Birth of a religion

An interview with Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword.

New Statesman
Life's journey: pilgrims arrive at Mena in Saudi Arabia, carrying stones to throw at pillars symbolising Satan. Photograph: Getty Images.

How much do we know about the birth of Islam? Much less than we think, argues the popular historian Tom Holland in his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword.

In Holland’s opinion, the Quran was written long after the death of Muhammad, Mecca is not necessarily the birthplace of the Prophet and modern Muslims’ reverence for their holy writings stops them from confronting the texts’ dubious historical origins.

Bryan Appleyard has described the conclusion of In the Shadow of the Sword as “seismic”; he wrote in the Sunday Times that “Holland’s book leaves almost no aspect of the traditional story of Islam intact”. Another reviewer likened its treatment of the Quran to Dan Brown’s Christianity-as-conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code, “though with a little more class”.

The religion that emerged as Islam by the 8th century was, Holland would argue, just one manifestation of the furthest-reaching moral and ethical metamorphosis in history. Other expressions of the phenomenon were what we now call Judaism and Christianity – faiths that he suggests had taken on something like the form they wear today by the time of Muhammad, but similarly were once swirls of beliefs and doctrines.

Holland’s tale of how Islam came to define itself and its past is only one part of a much broader panorama: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. Does he present a bold new account that undermines Islam’s grip on its own past, or, as I argue, spin out a rich but speculative tale of the possible birth of three religions as novel tools to grapple with an era of geopolitical conflict and rivalry?

Nabeelah Jaffer

Nabeelah Jaffer Your chapters on the ambi­guity of early Christianity and Judaism have slipped under the radar amid the general buzz that you “rubbish” Islam and the expectant wait for some sort of backlash. How doyou feel about the assumption that Muslims are more likely to respond to challenging ideas with violent anger than followers of other religions? And do you think there will be a few far-right attempts to appropriate your ideas?

Tom Holland I think it is one measure of theeffect of the [Salman] Rushdie affair in this country that it is now widely taken for granted that writing anything about Islam will make angry men with beards – and probably hooks as well! – come to kill you. Whenever I have told people what the book was about, the word “fatwa” has invariably surfaced.

That being so, it was probably inevitable that the most eye-catching chapters in the book would be the ones about Islam. But why should any Muslim be offended by what I have to say? Mine is a non-believer’s attempt to explain a puzzle that Muslims, if they have faith, would deny was a puzzle at all. As an adult, I struggle to square my absolute conviction that Abraham and Moses never existed with the occasional flaring of a residual Christian faith. I hope that the resulting tension has been good for the book. Yes, it is sceptical; but no, it is never contemptuous of the longing of people to know God.

NJ I agree. I think both upset Muslims and pleased “Islamophobes” perceive in revisionism a threat to the religious narrative where none exists. The questions that you set out to answer only appear when you take a divine presence out of the equation.

You wrestle, for example, with the “bewilderingly eclectic array of sources” in the Quran, Abrahamic and otherwise. A Muslim would take this as proof of divine input and a revelation which encompasses Judaism and Christianity as part of a prophetic tradition. As a non-Muslim, you rule out this answer and search for an alternative scenario. Presenting a potential secular alternative to the “God” story doesn’t negate the narrative upheld by believers. So, turning to your secular alternative, how does it differ from traditional accounts?

TH All three religions, it seems to me, emerged out of the same melting pot – and yet all three have constructed backstories that aim to occlude the fact. In the first three centuries after Christ, Jews and Christians may have had a consciousness of themselves as peoples with distinct identities, but they remained unclear where precisely the border between them lay.

There were Jews who believed that Jesus had been the Messiah and there were Christians who followed the Jewish law – and it took an unacknowledged alliance between bishops and rabbis, in the centuries after the emperor Constantine, to ensure that what had previously been an open frontier became a no-man’s land. Similarly, a lot of Muslim historiography seems to me to have been composed with the aim of spiking the possibility that either the Quran or the sunna [laws] might conceivably have owed anything to infidel precedent.

NJ Of course, one of the first things you learn as a historian is to interrogate early chronicles for motive using context, whether geopolitical, religious or otherwise. But it is equally dangerous to lean towards the hypersceptic idea that texts cannot be relied upon except to tell us about their writers, meaning the document-free gaps in the past must always consist of near-impregnable darkness.

You don’t go quite that far in your book, but you do apply something of this very sceptical view to early Islamic sources which first appeared in the 200 years after the Prophet’s death as written accounts of oral testimony. You suggest, for example, that hadiths [sayings of Muhammad] targeting the rich were concocted to unsettle the rotten imperial elite. Your argument that “the dry rot of fabrication . . . was endemic throughout the sunna” is much more radical than the traditionalist, more common academic approach, which recognises the importance of testing for fabrication, but values the hadith as a body of secondary sources. I’d disagree that uncovering fabricated elements in these early sources undermines everything that they portray as authentic.

TH I think there’s a particular problem with the sources for early Islam. Some of the sayings attributed to Muhammad must surely be authentic – but even if we could identify them, their value as a source for his life would still not be greatly enhanced as a result.

Context, for the historian, is all – and no Muslim scholar or lawyer who cited the Prophet ever had the slightest interest in establishing what the original context of his sayings might actually have been. To quote him was to take for granted that the advice he had to give was timeless and universal. That Muslims in the heyday of the Caliphate were living under circumstances unimaginable to Muhammad never crossed their minds.

The real problem for the historian is that we lack what, for instance, [the 1st-century Roman-Jewish historian] Josephus gives us for the background to the life of Christ – a control. The consequence is that we can only hope to arrive at a sense of what might have happened in the early years of the Arab conquests by looking at the much later Muslim source material in the light of the late-antique world.

