In the 1830s David Strauss, a German theologian on the margins of the Young Hegelian school of thought, published Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet – The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. It was a sensation, the beginning of a quest for the real historical Jesus, as opposed to the miracle-maker of the gospels. A lot of the reaction, as you may imagine, was hostile, some of it hysterically so. In
England the seventh earl of Shaftesbury, the highest of Tory Anglicans, described the 1846 English translation as “the most pestilential book ever vomited out from the jaws of hell.”
Now Channel Four, one of the terrestrial TV channels in
England, seems to have produced the most pestilential documentary ever vomited out from the jaws of hell, or you might think so if you take heed of some of the Shaftesbury-like criticisms. The show in question was called Islam: The Untold Story, presented by Tom Holland. I’d never heard of him, either as a historian’s historian or a telly historian. Well, now I have! The long and the short of the Holland thesis is that the Arab Empire produced Islam; Islam did not produce the Arab Empire.
I didn’t actually watch this when it was broadcast, principally because I did not know that it was on. If I had I might still have given it a miss because, on the basis of past showings, I think that Channel 4’s history horse is kept in the same stables as that for shows like Big Brother.
Now I have watched it on 4OD, the company’s catch-up service. I simply had to before it was banned, censored, dropped down the memory hole or otherwise disposed of. I read in the Mail that it had attracted nearly 550 complaints, which must surely count as a record for a documentary.
Holland himself has been subject to a deluge of abusive Tweets, not stopping short of physical threats. Mohammed Shafiq, the chief executive of an organisation called the Ramadhan Foundation, wrote to the television company, saying that;
The Ramadhan Foundation calls on Channel 4 to apologise for this programme, withdraw it from online viewing and also order an immediate inquiry into why this was allowed to be broadcast. How many Muslim Scholars, community leaders were given a copy of this programme before transmission? Whether historic facts in relation to Islam were verified by the presenter and who his sources were.
I have no idea what the Ramadhan Foundation is and I have no idea who Mohammed Shafiq is, but the suggestion that television programmes have to be submitted to him and his people for approval before transmission is absolutely outrageous. Who on earth does this ridiculous man think he is, or where does he think he is living? In case there is any confusion over the point this is
England, not Saudi Arabia. I expect, though, that there will be an attempt to have Holland indicted under the blasphemy laws, Saudi-style legislation introduced into our legal system by the wretched Tony Blair.
Islam and the origins of Islam is a legitimate subject for historical enquiry. Let’s get that straight to begin with, least this fundamental point is lost in the midst of the fuss. Another thing in danger of being lost is that
Holland’s documentary was a horse of a Big Brother colour. In other words, it was telly history at its worst, glib and silly. It may have dealt with a legitimate subject but there were too many preconceptions and unexamined assumptions to make it a legitimate enquiry.
Dan Snow, another superficial showman, rushed to Holland’s defence on Twitter, in just as silly a fashion as his detractors – “Dear angry, mad people – it is conceivable that you know more than the world’s leading scholars, but very unlikely.”. Gosh, I seriously hope that Holland, a sort of impoverished man’s Indiana Jones, is not being placed in the same category as the “world’s leading scholars.” If he is then the world’s leading scholarship is in trouble.
All religions have sacred and syncretic roots. Islam is no different in this regard from Judaism and Christianity, both of which drew on older traditions, both of which resist and are resistant to forms of empirical enquiry. Here faith really does move mountains…and make empires.
Then there are the questions. It puzzled
Holland that it took sixty years after Mohammed’s death for his name to appear on coins, those issued by the first caliph. Sixty years – is that all? The suggestion here is that Mohammed’s name is being used in the same way that Constantine used that of Christ, namely to provide a unifying focus. But it took three hundred years for the Romans to become partial Christians, and that only after some fierce phases of persecution. The reasonable deduction, the scholarly deduction, if you like, is that for Mohammed to have acquired such prominence so quickly he, and Islam, must already have had a substantial following. This was not conjured out of the desert air on the fancies of Bedouins.
Apparently, according to
Holland, Mecca is not mentioned in the Quran, just a place ambiguously referred to as ‘Becca’. But Mecca is there, in Sura 48:24 – "He is the one who withheld their hands of aggression against you, and withheld your hands of aggression against them in the , after He had granted you victory over them. God is Seer of everything you do.” valley of Mecca
I see in his statement of defence on the Channel Four website he writes that he did say on film that
Mecca is mentioned. Well, if I find the time, I shall have to watch the whole thing again, because I have no recollection at all about that, just lots of speculation about the possible location of ‘Becca.’
Look, the facts are simple enough: this was bad history badly presented. It was history dancing to a preconceived tune, sensation for the sake of sensation; it really is no more complicated than that. Christianity survived Strauss just as Islam will survive
Holland. The hysteria, the demands that TV shows dealing with a particular subject should be vetted beforehand by ‘community leaders’, gives him and his silly show far more significance than it deserves; it will only add to the sales of his forthcoming book. Muslims really need to develop a greater sense of detachment, a suggestion that doubtless marks my card as just another infidel. Here I am, caught by a classic paradox. I disapprove of what Holland says but will defend to the death his right to say it.