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

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

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

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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The age of lies: how politicians hide behind statistics

Perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two.

The small slabs of crude election soundbites, with extra ornamentation in the form of half-true and meaningless headline statistics, clunk across the airwaves, and we grimace. The dead prose reaches us umpteen times a day – “an economy that works for all”, “the many and not the few”, “work is the way out of poverty”, “more being spent on our schools than ever before”, “the NHS is treating more patients than ever ­before”, “fastest growth rate in Europe”, “the national interest”, “the most ­important election in my lifetime” – and yes, let’s hear it for “strong and stable leadership”.

On 30 April, Andrew Marr tried a little witty and civilised pre-emptive mocking to stop Theresa May using soundbites in his interview with her, but it did not work because it could not work. Embarrassment about clichés and almost idiotic numbers is not what democratic politicians worry about at election time. Many of us may pine for the old American game-show device – where, for failing to amuse and divert the audience, contestants are removed from the fray by a man hammering a gong – but that is not on offer and, in election mode, the politicians will do as they have long learned to do. They will listen to the Lynton Crosbys and Seumas Milnes of this world and plough on – and on.

The soundbites are largely vacuous and we are more noisily sardonic about them than three decades ago (hooray for media literacy) but they aren’t worse than normal. There is no point expecting the debate to run on the lines of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign 140 years ago, when he charged around Britain giving five-hour speeches – richly informed by Liberal philosophy – which did the trick for him and his party.

The clichés are, naturally, often interchangeable. Everybody running for high political office could quite contentedly utter any or all of the above phrases, though I concede it doesn’t require an inspired analyst of modern British politics to know what Theresa May is trying to do with her leadership riff – nor Jeremy Corbyn with his “rule for the many and not the few”, a phrase that has been used religiously since the adoption of universal suffrage. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg would put it to one side.

I spent almost 30 years at the BBC – working with a cadre of (mostly) hugely talented and impartial presenters and editors trying to find ways of injecting a bit more surprise or rigour into political interviews. (Surprise and rigour are often not the same thing.) I recall David Dimbleby reducing Alastair Campbell to semi-public fury in 1997 by excavating Tony Blair’s early political career and finding, neither surprisingly nor, in my view, particularly reprehensibly, that he had said Michael Foot-like things in a Michael Foot-like era. Oddly, nobody had thought to do this after he had been elected leader three years earlier, so Dimbleby’s approach to Blair had an element of ­surprise. And then there was John Humphrys’s relentless needling of Gordon Brown for his comic refusal after the 2008 financial crash to use the word “cuts” to describe what might have to happen to reduce the budget deficit, or even to agree with his own chancellor, Alistair Darling, that the global economic outlook was very bad. Brown had an on-air mega-curdle.

We know the score – the politicians find the rhetorical and statistical position that provides the best short-term defensive crouch, while the interviewer at least wants to make sure that the audience knows the question posed is relevant, fair and, if need be, that it has been dodged. Time presses on both participants – but the impact of the compression is unequal. The interviewee usually has the upper hand. In her early period Margaret Thatcher, who was a good deal more nervous than her subsequent reputation for clarity and authority would suggest, might well have been the all-time queen of interview delay tactics. However, most interviewees know that once they have found an answer to a question the first thing to do is to pad it out in case the next question is a little more difficult.

I am not outraged by any of this; nor do I believe these encounters should be dismissed as sterile, or that we should be contemptuous of the skills involved on either side of the exchange. The sort of one-sided triumph enjoyed by LBC’s Nick Ferrari with Diane Abbott is rare, and her numerical amnesia over policing made a whole argument go kerplunk – but even in more orthodox interviews you can often detect at the very least a broad weakness in a broad argument.

To my ear Corbyn sounds perpetually unsteady on defence policy (see his Marr interview in the first week of the campaign) and public finances, and neither May nor David Cameron before her manages much fluency on the impact of cuts on the working poor once they have uttered that threadbare soundbite about work being the route out of poverty. Would that it were so simple.

Our willingness to dismiss as boring these interviews, the staple of daily current affairs programmes, is overdone. And we have been a little graceless about the extent to which senior UK politicians do – or did – engage in at least some forms of public debate. Anyone who follows the US media will know how rare it has always been for senior members of the administration and White House staff to expose themselves to the sort of scrutiny still supplied by the Sunday political shows, Radio 4 current affairs programmes, Newsnight or Channel 4 News.

For decades, senior politicians in the UK turned up in the studios – often with scarcely concealed irritation – but they went through with it. In part because it was expected and in part out of self-interest. Good interview performances could lead to rapid promotion. Iain Duncan Smith was (you may be surprised by this) particularly effective in his early years at advocating his causes, and his party’s, in front of a microphone. But the studios did for him when he became Tory leader. As it turned out, his failings were more obvious when confronted by a skilled interviewer than in the House of Commons. His nervous coughing finally caught up with him one morning on the Today programme, and that was that.

Duncan Smith and Abbott are far from alone in seeing their currency plummet as a result of losing the plot in an interview. Harriet Harman, normally a highly fluent and agile politician, was sacked as social security secretary in 1998 after a grim outing, at least for her, with John Humphrys – caused not by his abrasiveness nor by any Abbott-like forgetfulness, but by her almost tangible unhappiness with a New Labour policy she was defending.

Even now, on BBC Question Time, some heavyweights will turn up only to be mauled by the voters on topics a long way away from the heart of their portfolio. Yes, they get copious notes from party researchers and have endless rehearsals to minimise the chance of saying anything too intellectually lively: but they should nevertheless get credit for risking it in the first place.

