’s assertion that there are no historical records elaborating on the life, teachings and mission of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In fact this particular narrative suggests that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had taught his companions about Islam and the tenets of this faith were well established and understood by the time Sebeos was writing his chronicle. Holland, for some reason, failed to notice these important non-Muslim testimonies as to the established existence of Islam as a way of life in the mid seventh century. Some more evidence of the early mention of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) can be seen here.
Holland appears to have turned a blind eye to the rich Islamic historical tradition. There are no “black holes” and there is no missing information. There is plenty of material evidence available to substantiate the accuracy of the Islamic narrative on the early history of Islam. For instance, there are thousands of inscriptions on rocks in Saudi Arabia confirming the chronological accuracy of the Islamic historical records such as Hadith and Sira/Maghazi literature. One such inscription can be found here.
This inscription states ‘In the name of Allah, I, Zuhayr, wrote [this] at the time Umar died in the year four and twenty (i.e. 24 AH)’. This dated early text confirms the established existence of the Islamic Hijri calendar, the truth of the event of Hijrah (migration) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the existence of Umar bin Khattab (the second Caliph of Islam), and the accuracy of the Islamic chronology, as according the Islamic historical records, the second Caliph of Islam died in the year 24 AH (644 CE). Also, there is an undated early seventh century inscription, which documents the Islamic Shahadah proclamation. It can be found here.
There is also plenty of Papyri evidence available to confirm the chronological as well as the factual accuracy of the Islamic narrative. Some of this papyri evidence can be witnessed here.
Why would Holland ignore all of this visible evidence and turn a blind eye to it?
2. Unjustified rejection of the Islamic narrative.
Tom Holland’s presentation was clearly biased in the programme, as he ignored other scholarly views that would call his approach into question. For example, Michael Cook, a historian specialising in early Islamic history explains the importance of early non-Muslim accounts of the origins of Islam:
“What does this material tell us? We may begin with the major points on which it agrees with the Islamic tradition. It precludes any doubts as to whether Muhammad was a real person: he is named in a Syriac source that is likely to date from the time of the conquests, and there is an account of him in a Greek source of the same period. From the 640s we have confirmation that the term muhajir was a central one in the new religion, since its followers are known as ‘Magaritai’ or ‘Mahgraye’ in Greek and Syriac respectively. At the same time, a papyrus of 643 is dated ‘year twenty two’, creating a strong presumption that something did happen in AD 622. The Armenian chronicler of the 660s attests that Muhammad was a merchant, and confirms the centrality of Abraham in his preaching. The Abrahamic sanctuary appears in an early source dated (insecurely) to the 670s.” (4)
“Over the past century, the Muslim tradition has been challenged by many academics and it has proven remarkably resilient in its own defence…but the Muslim account of history, the textual integrity of the Koran and the mnemonic capacity of oral traditions are more robust than Holland gives them credit…few scholars today would claim it was entirely fabricated. Holland would have done better to adopt a cautious and sensitive approach to the Arabic sources, rather than abandoning them in favour of a sensational rewriting of history.” (5)
“..the historical memory of the Muslim community is more robust than some have claimed. For example, many of the deities, kings and tribes of the pre-Islamic Arabs that are depicted by ninth-century Muslim historians also feature in the epigraphic record, as do many of the rulers and governors of the early Islamic state. This makes it difficult to see how historical scenarios that require for their acceptance a total discontinuity in the historical memory of the Muslim community – such as that Muhammad did not exist, the Quran was not written in Arabic, Mecca was originally in a different place etc. – can really be justified. Many of these scenarios rely on absence of evidence, but it seems a shame to make such a recourse when there are so many very vocal forms of material evidence still waiting to be studied.” (6)
