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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Does the working class need to ask for its Labour Party back?

The more working class voters there were in a constituency in 2017, the more it tended to swing to the Tories.

When Theresa May called the general election nearly two months ago, all the evidence – opinion polls and local election results especially – pointed to the expectation that the Labour Party would be crushed, with many of its MPs losing their seats.

The assumption was that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to win over Conservative voters, because he was too left-wing to appeal to those close to the political centre ground.

Some commentators, myself included, took this a little further, arguing that Corbyn was left-wing in a way that would alienate the very people he claimed to speak for, ie working class people, while appealing primarily to virtue-signalling middle class romantics like Corbyn himself, who have no more interest than he does in the business of parliament but love a good rally or social media spat.

The local elections that took place in May appeared to confirm the above expectation and analysis, with hundreds of Labour councillors losing their seats. However, opinion polls began to shift, and while different polling companies’ methodologies led to different estimates of support for the two main parties, all showed Labour on the rise – with YouGov predicting two days before the election that the Conservatives would win a mere 305 out of 650 seats, while Labour would win 266.

Despite a miserable campaign in support of a depressing manifesto, enlivened only by the promised revival of an anachronistic bloodsport beloved of the rural elite – indeed, a campaign so bad that political historian Glen O’Hara joked about having ‘watched and wondered whether Mrs May was a Corbynite sleeper agent’ – the Conservatives actually did slightly better than this prediction, winning their highest share of the vote since 1983 and coming to hold 317 seats to the Labour Party’s 262.

This left them only 55 seats ahead of their historic rival: a gap only very slightly wider than the 48-seat lead that they had after the 2010 general election, when David Cameron defeated the supposedly very unpopular Gordon Brown. The 2017 result would have been impossible without the activists who have stuck with the Labour Party regardless of their feelings about the leader, some of whom are now publicly expressing shame at the part they played in what is widely seen as Corbyn’s triumph.

Does the Labour Party’s unexpectedly narrow defeat refute the diagnosis of Corbynism as a middle class politics that alienates the party’s traditionally working class base, but doesn’t really care? Constituency-by-constituency analysis of the 2017 results by Paula Surridge, of the University of Bristol, suggests that it does not.

The Leave vote

We should perhaps begin with a pattern that was already apparent on election night. Parts of the country that voted strongly to quit the European Union appeared to show a swing away from Labour towards the Conservative Party, while areas that voted strongly for Remain appeared to show a swing in the opposite direction.* 

Surridge’s analysis confirms that this was indeed a trend: the higher the estimated Leave vote, the more the Labour vote share fell between 2010 and 2017, and the more the Conservative vote share rose during the same period. Blue dots represent actual constituencies; the red line represents the trend.

On the face of it, this is baffling. Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are officially committed to leaving the EU, and Jeremy Corbyn famously used a three-line whip to force his MPs to support the Tory Brexit bill in February.

The anti-Brexit parties were the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens. There was therefore no sense in which a vote for Labour could have been a vote against leaving the EU. Why, then, should a constituency’s support or opposition to Brexit have made any difference?

This brings us to the paradox that the Labour MP John Mann has called the ‘Bolsover question’: why the second-largest Labour-to-Conservative swing in the country should have occurred in the constituency of Dennis Skinner.

Skinner is not only – as Mann observed – one of Jeremy Corbyn’s staunchest supporters in the Commons, but also  – although Mann did not draw attention to this fact  – one of the Labour Party’s staunchest advocates of Brexit. Why should a constituency that voted for Brexit by 29,730 votes to 12,242 have swung so heavily against a strongly pro-Brexit candidate for a pro-Brexit party?

Here’s a thought: maybe constituencies swung away from Corbyn’s Labour Party for the same sorts of reasons that they voted Leave, and swung towards it for the same sorts of reasons that they voted Remain? Or to put it another way: what if Corbynism appeals to the kinds of people to whom EU membership seems advantageous, and repels the kinds of people to whom it seems an encumbrance, regardless of the fact that Corbyn – as a disciple of Tony Benn  – is resolutely anti-EU?

Let’s take a look at some of the other things that Surridge found.

Educational level

Exit polling after last year’s EU referendum found that the more educated a person was, the more likely they were to have voted Remain. While some Remainers might like to dismiss this as ignorance on the part of Leavers, it can also be interpreted as an expression of anger at being left behind in Britain’s ever-more highly globalised economy.

So we should take note of Surridge’s finding that the higher the percentage of university degree holders in a constituency, the more it would tend to swing towards Labour from 2010 to 2017, and the lower the percentage of degree holders, the more it would tend to swing towards the Conservatives.

Ethnicity

While a bare majority of white voters opted for Leave last year, large majorities of black and Asian voters chose Remain. The reasons for this are complex – but it is notable that Surridge finds that the lower the percentage of white British voters in a constituency, the more it would tend to swing towards Labour, and the higher the percentage of white British voters, the more it would tend to swing towards the Conservatives.

