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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“They are leaving at an alarming rate”: European NHS workers on the winter crisis, austerity, and Brexit’s impact

“It’s a house of cards, and we’re getting closer and closer to the point where it’s all going to collapse.”

This winter, for the first time in five years, Joan Pons Laplana, an NHS project manager and transformation nurse from Norfolk, “went back to working the front line” because his hospital “had no nurses”. As was the case in many other NHS hospitals nationwide, wards were closed, non-urgent appointments and operations cancelled, and their resources focused on A&E.

“We managed to put a plaster to stop the crisis, but now we need to catch up with the patients and operations and everything,” he says. “And that's like a catch-22.” NHS England recommends a working capacity of around 85 per cent in hospitals to absorb the winter’s patients rise, but Pons Laplana’s hospital is “constantly” working at 90 per cent, he says. “It’s a high stress environment, constantly low on resources and doctors. And now we don't have enough staff.” He sighs: “It’s getting more and more difficult to deliver safe care. At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”

Originally from Barcelona, Pons Laplana has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years. He is one of around 62,000 EU citizens who currently work for the National Health Service, according to House of Commons statistics. Amid the winter crisis and severe financial pressure, the NHS’s next big problem is already unfolding: the prospect of Brexit is driving European NHS workers away. Within England’s NHS services, EU nationals make up almost 10 per cent of doctors, more than 7 per cent of nurses and 5 per cent of scientific, therapeutic and technical staff. Almost 10,000 EU workers had already left the NHS when NHS Digital released its 2017 data last autumn.

“If none of the EU citizens were [in my hospital], I can say without any exaggeration: you could absolutely close tomorrow”, Dr Peter Bauer, 47, a consultant anaesthetist in a Brighton hospital who has worked in the NHS since 1999, tells the New Statesman. In his hospital, he says, the proportion of EU staff is “phenomenal”: “Well over 50 per cent of senior staff is European, it’s about three quarters of the people. It would be disaster.” Mary, a 37-year-old British nurse from London, says her clinic, which employs many Europeans, is struggling to find a cover for her colleague on maternity leave: “Recruitment has fallen massively since Brexit.” With the British government still unclear on citizens’ rights, it is unlikely to stop there.

The ability of competent, skilled European staff to move seamlessly to the UK from the continent, thanks to the EU's freedom of movement, has been “a boom for the NHS”, Bauer says. Recruiting elsewhere (something the NHS has already started doing) will bring additional costs, visa requirements and various other complications that freedom of movement was designed to avoid. “You need these people! If you can't recruit Europeans, you then have to go out of the EU, and it's much more costly and difficult. It's a house of cards, and we're getting closer and closer to the point where it's all going to collapse.”

“If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap.”
Peter Bauer, consultant anaesthetist, originally from Germany

Recruitment from European countries has fallen rapidly. For instance, the number of incoming EU nurses fell by 92 per cent after the referendum, contributing to a shortfall in those able to fill the 24,000 nurse vacancies in England alone.

“For the first time, we have seen a reduction in the pool of EU citizens working for the NHS, and that is critical”, says Bauer, who teaches at medical school and has observed the “mismatch of numbers” in terms of graduates – especially a lack of British graduates. “If you want to fill the increased demand with British graduates, you would have to hugely enhance the capacity of British universities to train doctors, and then you would have to put them through specialty training, and that would take decades.”  It takes “about fifteen years” to train an anaesthetist like himself. He laughs: “If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap!” Mary, the British nurse, agrees: “Come 2020, we're going to be in serious, massive crap.”

Jettie Vije, a Dutch national who works as a GP practice nurse in Norfolk, meets the “occasional old patient” wanting to discuss Brexit: “They say, ‘Isn’t it great that we’re leaving the EU?’” Vije has been in the UK for four years, which is less than the five-year threshold for settled status; so “great” may not be the best word to describe her situation “I try to keep it on the medical side and not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not”, she says. “I am here to do my job as a nurse.”

“I try not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not. I am here to do my job as a nurse.”
Jettie Vije, GP practice nurse, originally from the Netherlands

Every EU citizen in the UK knows others who have left. “On a daily basis, I can see that people are leaving”, Pons Laplana says. Portuguese workers at his hospital are “leaving at an alarming rate”. An Italian colleague of Bauer’s is applying to a job in France (“He is probably going to be gone very soon” ); another one, a Czech colleague, has gone part-time, working four weeks in Czech Republic and four in the UK. “The direction isn't for people to be drawn into the UK”, Bauer says.