3. Rejecting the Islamic oral tradition.
As discussed above, Holland’s approach is inherently biased as he unjustifiably rejects the entire corpus of the Islamic tradition, including the oral Prophetic traditions. Patricia Crone asserts in the documentary that with oral traditions “you remember what you want to remember”. With this assertion Holland attempts to undermine the entire science of Hadith (Prophetic traditions). The science of the Prophetic traditions is based upon scrutinising the isnad (chain of narrations) and the matn (the text). Nabia Abbot, a prominent academic who has conducted extensive study on the Prophetic traditions, explains how the growth of these traditions was as a result of parallel and multiple chains of transmission which highlights that these traditions are trustworthy and a valid source of historical information. She writes:
“…the traditions of Muhammad as transmitted by his Companions and their Successors were, as a rule, scrupulously scrutinised at each step of the transmission, and that the so called phenomenal growth of Tradition in the second and third centuries of Islam was not primarily growth of content, so far as the hadith of Muhammad and the hadith of the Companions are concerned, but represents largely the progressive increase in parallel and multiple chains of transmission.” (7)
“While studying the Musannaf of `Abd al-Razzaq, I came to the conclusion that the theory championed by Goldziher, Schacht and in their footsteps many others – myself included – which in general, reject hadith literature as a historically reliable sources for the first century AH, deprives the historical study of early Islam of an important and a useful type of source.” (8)
4. The absurdity of rejecting the oral tradition.
Even if we were to follow Holland’s line of enquiry, it would lead us to absurdities. The philosophical implications of rejecting the Prophetic traditions are quite damning. In epistemology – which is narrowly defined as the study of knowledge and belief – testimony is considered as one of the sources of knowledge, and when applied properly it can form justified beliefs. Testimony is a valid source of knowledge only when it comes from a reliable source especially if there are multiple sources in agreement. Obviously there are conditions as to how we can use testimony, but in the majority cases we consider testimony as a valid source of knowledge. For instance, take our certainty on the fact that China exists. Many people have never been to China, eaten Chinese food in China or spoken to someone in China. All they have as evidence is a map of the world and people telling them they have travelled to China and others claiming to be from China but is this sufficient? However, if we examine why we have such a high level of certainty that China exists, regardless of the above questions, we will conclude that it is due to recurrent testimony. Recurrent testimony is when such a large number of people have reported a claim to knowledge (such as the existence of China) that it is impossible for them to agree upon a lie or to simultaneously lie. This is accentuated by the fact that most of these people never met and lived in different places and different times. Therefore to claim that they have lied is tantamount to propose the existence of an impossible conspiracy.
Linking this to the Prophetic traditions, not only do we have mass testimony of events and statements of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), we have a detailed science dedicated to authenticate these traditions. Prophetic traditions consist of two components: isnad (chain of narrations) and matn (text). Each of these have detailed criteria that scrutinise the chain and the text to a degree that leaves very little room for doubt. To reject these traditions is tantamount to rejecting facts such as the existence of China or the entirety of history, as these events have been verified via recurrent testimony also. Moreover, each Prophetic tradition has been scrutinised more rigorously than any historical fact we have with us today. Thousands of companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) narrated reports from him and these reports were then transmitted to subsequent generations with maximum care and authenticity. An anonymous report or a narration originating from an unknown source was immediately rejected. Companions such as Abdullah bin Umar, Anas bin Malik, Abu Hurairah, Aysha, Hudaifah bin Yamaan and many more narrated reports from the Prophet and they were then passed onto the next generation. A very good treatment of this subject can be found in M. M. Azami’s “Studies in Early Hadith Literature”.
Some criteria for the evaluation of Isnad
- The name, nickname, title, parentage and occupation of the narrator should be known.
- The original narrator should have stated that he heard the hadith directly from the Prophet.
- If a narrator referred his hadith to another narrator, the two should have lived in the same period and have had the possibility of meeting each other.
- At the time of hearing and transmitting the hadith, the narrator should have been physically and mentally capable of understanding and remembering it.
- The narrator should have been known as a pious and virtuous person.
- The narrator should not have been accused of having lied, given false evidence or committed a crime.
- The narrator should not have spoken against other reliable people.
- The narrator’s religious beliefs and practices should have been known to be correct.
- The narrator should not have carried out and practiced peculiar religious beliefs of his own.
