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

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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