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

Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Photo; Getty
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How Jean-Luc Mélenchon built a resistance

Like Jeremy Corbyn, France's leftist candidate for the presidency has been caricatured by the media. Nonetheless, he has succeeded in building a movement. 

After months of indifference, the rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the French presidential race has finally caught the attention of the British media. Still, it is frequently misrepresented and reduced to familiar categories: populism, Euroscepticism and spendthriftedness, with commentators quick to draw parallels with Jeremy Corbyn. However, to boil down the Mélenchon phenomenon to such clichés is to fundamentally misunderstand it. 

The authors of this article propose taking a closer look at a highly innovative manifesto and campaign. Cambridge University lecturer Olivier Tonneau is involved with La France Insoumise (France Defiant) and co-authored the cartoon version of Mélenchon’s programme. He runs a blog dedicated to exposing its policies and addressing the many rumours and falsehoods floated about the candidate. Nick Jones is a student who was in Paris at the time of Nuit Debout, and experienced first-hand the energy and thirst for radical change in France.

***

Given the deep wound that Brexit has inflicted upon British society, perhaps the most urgent clarification is that Mélenchon does not wish to leave the EU, although he does have a radical strategy to reform it. France and Britain have different relations to the EU. Whilst Britain’s austerity policies were self-inflicted, the same is not true of France. The French people voted “no” to the European constitution in 2005 only to see its vote overturned in Parliament by a coalition of the center-left and center-right parties. This event marked a tectonic shift in French politics, and incidentally determined Mélenchon’s break from the Socialist Party. In 2012, François Hollande was elected on the promise of renegotiating the Lisbon treaty, a promise he failed to hold, and proceeded to impose austerity measures in France (cutting down public spending and corporate taxes, flexibilising the labour market), constantly justifying these measures by the necessity to abide by European norms. He has thus fuelled a deep resentment against both the center-left and the EU. Meanwhile, Mélenchon has campaigned for a showdown with the EU: reform it or leave it (“plan A, plan B”).

His strategy, designed by his chief economist Jacques Généreux, consists of unilaterally disobeying European Treatises: disregarding budgetary norms to implement a Keynesian stimulus package, creating a public investment bank, and ending privatisation policies. His prognosis is that the EU will not dare exclude France because such an exclusion would signal the end of the European project altogether. The EU will thus have to inscribe French exceptions to the treatises (just as it had done for UK). Such exceptions could prove highly desirable to other austerity-stricken countries such as the infamous PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), with enormous pressure placed on the most intransigent promoters of austerity, the chief of which is Germany.

Far from being anti-European, this strategy is aimed to save the European project which, according to Généreux, is doomed to implode if unreformed. Généreux had reached this conclusion as early as 2012: Brexit and the European-wide rise of the far-right has confirmed his diagnosis. Unencumbered by a reluctant party, Mélenchon has been able to forcefully defend a position that Corbyn was unable to hold, thus shattering the “in/out, good/bad” dichotomy of the Remain and Leave campaigns in the UK.

Already, by 2012, Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche (co-founded with the Green MP Martine Billard) had published an eco-socialist manifesto which advanced on the Left’s historical bend towards productivism. This time round, Mélenchon’s program is an environmentally focused Keynesian plan. Its aim is to turn France into using 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050 – ending the country’s heavy dependence on nuclear power – by implementing the “negawatt scenario” elaborated by a collective of scientists and engineers.

Mélenchon is especially determined to make the most of France’s maritime territory – the second largest in the world. His program also addresses in detail matters of public health: for instance, schools should serve organically sourced products exclusively, securing a market for organic producers. The turn to organic production, for instance, is expected to create 300,000 jobs. Mélenchon’s environmental plans tie in neatly with forensic budgeting and a clear plan for job-growth, in line with the “One Million Climate Jobs Now” campaign in the UK.

Another aspect of Mélenchon’s Keynesian plan is its redistributive policies. Low and middle wages are spent within the economy on essential goods such as food and clothing, whereas high wages are lost in the speculative bubble: by raising the minimum wage, pensions, and social benefits, Mélenchon intends to boost demand and help small and medium businesses prosper. He also acknowledges the need to reduce working time, without necessarily cutting the length of the working week. Instead, he wishes to return the retirement age to 60 – a measure that is acutely urgent given the high unemployment rate among senior citizens – and impose a strict adherence to the current, 35-hour week.

Impossible to fund? Not at all. More than hundred economists from 17 countries – including Ha-Joon Chang – published a column supporting Mélenchon’s program. His policies were presented in details by economists and high-ranking public servants in a 5-hour budget program broadcasted on YouTube, whose last hour was a discussion with economic journalists from liberal news outlets. Ghilaine Ottenheimer from Challenge praised the broadcast as “modern” and “bold”; Hedwige Chevrillon (BFM Business) compared the approach to that of the ‘slow food movement’ and deemed it a rare opportunity to think things through; Marc Landré (Le Figaro) was impressed by the openness with which La France Insoumise was laying itself open to criticism.

The broadcast has already been viewed more than half a million times. On every aspect of its program, from the environment to counter-terrorism via culture and international relations, La France Insoumise has taken the same care to involve experts. Who, then, are the ‘Insoumis’? How did such an extraordinary campaign get off the ground? This question takes us back to 2012.