Mary, the nurse from London, works with colleagues from all over Europe, from Spain and Portugal to Romania and Poland. “Just hearing the conversations they have...  They feel they're not welcome here anymore,” she says, citing one who just moved to Ireland. “Despite what we say and how much we appreciate them, it really doesn't matter” she says. “They're nervous, so a lot of them are leaving.”

The ones who stay behind aren't just losing friends and colleagues to a political decision in which they had no say. Like every Briton, they are attached to their life in the UK as they know it, and to one of its greatest pillars: their employer and health care provider, the National Health Service. As the recent winter crisis has made years of under-funding more apparent and more critical, just like Brits, they worry the NHS may not recover.

European workers have been part of the NHS and British life for years – in Bauer’s case, decades – and have witnessed different government policies. When Bauer arrived in the 1990s, Tony Blair had just taken office: “Over the first ten years, you could see how pumping money into the NHS was leading to a huge increase in the capacity”, he says. There were “more beds, more nurses and doctors”, and small things, too – like “more hand washing basins”. “As the coalition government, and then Cameron, took power, you could see how the investment was scaled back”, he adds.

The NHS is already in dire straits due to the financial pressures exacerbated by austerity. Last September, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, estimated in the Guardian that the Health Service needed an emergency investment of £200m to £350m to avoid a winter crisis. It didn’t come – and non-emergency procedures were cancelled across the country in January. That shortfall is only the start however, and by 2020, the NHS will face a £20 billion funding gap. The Conservative manifesto pledge of an extra £8bn is considered by leading health think tanks and experts to be inadequate. Inflation and demand, which Bauer says “keep rising”, are deepening the gap.

“At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”
Joan Pons Laplana, NHS project manager, originally from Spain

“When the demand is a lot higher than the funding, then there is a gap and that gap is getting wider and wider each year. That's what provoked the crisis,” says Pons Laplana, who has seen stress in his wards go “though the roof” with the pressures. “I reckon 50 of the team have been off at some point because of the stress”, says Mary, who had to take two weeks off around Christmas because she works in a department that treats life-threatening conditions and it all became too much. “We are GPs, we are counsellors, we are social workers... We're everything at the moment.” To add to the stress, the lack of funding and the nurses’ pay cap are making situations like Mary’s more precarious: she says she had to remortgage her house to pay for a £10,000 training that may allow her to be promoted. “To be able to make ends meet, a lot of the staff do extra shifts, some are working fifty hours to have the same quality of life that they had five, six, seven years ago, and pay the mortgages”, Pons Laplana explains. “But a lot of us are getting tired. Tired people make mistakes. And mistakes cost lives.”

These problems would exist without Brexit, but the decision to leave the EU will exacerbate the health services's problems in ways beyond simply driving workers away. The famed “£350m a week for the NHS” pledge wheeled out by the Leave campaign is credited with helping to win the election, but the drop in value of the pound and economic uncertainty mean that, as Bauer points out, “in actual numbers you're seeing so far a reduction of £350m a week” – less cash in the economy is likely to mean less cash for the NHS.

Mary says she is “immensely worried” about the possibility of the British government selling NHS contracts in a future US trade deal struck to make up for lost trade with the EU: “The essence of what the NHS is, care for all, that will go and the thought of that scares me to the bone.” Brexit, Bauer says, is an “unmitigated disaster”: not just because urgent issues like the NHS’ winter crisis are being overlooked by the “completely paralysed” government’s obsession with the UK’s departure from the European Union, but also because it will exacerbate such issues further. The Home Office’s tightening of migration rules will make it harder for the Health Service to hire critically needed staff, he sighs: “It's one more dimension of self-harm on Brexit.”

“EU workers are leaving at an alarming rate”
Joan Pons Laplana

For the EU citizens who are still here, the dilemma is twofold. Leave, because Brexit has made their future and right to work in this country uncertain? Or stay to see the Health Service they have put so much work in fall into pieces? “I worked very hard for three years to be in the managerial position I have,” Pons Laplana says. “If I go back, I will not have the same job. My home is here. My heart is British.” Vije doesn’t think it will come to her leaving, but until the deal is finalized, she cannot be certain: “I'm just waiting and watching.” Although Bauer doesn’t want to leave either, he has started on his contingency plan: getting German passports for his children. “I don't see a rosy economic future for them in the UK”, he says. “Britain is so divided now, the government is divided, the Tories are divided, Labour is divided, families are divided.” 

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” may work as far as the government’s negotiating strategy goes, but it also means EU workers are left in limbo. At a time when the NHS desperately needs staff, if the “really well trained, hard workers, well-educated” EU nurses and doctors to change their mind and go, they will be sorely missed, Mary says. “But then I think, what would I do?” She pauses. “Probably the same.”

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

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