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

© LEWIS MORLEY/NATIONAL MEDIA MUSEUM SCIENCE & SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY. COURTESY OF VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON
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Nostalgia without memory

We had a terrific time in the Sixties – but at what cost to the millennial generation?

There is a flurry of Sixties-worship at present, with an exhibition at the ­Victoria and Albert Museum in London and a cinema documentary about the Beatles’ ­touring years directed by Ron Howard. Next month, two more books on the ­subject will join the pile to which I have admittedly contributed more than my share. Steve Turner’s Beatles ’66: the Revolutionary Year reconstructs the band’s exploits in that eventful season (also recently chronicled in Jon Savage’s weighty 1966: the Year the Decade Exploded). And Paul Howard’s I Read the News Today, Oh Boy tells the story of Tara Browne, the gilded young Guinness heir whose death at the wheel of a Lotus Elan inspired John Lennon’s greatest song, “A Day in the Life”.

Truly, this is the decade that never dies. At frequent intervals since the mid-­Eighties, glossy magazines have announced that “the Sixties are back”, with fashion spreads of Paisley fabrics, Mary Quant-ish bobs, ­shorter-than-ever miniskirts and elastic-sided Chelsea boots. Sixties pop music eternally dominates radio playlists, while the Rolling Stones, the decade’s most notorious band, though now withered old-age pensioners, are still widely reckoned the coolest, most dangerous dudes on the planet.

For that, we largely have to thank the “Sixties children”, who lived through the most magical time for youth there ever was, survived its surfeits of alcohol, sex and mind-shredding drugs, and now seek to perpetuate their glorious heyday even unto senility. But the greatest celebrants of the era are often people who never experienced it first-hand yet still yearn for it in a syndrome that psychologists call “nostalgia without memory”. Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” shtick in the Nineties, for instance, pastiched the Swinging London of three decades earlier, right down to the Union Jack carrier bags. In folk memory the Sixties are as a rosy blur of psychedelic colour, free love and Beatles music, their complexity and manifold horrors either unrealised or disregarded.

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The mythic decade, as opposed to the real one, was no straight ten-year stretch. It didn’t get into gear until 1962 with the satire boom that produced BBC TV’s That Was The Week That Was, David Frost’s first starring vehicle, and Private Eye magazine, and didn’t absorb pop music until the Beatles’ historic first visit to America in 1964. Its closing year, marked by a series of vast open-air festivals – Woodstock, Bob Dylan on the Isle of Wight, the Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park – felt almost like a decade on its own. When 1970 dawned, so much resembling a grey morning-after, many Sixties children simply refused to believe the party was over and clung to their caftans and joss sticks far into the harsh new eras of glam rock and punk.

Its prime time is generally agreed to have been 1965, when London gave vent to a concerted burst of youthful creativity in music, art, fashion, photography, cinema and graphics, and a shabby, sleepy metropolis, bombed to ruins not long previously, received the unlikely sobriquet of “swinging”. At this stage, the swinging was confined to a small circle of musicians, models, actors and photographers, congregating in the same few, unpublicised bistros and clubs: the most emblematic pop single, among so many, was Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd”.

It is seen above all as an era of burgeoning freedom and tolerance when Britannia seemed to be loosening her Victorian stays one by one. The contraceptive pill became widely available, ending centuries of shotgun marriages and perilous backstreet abortions, and theatre censorship by an archaic royal flunky called the Lord Chamberlain came to an end. Male homosexuality was decriminalised, though not yet destigmatised, and the first feminist voices spoke out. The word “fuck” appeared in the Times (during the farcically unsuccessful obscenity prosecution of Penguin, publisher of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) and was heard on BBC Television, albeit only in quotation marks, from the National Theatre’s literary manager, Kenneth Tynan.

Yet alongside the pop-cultural harlequinade, Britain faced many of the same problems as we do today – some, indeed, significantly worse. Industrial strife was so common that the rest of Europe came to know strikes as “the English disease”. Harold Wilson’s Labour government, continuously in power after 1964, imposed a strict wages freeze, then known as a “pay pause”, and failed so utterly to solve its own financial deficit that in 1967 Wilson was forced to devalue the pound by 14 per cent. The World Cup-winning 1966, that supposed annus mirabilis, also brought two events whose horrors still resonate: the Moors murders trial and the Aberfan disaster, in which a south Wales primary school was engulfed by a giant slag heap, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

Meanwhile, the outside world was taking its first steps backwards into hell. America’s inspirational young president John F Kennedy was assassinated, as, in horrifically quick succession, were his brother Robert and the great civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King. The United States was shamed at home by racism and police violence (not much change there, then) and abroad by its war in Vietnam, which nightly filled British TV screens with images of bombed civilian enclaves and maimed children (little change there, either – except today barrel bombs replace napalm). A democratic movement in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia was crushed; there was incalculable murder and terror in China’s Cultural Revolution, genocide in Indonesia and Biafra, apartheid in South Africa and endemic famine in India. June 1967 brought not only Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the “Summer of Love” but the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, whose cumulative effects remain seemingly impossible to resolve.

