For all the sensationalism of Channel 4’s ‘Islam – The Untold Story’ the programme itself proved somewhat disappointing. The trailers pulsated with dramatic music (probably borrowed from the X-factor) so I was all set for earth shattering revelations. Expectation soon gave way to reality however. The host, Tom Holland, blustered for dramatic effect from the beginning, yet anyone familiar with the theories of John Wansbrough was likely to have been seriously underwhelmed. In the seventies, Wansbrough postulated that Islam as we know it today fully formed about 250 years after the death of Muhammad. Even the Qur’an, he argued, appears some 200 years after the Prophet’s death.
One of the first points to remember when appraising Holland’s efforts for Channel 4 is that academics operate on a series of assumptions. We all do in all matters in life and that renders us subjective, no matter how objective we pretend to be. Mr Holland, whether or not you consider him an actual historian, is no exception to this. From the outset, he firmly asserted the prioritising of rational explanations. His disbelief (let’s call a spade a spade - he does not practice scepticism but a particular brand of outright disbelief) in Muhammad’s Prophetic status definitely impinged upon any claim he could hold to objectivity. I must emphasise this is not to call him a disbeliever in the sense of calling someone a ‘kafir’ and therefore condemning him to ‘hell’, but rather he operates on a series of, yes you guessed it - assumptions. He presents himself as the champion of rationality against Syed Hossen Nasr’s dogmatic Muslim professor but any pretence of objectivity cannot be mistaken for objectivity itself.
Holland operates on the notion that there is no written evidence of the events during Muhammad’s lifetime. Written evidence only came 150 years later. Indeed, this notion is true as far as our current knowledge goes. However, he concludes that everything about Islam up to that point is potentially fabricated. This presupposes an assumption – that orality cannot safely transmit information. I am not uncomplicatedly arguing that it can. One needs to see the present manifestation of an oral tradition to be more objective. With the Qur’an for example, its oral ‘presence’ manifests in the tahfidh institution. Muslims recite it in their daily lives and are taught that there is simply no room for doubt. The same thing may be said about Islamic rites and rituals which, if they did come at a later date, would have irreconcilable differences. Holland does not discuss this at all but rather simply assumes that since nothing written is available, it must be all lies.
Holland’s language about ‘faith and rationality’ falls apart here. He is not being rational. He is simply making a deduction based on the information he has chosen to review. Rationality and logic depends on one’s paradigms of knowledge. His false dichotomy exudes an air of faux-objectivity which affords him an air of authority. He uses that authority effectively against Sayyed Hossen Nasr, provoking Nasr to go on the defensive. Holland has a right to his views but to deem faith as ‘irrational’ is demeaning. His language implicitly promotes such a view.
As a Qura’nist, what interested me tremendously was of course the fact that Patricia Crone, the arch-enemy of Islamic traditional literature, declared that only the Qur’an was available after the death of Muhammad. I had been aware of her view on this for some years (after reading her book ‘Hagarism’) but actually seeing her in the flesh as it were, spouting her theories, was something to behold. Of course, for Crone, the fact of the Qur’an’s lone existence meant that it was simply undecipherable because without the Islamic traditions, one cannot understand it. It did not once occur to either Crone or Holland that perhaps the author of the Qur’an (whoever they think that may be) has a different philosophy of religion altogether than anything they are used to. Despite their purported rationality and objectivity, this doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds.
Holland also attempts to bolster his argument by highlighting references in the Qu’ran to plants or agriculture. He then makes a leap, for which even Usain Bolt could not muster up enough momentum, and concludes that Muhammad must have lived near agricultural land! Even precluding the metaphysical possibility of revelation, couldn’t it have been possible that Muhammad travelled? Such leaps are great for sensationalism but they do not make for sound and rigorous academic conclusions. Holland did not provide any citations for his paraphrasing of the Qur’an, but the Qur’an uses fauna for the greater theological lesson. It is not an agricultural manual and Holland’s treatment of it was appalling.
All in all, the programme failed on many levels. It re-hashed tired and minority theories that have long since been discredited. I had expected some shocks but got none. Not even food for constructive thought. However, seeing Patricia Crone for the first time was a highlight. At least that was something. I would suggest to Tom Holland that he may wish to thought-experiment with other possibilities. Perhaps he could even read the Qur’an on its own terms and see if it really is some continuation of the Semetic religious tradition or a self-contained philosophical system. Only then can he move closer to being objective and rational.
Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.