However, outside election time this tradition of broadcasting interrogation and debate, not much more than 50 years old, is under stealthy attack. The presenting team on Today is seriously good, but it is hard not to notice that the heavy hitters turn up less often for their ten minutes of duelling; similarly with Newsnight and Channel 4 News.

The Prime Minister’s Olympian approach to this sort of public engagement aggravates what was already a problem. The broadcasters may be losing ground. In this election there will be no head-to-head leaders’ debates featuring Labour and the Conservatives, and there is no great uproar about it. As it happens, I don’t believe that their absence is a disaster – not least because the format of individual leaders confronting an engaged Question Time audience one at a time (a “tradition” that began in 1997) provides far more substance and revelation than the 2010 or 2015 leaders’ debates did.

In the meantime, what can be done to the interview to improve the quality of public debate? Forcing out the clichés is not a realistic goal. Yet perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two. The BBC Trust (which I was part of for two years until it ceased to exist in April) commissioned its final independent editorial report on the BBC’s use of statistics from a panel of experts chaired by the former UK chief statistician Jil Matheson.

It is a superb piece of work. Above all it pleads with the BBC to do more to put statistics in context. The work was largely complete before the EU referendum so it did not pass judgement about either the veracity of the Brexiteers’ “extra £350m for the NHS” claim or the BBC’s coverage of that claim. I listened and watched a lot and, contrary to the views of many leading members of the Remain campaign, the BBC seemed to me to have consistently signalled to the audience the risible nature of the figure, if not as rudely as many would have liked.

Yet there is a different perspective on that cause célèbre. Only very rarely did the BBC on air (or anyone else, for that matter) compare the sums involved with total UK public expenditure: a net annual payment to the EU of about £8.5bn, compared to public expenditure of about £785bn. This £8.5bn is not a trivial sum – and it is likely to sound gargantuan to an unskilled worker on low wages in Hartlepool – but it hardly threatens the nation’s existence. We will have to think about that number all over again when the EU divorce bill gets paid.

In the past few years there has been a welcome growth online of fact-checking websites that get to grips with some of the half-sense or nonsense uttered – sometimes deliberately – in public debate. Among the broadcasters, Channel 4 News got in first with “FactCheck” and deserves great credit for having done so. The BBC has Reality Check; there are also the non-aligned Full Fact and others. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) sits as a mega-authority when it pronounces on individual economic statistics. (It was a particularly dispiriting episode when the IFS took a pounding during the EU campaign.)

The good newspapers and the broadcasters have correspondents who can – and do – understand the context in which statistical argument takes place. They know the difference between a big number and a not-so-big number, the difference between an aggregate spending figure and spending per head of population, the difference in importance between a one-month figure and a trend – and a trend that does not change much over time.

This is all good, and better than it used to be. But perhaps more of this rigour can be woven into what is still the dominant form of political accountability in broadcasting: the interview.

So let us try a thought experiment. Imagine (though we don’t really have to imagine) that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, comes into a studio to say, surprise, surprise, that more is being spent in real terms on the NHS than ever before. Imagine that he is told there will be no questions on anything else until he can answer, let’s say, two obvious supplementary questions: in the course of the past 60 years how often has his assertion not been true? (Answer, says the IFS: four times, one of which was 2011/12.) And what has been the growth in per capita NHS spend, in real terms, since 2009/10, compared to the previous 15 years or so? (Answer: 0.6 per cent, as opposed to 5.4 per cent.) Answering these would show that his boast is one that almost all of his predecessors could have made, and also that the Conservative-led coalition was less generous to the health service than the preceding Labour government. It would be absolutely fair for Jeremy Hunt to respond vigorously about the need to cut the deficit or even to make points about who was in government when the crash happened – but he could not be allowed to get away with statistical near-rubbish.

Similarly, the mantra on English education (“Our schools are getting more money than ever before”) is a waste of air. It’s not that the cuts are “vicious” – just that the assertion when put in context is gibberish. The economy is growing and the school population is growing, fast. So if we were not spending more in total, and in real terms, then the cuts would be vicious. And yet, per head, there will be less in real terms for pupils. Period.

The front-line interviewers I know best are very skilled journalists and they often do try to get a jab in when the numerical nonsense gets going – but they have to move on, whether to other urgent matters or to seek a news headline from the interview, and there is not enough jeopardy for the press officer or spin doctor who wrote the politician’s brief to desist from writing the same stuff next time around.

There may be other ways of levelling up matters. The interview could proceed as normal; but at the end of it up could pop, say, Tim Harford (of the brilliant statistics programme More or Less on Radio 4) to put in the necessary corrections. It would have to be done within a few minutes or else the impact would dissipate. From time to time, Harford or his equivalent does appear after a political interviewee has spouted statistically illiterate twaddle – but not often enough, and usually this happens long after the attempted mugging of intelligent debate. Too little, too late.

It would be obligatory to ensure that this type of treatment, particularly at election time, was meted out to all the parties – but outside the election it is the government of the day and its news departments that are going to have to face most of the music. Fair enough.

My suggestion is not put forward because I am advocating a particular party’s reading of the state of the nation (or nations). There is no monopoly on vice. We should not forget Labour’s “triple counting” of health service spending after 1997 even if Blair/Brown subsequently, in benign economic circumstances, did indeed put their foot on the health-spending accelerator.

Rather, when the election dust settles and the media seminar post-mortems crank up yet again – about the level of turnout, political ennui, the particular disengagement of the young, the coverage of the leaders, the role of opinion polls and other staples – we need to keep working on how to improve the quality of public debate. It is not all awful, and a stylised contempt for what is good is itself corrupting of democracy. But the numbers nonsense needs fixing. 

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and was the controller of BBC Radio 4 from 2004 to 2010

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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