Monday 3 September 2012

To the Death

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.

That fundamental point was lost by the presenter.  In presentation, delivery and style, he seemed to be looking for sensation rather than substance.  There was silliness to the whole thing, fairly typical of Channel 4.  In some ways laughter would be the best criticism rather than hysteria, laughter over the superficiality of it all. It was full of visual absurdities, bogus images and vacant verbal gestures.  Overall it was appallingly disjointed.  The scene of Holland half bending in patently insincere ‘prayer’ among his Bedouin hosts was risible in the extreme.  What on earth was the point of it all? 

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 valley of Mecca, after He had granted you victory over them. God is Seer of everything you do.”

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. 


  1. Do you remember the original "Planet of the Apes"?

    1. Well, I've seen it, though not at the time of its release. :-)

    2. How religion was used to influence social order!!!

  2. I'll wait for the Trey Parker/Matt Stone version.

  3. I did consider watching this programme, but quickly dismissed the idea as a waste of time, assuming that any British TV documentary dealing, in any way, with the subject of Islam would only be cringing superficial sycophantic kow-towing drivel. If the usual suspects complained about this programme; it couldn't have been entirely bad. Certainly if this had been produced by the BBC, it would have been thoroughly vetted, edited and approved by our dhimmi masters and ideological censors. Anything deemed remotely critical would be removed. It would have to be uncompromisingly flattering before any possibility of it being broadcast.

    1. I think it's still on 4OD. Go on, be a devil; watch it. :-)

      Yes, you are right; the BBC may very well have gone to the opposite extreme. Generally, though, and to be absolutely fair, I think their historical documentaries, those that I've seen, have been quite good.

    2. I've enjoyed many BBC documentaries but, being well aware of the BBC's agenda and modus operandi, I'm always left wondering to what extent I've been informed and educated, and to what extent misinformed and indoctrinated. Emotive mood music in documentaries often winds me up, so I'll mute it and read subtitles.

      Just checked, it's available here, thanks:

      No time to watch now, but I'll try to have a listen this morning whilst doing other things

    3. Do let me know what you think.

    4. Interesting, but a bit rambling and nebulous, particularly without the visuals. I lost a bit by not understanding the interviews which were in Arabic, as I was busy with mundane tasks and couldn't see the subtitles, so consequently only able to glance at the computer monitor periodically.

      Tom Holland showed no 'appropriate' sense of any reverence or any deference to any notion of Islamic 'sacredness', and stated unambiguously that he did not believe that Mohammed was a prophet of God. I can see why the hypersensitive souls that follow the religion of peace might be annoyed. I imagine their complaints and 'reasoning' should be very entertaining to read.

    5. Rambling and nebulous - exactly! You can follow some of the more outlandish criticisms online, if you are of a mind to, not that I would recommend this.

  4. This was, not only what is probably the worst documentary in terms of research I have ever seen but historically inaccurate to the point where I began thinking of it as a kind of mondo movie of the Monty Python kind. To begin with Muhammad appears in the earliest codexes of The Holy Quran compiled under the third Caliphate of Uthman bin Affan (644-656), moreover at least one of the letters the Prophet wrote to various monarchs of his time still exist in a museum in Turkey which bears his name and seal as 'Muhammad ibn Abdullah, Prophet of God'.

    As for the antiquity of Becca it should suffice to say that Jewish scholarship associates the valley where Abraham left Ishmael, the son of Hagar as a valley near Paran in Arabia (this view is also supported by Biblical references, one of them being Genesis 21: 21), which the Bible itself mentions as being in Arabia. Diodorus Siculus (Sicily, 60BC) in his Bibliotheca historica: iii also supports this location. Sir William Muir writes: 'These words, must refer to the holy house of Mecca, for we know of no other which commanded the universal homage of Arabia..... Tradition represents the Ka'Aba as from time immemorial the scene of pilgrimage from all quarters of Arabia..... So extensive an homage must have had its beginnings in an extremely remote age'.

    Rodwell also quotes Georg Freytag and supports his view that:

    ... There is no good reason for doubting that the Caaba was founded as stated in this passage.

    (John Medows Rodwell. The Koran. 1861).

    Burton writes that Arabian Tradition from before the time of Muhammad:

    ...speaks clearly and consistently as to the fact of Abraham having visited Mecca to build the Caaba.

    (Richard Burton. A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah. 1855).

    The Jerusalem Targum mentions that Abraham kept visiting his son Ishmael far in the Arabian desert (Charles C. Torrey, The Jewish Foundation of Islam, p 84). The Talmud mentions him having visited him twice.

    The Quranic Discourse delivered by the fourth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community on the Becca verse (I have added to the archive I made to collect his monumental works in an accessible and scholarly way) can be seen here.

    Islam, in its essential and pure form is certainly not resistant to empirical investigation. The Prophet said that one should acquire knowledge even if one had to travel as far afield as China to receive it: the whole of Islamic history there has never been an incident like that of Galileo or Giordano Bruno. Persecution there has been; denunciation, even excommunication (takfeer) over doctrinal differences, but never for scientific beliefs. And paradoxically, the first Inquisition (Mihna) in Islam came to be instituted, not by the orthodox theologians, but by the so-called rationalists, the Mu'tazzala theologians themselves who prided themselves on the use of reason.

    (Professor Abdus Salam. Islam & Science: Concordance or Conflict?. 1984).

    According to Dr. Muhammad Aijazul Khatib of Damascus University 'in contrast to 250 verses which are legislative, some 750 verses of the Holy Quran - almost one-eight of it - exhort the believers to study Nature to reflect, to make the best use of reason and to make the scientific enterprise an integral part of Community's life.' (Quoted in Abdus Salam, 'The future of science in Islamic countries'. 1987).

    1. Very good, Rehan. Yes it was bad, the worst kind of pop archaeology that I've come to associate with Channel 4.