***

After Mélenchon’s remarkable 2012 campaign, the Front de Gauche fell apart because of strategic disagreements: the Communist Party wanted to maintain alliances with the Socialist Party whereas Mélenchon was convinced that any association with the now hugely-unpopular party of Hollande could only drag them with its fall. When Mélenchon claimed in 2015 that he did not aim to ‘unite the left’ but to ‘federate the people’, it was widely perceived as the desperate gambit of an isolated figure. And yet the gambit paid off: there was indeed a people to answer his call. With the massive demonstrations against Macron’s labour laws and the grassroots movement Nuit Debout, the writing was on the wall. Mélenchon was careful not to lay claims to these movements which were profoundly suspicious of established politicians and parties, but he has nevertheless been able to tap into their energy by creating La France Insoumise, a loose structure within which everybody contributes freely.

The Insoumis have shown ebullient creativity: some created a board game, others a computer game (Fiscal Kombat), and one of the authors of the present article wrote a comic book adaptation of the manifesto. Alongside quirky stunts such as appearing at meetings via hologram, the Insoumis have brought a vitally seductive and energetic edge to Mélenchon’s campaign. Crucially, they have brought to fruition another aspect of Mélenchon’s strategy: his struggle against the press.

In 2012, Mélenchon often claimed that the media was the “second skin of the system”. The only way to break the neoliberal hegemony was to subvert its own logic: that of audience and profit. Thus was created the colourful figure who claimed to incarnate “the sound and the fury of his time”. Yet, having become a celebrity, Mélenchon had to avoid being pigeon-holed into a caricature. The media, he claims, are “not a mirror but an arena”, so he adopted a confrontational strategy aimed at exposing the biases of journalists and interviewers.

Yet there is only so much one can say in the constraining format of TV and radio interviews; all one could achieve was to fire “bullet words” that would open cracks in the listeners’ preconceptions. In response, listeners had to be provided with alternative sources of information. In 2012, Mélenchon’s blog was the most read of any French politician; in 2013, a galaxy of “6th Republic blogs” was created; in 2016 Mélenchon’s extremely successful YouTube channel was launched; it has so far has over 22 million views. The book detailing his manifesto, L’Avenir en commun (A Shared Future) has found its way into bestseller lists, shifting well over 250,000 copies. If such independently-made material is inaccessible to non-French speakers, international viewers should not be tricked into seeing it as Trump-style, anti-system fake news. For example, a host of global NGOs including Oxfam and ActionAid have backed key aspects of Mélenchon’s campaign, with Amnesty and Greenpeace ranking him highest overall in their breakdown of all the candidate’s policies. Leading economists have also signed a pledge backing his candidacy will be published this week.

The communication machine of Defiant France is firing on all cylinders. It is remarkable that the fear-mongering of the mainstream media has failed to halt Mélenchon’s surge in the polls – remarkable, but not surprising given that his latest meeting, in Toulouse, was attended by 70,000 people, and had attracted 320,000 views on YouTube in under 24 hours. 

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Do not be mistaken: something astonishing is happening. This is about much more than meeting attendance. To be sure, Mélenchon is not simply preaching to the choir: bucking all recent trends, recent polls have shown that he is denting Marine Le Pen’s share of the working-class vote, and has overtaken her as the most favoured candidate of the youth. People are flocking from all across the political spectrum: recently, an entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley published a piece titled If Mélenchon is elected, I return to France.

He is not an isolated case, and a petition of the entrepreneurs with Mélenchon has just been launched. Even the ‘Gaullists’, disillusioned with the Fillon scandals, are now seduced by Mélenchon’s cultural style, his integrity, and his vision of France’s place in the world which is in line with the tradition of the General himself. What seemed like a fanciful vision is thus coming true: the French people is being transformed. One of the most striking signs of the campaign’s success is the change in people’s priorities: whilst employment had always ranked first, it has now been displaced by institutional reform. This, of course, is intrinsically tied to the centrepiece of Mélenchon’s program, which aims to accomplish no less than a Révolution citoyenne: creating the 6th Republic by means of a Constituent Assembly.

Under the Nazi Occupation of France, resistance networks sought not only to liberate the country, but also to bring about a better world. At great peril, they formed the National Resistance Council and drafted a program which was circulated under the cover of a novel titled Les Jours Heureux. It is no coincidence that the crowds at Mélenchon’s meetings do not chant his name but the word “resistance”, and that Melenchon himself synthetizes his aim with the phrase “let us bring forth the happy days”. The perils are undoubtedly lesser but with a deeply dysfunctional economic system preventing us from addressing climate change and fuelling the rise of the far-right, the stakes may be even higher.

Olivier Tonneau is lecturer in Modern and Medieval Languages at Homerton College, Cambridge. He participates in La France Insoumise, the movement supporting Jean-Luc mélenchon's presidential campaign. He writes a blog on French politics. Nick Jones is in the final year of his undergraduate degree studying French at Homerton. During his year abroad in Paris, he was a participant in, and keen observer of, the grassroots movement Nuit Debout. 

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