I want to tell you about a journey I engaged in today. Today’s journey began with this article by British historian Tom Holland about what he experienced when he made a documentary which was aired on the BBC which questioned the historicity of the Mohammed story. Jews and Christians have a lot invested in the historicity of their holy books but those pale in comparison with the investement that Muslims have in the historicity not only of the Qur’an but the entire corpus of stories, traditions, and teachings about Mohammed. Dr. Holland writes:
Never before, though, had it—or, indeed, any other British TV channel—aired a documentary questioning the basis of what most Muslims believed about the origins of their faith. I still remember a feeling of almost physical panic as I stood on the battlements of an abandoned Roman city in the Negev Desert and raised the possibility, on camera, that Muhammad might not have come from Mecca. The director, the brilliant and award-winning filmmaker Kevin Sim, had aimed to make me and my anxieties about what I was doing a part of the film, and he more than succeeded. There is barely a shot in the documentary in which I do not look mildly terrified.
Nevertheless, by the time the program finally aired in late August 2012, I had come to feel more sanguine about its prospects. My book had come out four months before, and I had not felt threatened in any way. Reviews had been mixed, which was no surprise considering how controversial the subject matter was: Some were adulatory, some vituperative. Muslim critics, without exception, had hated it. None, though, to my relief, had disputed my right to subject the origins of Islam to historical inquiry and to publish my conclusions. For that reason, as I looked ahead to the airing of the documentary, I felt tolerably confident that no one would get too upset.
It didn’t take long for me to realize my mistake. Just a few minutes into the broadcast, my Twitter stream was going up in smoke. By the time the show ended, the death threats were coming in thick and fast—and not just against me but against my family as well. Channel 4 was also deluged with protests. A private screening scheduled for assorted movers and shakers had to be canceled after the police warned that they couldn’t guarantee the security of those attending the event. Because many of the invitees had been journalists, this naturally gave the controversy a new lease of life.
I was curious so I began to do a little research. If you’re interested you can watch the documentary yourself on YouTube. However, my curiosity didn’t end there.
Some of the reaction is pretty hyperventilated but not all. One criticism was that Dr. Holland had not taken Muslim sources into account but the criticism I found most most telling was that Dr. Holland had not taken many other non-Muslim sources into account. This list of sources, collected in the Wikipedia article on the book, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It made pretty interesting reading and I plan to look into some of them more deeply. And I found this criticism in The Arab Review pretty sensible:
Anyone who tells you that they know anything for certain about the 7th century is lying to you.
This is the basis of Tom Holland’s recent documentary Islam: The Untold Story, based on his book In the Shadow of the Sword. The documentary – to abridge it considerably – argues that the Prophet Mohammed was not from Mecca, but more likely from the present day Israel-Jordan-Palestine area. Holland also says that Islam, as a fully formed religion, did not emerge until many years after the death of Mohammed.
The reaction on Twitter from the Muslim community has been almost universally negative. Some vitriolic, others more measured in their response, but all agree that Holland’s documentary is either wrong or ill-researched. It is this reaction that has thus far dominated much of the comment about the programme.
I do not want to lie to you so I will not claim any specialist knowledge of the 7th century, but for my part, I still believe that Mohammed came from Mecca. As for the point that early Islam had a fluid identity and traditions about the prophet sometimes differ considerably, I think many Muslims would agree with such an assertion. After all, there is a whole branch of Muslim scholarship that has been dedicated to the sole task of evaluating the reliability of stories about the prophet. This Science of Hadith (sometimes simply called ‘The Science’) devotes all its efforts to finding out which stories are true and which spurious.
I may be misinformed but my impression is that the Qur’an has not been subjected to the intensive sort of analysis to which the Hebrew Bible and New Testament have been subjected over the period of last three or four hundred years.
My own nonbeliever’s and barely informed view is that the Qur’an was probably written by people, may be a compilation of works that had been around in the oral tradition for quite a while, and that, although I believe that Mohammed was a historical person, we’ll never be truly certain where or when he was born. My intuition is that there are aspects of Islam that are reactions to the religious conflicts of the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries AD.
I also suspect that somewhere there are ancient, buried copies of the Qur’an that will someday be unearthed and avoid destruction that will bear out the idea that the Qur’an, like the Bible, developed over time.