- The text should have been stated in plain and simple language as this was the undisputed manner of speech of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
- A text in non-Arabic or containing indecent language was rejected (for the same reason as above).A text prescribing heavy punishment for minor sins or exceptionally large reward for small virtues was rejected.
- A text which referred to actions that should have been commonly known and practiced by others but were not known and practiced was rejected.
- A text contrary to the basic teachings of the Qur’an was rejected.
- A text contrary to another established prophetic tradition was rejected.
- A text inconsistent with historical facts was rejected.
- Extreme care was taken to ensure the text was the original narration of the Prophet and not the sense of what the narrator heard. The meaning of the Prophet tradition was accepted only when the narrator was well known for his piety and integrity of character.
- A text by an obscure narrator which was not known during the age of the Prophet’s companions or of the subsequent generation was rejected.
5. The textual Islamic tradition.
Holland continues to espouse his uninformed perspective by claiming that there is an absence of textual evidence from the Islamic narrative. In response to this there are a myriad of written works in the early period of Islam. Below is a list of some of the early works:
Saheefah Saheehah: Compiled by Humaam Ibn Munabbih. He was from the famous students of Abu Hurairah (the eminent companion of the Prophet). He wrote all the prophetic traditions from his teacher. Copies of this manuscript are available from libraries in Berlin and Damascus.
Saheefah Basheer Ibn Naheek: Ibn Naheek was also a student of Abu Hurairah. He gathered and wrote a treatise of Prophetic traditions which he read to Abu Hurairah, before they departed and the former verified it. (9)
One of the early Hadith compilations was Muatta of Imam Malik , compiled by Malik bin Anas (d. 179 AH/795 CE). A fragmentary papyri manuscript of this collection from the time of the author is extant to this day. It can be seen here.
This clearly shows that the Hadith literature existed in textual form and was written with extreme care and enthusiasm. Malik bin Anas was a student of Nafi’, who was a student of Abdullah bin Umar and Abdullah narrated directly from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). This is an uninterrupted chain of Hadith (also known as the Golden Chain). Malik narrates extensively from Nafi’ in his book and all these reports reach the Prophet Muhammad directly and some of these reports can be verified in manuscript form in international libraries.
In light of the above, the claim that there were no texts or historical documents in the early seventh century is a false one, and clearly undermines the integrity of the programme. All authentic Hadith literature can be traced back to the Prophet and much of this literature existed in written form in the early days of Islam.
Holland’s unjustified rejection of the oral and textual Islamic tradition forces him to attempt a coherent alternative. Admitting that he cannot do this, many times describing his source of information as a “black hole”, he uses certain Quranic verses in an attempt to justify his revisionist approach to the Islamic narrative. Holland uses the story of the Prophet Lot and the so-called non-mention of the city of Mecca as means to justify his alternative theory.
“And indeed, Lot was among the messengers. [So mention] when We saved him and his family, all, except his wife among those who remained [with the evildoers]. Then We destroyed the others. And indeed, you pass by them in the morning. And at night. Then will you not use reason?” (10)
“By the mid-sixth century, as heir to Petra and Palmyra, Mecca became one of the important caravan cities of the Middle East. The Meccans carried spices, leather, drugs, cloth and slaves which had come from Africa or the Far East to Syria, and returned money, weapons, cereals, and wine to Arabia.” (11)
“Have they not travelled through the land and observed how was the end of those before them? They were more numerous than themselves and greater in strength and in impression on the land, but they were not availed by what they used to earn.” (12)
“And it is He who withheld their hands from you and your hands from them within [the area of] Makkah after He caused you to overcome them. And ever is Allah of what you do, Seeing.” (13)
7. Did the Arab Empire create Islam?
Although this contention of Holland’s does not provide a strong argument against Islamic tradition, it is worthwhile pointing out that his view that Islam emerged as a result of the Arab empire does not make sense when the historical events are viewed objectively. The late professor of Islamic studies William Montgomery Watt asserts:
“Neither as Christians or Jews, nor simply as intellectually responsible individuals, have members of Western Civilisation been sensitively educated or even accurately informed about Islam…even some persons of goodwill who have gained acquaintance with Islam continue to interpret the reverence for the prophet Muhammad and the global acceptance of his message as an inexplicable survival of the zeal of an ancient desert tribe. This view ignores fourteen centuries of Islamic civilisation, burgeoning with artists, scholars, statesmen, philanthropists, scientists, chivalrous warriors, philosophers…as well as countless men and women of devotion and wisdom from almost every nation of the planet. The coherent world civilisation called Islam, founded in the vision of the Qur’an, cannot be regarded as the product of individual and national ambition, supported by historical accident.” (15)
8. What if the Qur’an is God’s word?
One of the key reasons of why the Muslim narrative has remained resilient against baseless and uninformed polemics is based on the fact that the Qur’an is from God. The argument is simple yet profound. If it can be shown that the Qur’an is from God, an Infallible and Omnipotent being, then it follows that whatever is in the Qur’an is true. This will include the fact that Islam is a religion sent by God and not the development of an Arab empire, as claimed by Holland.
“So where are you people going? This is a message for all people; for those who wish to take the straight path.” (16)
“Are the disbelievers not aware that the heavens and the earth used to be joined together and that We ripped them apart, that We made every living thing from water? Will they not believe?” (17)
“Have they not thought about their own selves?” (18)
“If you have doubts about the revelation we have sent down to Our servant, then produce a single chapter like it – enlist whatever supporters you have other than God – if you truly think you can. If you cannot do this – and you never will – then beware of the Fire prepared for the disbelievers, whose fuel is men and stones.” (19)
“…and that though several attempts have been made to produce a work equal to it as far as elegant writing is concerned, none has as yet succeeded.” (20)
“As tangible signs Qur’anic verses are expressive of inexhaustible truth, the signify meaning layered within meaning, light upon light, miracle after miracle.” (21)
“The King said, ‘Bring him to me straight away!’…”(22)
In light of this, how could have the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) known such a minute historical detail? Especially when all other religious texts, such as the Bible are mistaking in this regard? Also, since people at the time of revelation did not know this information (as the Hieroglyphs was a dead language at the time), what does this then say about the authorship of the Qur’an?
“Seldom, if ever, has a set of ideas had so great an effect on human societies as Islam has done, above all in the first half of the seventh century. In little more than twenty years, the religious and political configuration of Arabia was changed out of all recognition. Within another twenty all of the rich, highly developed, militarily powerful world enveloping Arabia was conquered, save for Asia Minor and north Africa.” (23)
9. Selective Scholarship.
Holland’s choice of scholarship was very selective and was carefully planned to substantiate his argument. He appears to have ignored a bulk, in fact the majority, of scholarship to make his point stand out. He relied heavily upon the opinions of Patricia Crone (featured in the documentary), whose theories on the early Islamic history are discarded by most historians today. She has expressed her erroneous views on Islamic sources in a number of works. She went as far as to assert that some of the Islamic sources are ‘”debris of obliterated past”; and some of the early works, including Ibn Ishaq’s Sira (biography of the Prophet), are “mere piles of desperate traditions”. (24)
“…the sceptics have encountered some scepticism about their own approach, because some of their claims seem overstated – or even unfounded. Moreover, their work has to date been almost entirely negative – that is, while they have tried to cast doubt on the received version of ‘what happened’ in early Islamic history by impugning the sources, they have not yet offered a convincing alternative reconstruction of what might have happened.” (25)
Carole Hillenbrand has also rejected the extremely negative and selective approach of Patricia Crone and her school. (27)
In summary, Tom Holland has cherry picked from evidence as well as scholarship to take an unsubstantiated and marginalised view on the origins of Islam. He saw what he wanted to see and rejected recklessly what he didn’t like. His exclusion of established academic positions and material facts points to the only conclusion of justifying his own prejudices and ignorance of Islamic tradition.
A further response by the telegraph can be read here
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.