NJ In which case, no explanation of the origins of Islam is ever going to strike the mould for an authentic secular narrative. You rightly point out in your introduction the provisional nature of your own retelling of early Islam: “on a whole range of issues . . . there can only ever be speculation”. While you use Christian and Jewish traces in the Quran to suggest their influence on Muhammad, direct evidence remains elusive.

There’s a wonderful analogy in the book about it being similar to noticing that the eastern and western coasts of the Atlantic Ocean match like a jigsaw puzzle. There seems to be a link, but without clues as to how the two came together, it’s impossible to know for certain how to explain the gap. Historians are just replacing one take on an uncertain past with another.

TH The hypothesis I give in the book as to how and why Islam might have emerged is only that – a hypothesis. Patricia Crone, one of the most brilliant and innovative historians of early Islam, once memorably described the Muslim historical tradition as “a monument to the destruction rather than the preservation of the past”. That being so, it is hardly surprising that there should be such a breathtaking range of opinion, ranging from devout Muslims, who accept the tradition in its entirety, to radical sceptics who doubt that Muhammad so much as existed.

My own take is that the evolution of Islam can only really be made sense of in the light of the civilisations and religions of late antiquity. Partly, that is because it genuinely seems to me the best way to try to understand what might have happened in the 7th century; but I am sure it also reflects a subliminal desire on my part, in love with antiquity as I am, to feel that Islam, like Christianity, was bred of the ancient world.

NJ This debate has, until now, been limited to specialists, for the good reason that it requires a vast amount of study and a good knowledge of Arabic, at least, in order to draw authoritative conclusions from the available sources. Revisionists are few, and those such as Patricia Crone and Michael Cook who argue that Islam was born after the burgeoning of the Caliphate and the Arab conquests do so with the authority of their close understanding of the period, albeit little concrete evidence.

While you obviously draw on the work of such historians and are enthusiastic about the period, is it fair to present a narrative not grounded in direct engagement with the available sources?

TH In writing this book, I am standing on the shoulders of giants – or, to mix metaphors, rushing in where angels fear to tread. My justification is that if a generalist is not prepared to attempt it, then no one will. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a scholar with Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic and Coptic, doctorates in Talmudic studies, patristics, Christian theology and Quranic studies and an ability to write accessibly for the general public – but if so, he or she is yet to write the book on the subject that I strongly felt merited being written.

Even the greatest historian of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Edward Gibbon, had to profess his “ignorance of the Oriental tongues, and . . . gratitude to the learned interpreters”. Where I had the advantage, perhaps, was in having a brilliant research assistant, a native Arabic speaker with a specialisation in Syriac, and the incredible generosity of a wide range of scholars.

NJ Locating religious construction in the centuries that followed the death of Muhammad involves saying some particularly challenging things about the Quran and the Prophet himself. For example, you accept that the Quran seems to date from around Muhammad’s time, and certainly recent carbon-dating research suggests an early-7th-century date for indicative Quranic fragments.

When the German Quranic scholar Gerd Puin was allowed to examine the ancient manuscripts recently discovered in Sana’a, Yemen, he found possible evidence of minor changes to verse order and spelling, but uncovered no hint of deliberate fabrication. In the light of all this, proposing that figures such as the 7th-century caliph Abd al-Malik, whom you suggest put the Quran through an “editing process”, and the historian Ibn Hisham constructed a retrospective religion centred on a man named Muhammad, whom they situated in Mecca, seems a little extreme. There are direct mentions of Muhammad in the Quran itself, among dozens of other allusions to his life.

TH The problem for any non-Muslim trying to explain the origins of Islam is what to make of the Quran. It seems to me clearly to derive, in the form we have it, from the lifetime of Muhammad – which makes it, a few other brief and enigmatic documents aside, our only primary source for his career.

The problem is, I cannot possibly accept what Muslims take for granted: that it originates from God. And yet Mecca, so the biographies of the Prophet teach us, was an inveterately pagan city devoid of any large-scale Jewish or Christian presence, situated in the midst of a vast, untenanted desert. How else, then, are we to account for the sudden appearance there of a fully fledged monotheism, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, if not as a miracle? You can only answer that question by asking yourself whether Muslims, at some point in the evolution of Islam, might not have situated the origins of the Quran deep in a desert for the same reason that Christians cast the mother of Christ as a virgin. In both cases, what is presumed to be an intrusion of the divine into the dimension of the mortal is being certified as an authentic, bona fide act of God.

NJ I don’t argue that religious practices shouldn’t be understood as firmly within their political and cultural contexts as possible. But religions are necessarily a human phenomenon in their practice, however divine we believe their inspiration and aspiration to be. “Monotheistic revolution” is a misnomer: the evolution of faith didn’t end with the melting pot of Byzantine.

TH I think in the early history of what emerges as rabbinical Judaism, of Christianity and of Islam, you see a near-identical process: the gradual fashioning, out of a great swirl of often inchoate rituals, convictions and scriptures, of a distinct religion that is coherent, in terms of both doctrine and institutions. Watchtowers and barriers go up, the aim being to keep the faithful inside set limits and to keep non-believers out. Histories are then written which make it seem as though the religion has always existed in the form that it now possesses, right from the very beginning – that Moses was a rabbi, that Jesus would have signed up to the Nicaean Creed, that Muhammad was truly the fountainhead of the sunna.

The concrete, initially so soft and malleable, by now has set. This does not mean, of course, that the various religions do not continue to evolve – but they do so within parameters that by now are irrevocably rigid, and exclude contributions from peoples of other faiths. It is in that sense, I would argue, that Jews, Christians and Muslims all today worship different gods.

“In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” by Tom Holland is out now (Little Brown, £25)
Nabeelah Jaffer is a journalist who specialises in Islamic culture and feminism