While it is certainly good news for Labour that it is winning votes in more diverse communities, it should think carefully about why this is not happening in less ethnically diverse parts of the country – particularly as these are often economically struggling areas unattractive to immigrants.

Class

Now the biggest question of all. The Labour Party was set up to provide parliamentary representation for working class people, and the far left trumpeted Corbyn’s leadership as a triumph for "working class politics". But opinion polls showed something very different: under Corbyn, working class support for Labour rapidly fell to its lowest point ever.

Moreover, by-election results in the strongly working class constituencies of Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland showed swings from Labour to the Conservatives, as indeed they had during the Labour Party’s last flirtation with Bennism in 1983. Did the general election see working class voters change their minds and flock back to Corbyn’s "socialist" party?

My goodness. Surridge’s analysis shows that the more working class voters there are in a constituency, the more it tended to swing Conservative, and the fewer there are, the more it tended to swing Labour. To put some figures on that, she found that for every 10 per cent more working class voters in a constituency, there tended to have been a fall of about 3 per cent in the Labour vote and a rise of about 5 per cent in the Tory vote between 2010 and 2017.

Think about that for a moment. This is Corbyn bringing the party back to its "working class, socialist roots"?

Correlations, 2010-2017 and 2015-2017

I sense an objection: these figures show the swing from 2010 to 2017, and Corbyn’s only been in charge since 2015. Maybe it’s all Ed Miliband’s fault?

Apparently not. Surridge calculated the correlations between all the above variables and the change in the Conservative and Labour vote, both for the period of 2010-2017, and for the period of 2015-2017. And here they are:

While it is true that many correlations are weaker for the period 2015-2017 than for 2010-2017, the positive correlations remain positive and the negative correlations remain negative.

In other words, working class voters, voters not educated to college level, and voters in ethnically homogeneous areas love Corbyn’s Labour Party even less than they loved Miliband’s. Meanwhile middle class voters, those educated to college level or higher, and voters in ethnically diverse areas love it even more.

It should also be noted that the positive correlation between the percentage of working class voters and the change in the Conservative vote, and the negative correlation between the percentage of voters with degrees and the change in the Conservative vote, are both stronger for the period 2015-2017 than they are for 2010-2017, indicating a rapid growth of support for the Conservative Party among the very social groups that Labour traditionally represented.

This should worry Labour politicians with ambitions to be in government, because there is simply no way that a Labour leader can become prime minister without persuading Conservative voters in Tory seats to switch to Labour. Corbyn may have put together an unexpectedly large anti-Tory coalition of voters, but it’s largely concentrated in areas that already vote Labour – and traditional Labour voters are being driven faster than ever into the Tories’ arms.

The triumph of the "socialism fan"

In recent decades, Labour has become the party of anti-racism. It can be proud of the fact that its vote share has risen in ethnically diverse constituencies – although it seems to me that the racism many Labour supporters (and in some cases, activists and even politicians) have shown towards the Jewish community ought to be treated with rather more alarm than it apparently is.

But whatever the positives in this mixed achievement, it should be hard indeed for the party to find cause for celebration in the fact that the Conservatives are so rapidly becoming the party of the "left behind".

In the post-New Labour era – and even more so under Corbyn than under Miliband – Labour has become a party of highly educated middle class people, "socialism fans" especially. I said it before the election, and it remains the case today.

Indeed, the Labour leadership’s understanding of this point seems the most likely explanation for their manifesto pledge to end student fees (a policy that would benefit only higher-earning graduates, since people who do not go to university do not incur student fees, and people who do but end up in lower-paying jobs don’t have to repay their loans) while maintaining the Conservative "benefit cap", which negatively affects low earners, disabled people and the unemployed.

To what extent Labour’s new middle class voters will continue to back the party in the future seems unclear. After all, Corbyn can’t really do anything about their student fees, since he is not prime minister, and while he could do something about Brexit (since Labour, the anti-Brexit parties, and pro-EU Tories such as Ken Clarke now collectively hold a majority of seats in the Commons), he’s promised not to (good Bennite that he is).

Then again, he might publicly change his lifelong position on Europe just as he has publicly changed his lifelong positions on terrorism, nuclear weapons and Nato. He wouldn’t be the first leader to decide that Paris was worth a mass.

Fair play to him, though. In losing the election by only slightly more seats than Gordon Brown, he won the anticipated leadership contest in advance. So if the working class asks for its Labour Party back, he can confidently tell it to get lost.


* Canterbury is a notable exception here, having narrowly voted Leave in 2016 but swung to Labour in 2017. A very small city with two well-known universities, it hosts a very big student population during term time (when the general election took place), a large proportion of whom would typically have been expected to be resident elsewhere during the holidays when the EU referendum took place.

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