Throughout the Sixties, Britain, along with the rest of western Europe, faced the threat of nuclear war with Soviet Russia and more-than-possible total obliteration. And yet, paradoxically, this was a time of enviable domestic peace and stability. There was full employment, with almost nobody ever getting sacked except at the very top. Inflation was marginal; the NHS and other public services functioned without any hint of crisis; the nationalised railways, shorn of unprofitable branch lines by Lord Beeching, were dirty but dependable; the postal service, even after the introduction of an avowedly “second-class” tier, remained the envy of the world.

Pending that terminal flash in the sky, people felt safe. The only communicable disease left to be feared was smallpox. ­Terrorism was something that happened only in the distant Middle East: it could not conceivably take root among Britain’s hard working and law-abiding Indian and Pakistani immigrants despite the unfettered racism constantly hurled at them. One walked on to aircraft or into official buildings or the BBC without security checks. The first shadow of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, which were to bloody the Seventies and be described by American commentators as “Britain’s Vietnam”, did not appear until 1968.

Two world wars in the space of 30 years had trained ordinary Britons to feel guilty about any conspicuous consumption. In the Sixties, the advertising industry set about remedying this. The new Sunday newspaper colour supplements bulged with adverts for Scandinavian furniture, stereo systems and white Kosset carpets, and bombarded their readers with recipes for exotic dishes such as chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, using quantities of butter and cream that once would have seemed downright immoral. When Rowntree launched a new wafer-thin chocolate mint, the company made a last-minute name change from Minty Thins to After Eight, suggesting elegant high-society dinner parties to a demographic only recently weaned from high teas. So older generations, too, could join an “in” crowd and share the feeling of life becoming measurably better every day.

The attention paid to youth was an extraordinary volte-face from that ancient British maxim “Children should be seen and not heard”. Young people now not only wielded huge economic power through pop music and fashion, but kicked aside class distinctions and social barriers. Following the Beatles template, almost all of the decade’s brightest new celebrities were in their twenties and from humble backgrounds: the photographer David Bailey, the model Twiggy, the painter David Hockney, the comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, the film stars David Hemmings, Rita Tushingham, Tom Courtenay and Terence Stamp. A northern or a cockney accent was almost a prerequisite of success. In Britain in the past, the working class had always tried to talk “up”; now the upper and middle classes strove to talk “down”. It still goes on.

Without any form of social media other than underground newspapers and ­flyers, Sixties youth culture managed to be remarkably united. It assumed that every figure of authority – indeed, anyone over 30 – was a pitiable lunatic. Unlike its counterparts in America and across Europe, it raised up no demagogues: its figureheads were lead singers in bands and radio disc jockeys whose dimness in no way reduced their potency. The hippies, who arrived post-1966, are now viewed as hopelessly naive and deluded, with their mantra of “Love and Peace”. Yet their pop festivals, love-ins and “happenings” were occasions that brought hundreds of thousands together without the slightest violence. There were ­moments when even their fiercest detractors wondered if they might really be a force for changing the world for the better.

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The V&A exhibition “You Say You Want a Revolution?” focuses on the decade’s final phase, when Britain’s initially playful underground hardened into a many-headed protest movement containing every kind of extreme-leftish ideology; churning out insurrectionary literature amid the comforts of the consumer society; holding marches, demos and sit-ins of increasing militancy despite having nothing to protest about nearer than the Vietnam War (in which the Wilson government played no part whatsoever). It was always more serious in other European countries and the US, where former hippies made an easy transition to urban guerrillas and to Charles Manson’s serial-killing “Family”.

Simultaneously, the British police declared war on leading musicians whose songs seemed to encourage their fans to take drugs, whether the pot known to jazz players for generations or the new, man-made, “mind-expanding” lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which leaked from the very pores of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. The fear was legitimate – in fact, nowhere near proportionate to the long-term problem in the making – but the reaction was hysterical scapegoating. In early 1967, with the collusion of MI5 and possibly the CIA, 18 police officers raided the Rolling Stone Keith Richards’s cottage in Sussex and Richards and Mick Jagger were charged with drug possession. After a grotesque show trial – yet another strike against that supposed Summer of Love – both Stones received prison terms for offences that normally would have rated a small fine or merely probation.

The recent death of Richard Neville, the founder of Oz magazine, awoke further memories of that moment when the Sixties’ indulgence of youth was suddenly turned off. The 1971 trial of Neville and his two co-editors for conspiracy to corrupt youthful morals (specifically by depicting Rupert Bear with an erection) was just as self-defeatingly comical as the Lady Chatterley prosecution almost a decade earlier.

For millennials who grew up around the year 2000, the Sixties are an object not so much of nostalgia without memory as envy without memory. My 25-year-old daughter often remarks what a terrific time my generation had and what a messed-up world we created for hers. I can’t argue with that.

Philip Norman’s “Paul McCartney: the Biography” is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. He tweets at: @PNormanWriter

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation