I did not catch Tom Holland’s Channel 4 programme called ‘Islam: The untold story’, but it was hard to miss the positive and negative comments about it after it was broadcast. I was aware that Mr Holland’s book earlier book on the subject had received warm praise from Islam’s opponents like Charles Moore.
But I decided to watch the programme for myself to find out what the fuss was about, and while I watched I laughed a bit (at what was meant to be serious), cringed a lot – but at least I enjoyed the visual footage of Makkah and Jerusalem.
In the end the programme was largely a ‘cut and paste’ of Patricia Crone’s work – work that has been comprehensively refuted by Dr. Amaal Muhammad Al-Roubi and others. The many weaknesses contained within the programme were listed in a rebuttal by iERA and in the several critical reviews in the mainstream media.
But I can summarise my own views about the programme in three points:
Firstly, as mentioned before, Mr Holland was simply recycling a discredited orientalist argument for an audience unfamiliar with these sorts of arguments.
Secondly, the numbers of errors and gaps in his knowledge about Islam would have left his effort discredited in the eyes of those better informed than himself – a point made by others before me.
Thirdly, there was ample evidence that Mr Holland was at the very least being intellectual disingenuous. He said that he was brought up to be sceptical and doubt ‘everything’; and his ‘investigation’ into Islam’s early history criticised the lack of convincing historical evidence according to the standard he had adopted. So it is neither honest nor consistent to set aside scepticism and trust speculative proofs to conclude from that ‘archaeology leaves us in no doubt’ that the Quran was revealed outside of Makkah; or that ‘one thing is very clear …’ that nobody in the lands conquered earliest by Arabs had any idea the conquerors followed a new religion – amongst other things.
So, why should I ask if Muslims should welcome such a programme intended, that made me cringe and laugh, despite being billed as a serious work?
It is because it revealed a shortcoming to at least some of the Muslim viewers – some of whom felt challenged by something that fundamentally should not be challenging for them.
Any Muslim with a rudimentary knowledge of Islam’s creed and reference ought not to have been wrong-footed by the series of red herrings that have so often made up orientalist arguments. They might have known that such academics use a set of standards they use to judge evidence that is far from a universal standard – an certainly not the same standards applied in Islamic scholarship.
Those standards applied in Islamic scholarship and by Muslims when thinking about their own beliefs (which were no where to be seen in the programme) are, in summary:
Firstly, sensed-based, rational thought – through which a Muslim understands that the universe (and everything in it) cannot have come into existence without a Creator – is the first standard upon the beliefs of Muslims are established, and answers their most fundamental question about the existence, or not, of a Creator.
Secondly, a reasoned conviction that a challenge in the Quran to match its eloquence and brilliance has never been met over fourteen centuries is proof of the Quran’s unique and unparalleled nature. What is more, those who appreciate Quranic Arabic know this at an emotional, as well as an intellectual level.
Thirdly, because of their reasoned conviction in its authenticity, an acceptance of those things that are mentioned decisively in the Quran, such as: the nature and qualities of God; the identities of Prophets & Messengers God sent to guide humanity; the names of previous revealed scriptures such as the Torah (Tawraat), Bible (Injeel) and Psalms (Zaboor); the realities of life after death including resurrection, the accounting of humanity on a Day of Judgment for what they have done of good and ill, and the reward and punishment of God thereafter.
Fourthly, the acceptance of that which can be authentically proved regarding the life events, character, teachings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be upon him – sallallahu alaihi wasallam) These are proofs based on testimonial evidence. What Mr. Holland belittles as ‘stories’ are the testimony of witnesses – not dissimilar to witness statements that are an accepted standard in a court. And, as in a court room, where testimonies to the same incidents and realities are numerous and consistent, the adjudicator accepts them as sound proofs; and where the testimony is of a lesser standard, they are either accepted as less sound proofs, or else deemed not to have reached a sufficiently rigorous standard and set aside.
During the programme, Patricia Crone said that there were elements of Islam’s history she could neither reject nor accept, due to an absence of evidence, which led as an historian to explore alternative theories to the orthodox narrative. This too, seemed to be the basis of Mr. Holland’s work. Yet what was bizarre was the willingness to give serious consideration to these alternatives, based on patchy evidence.
But the setting aside of the reasoned basis which affirms the testimony of Quran, and testimonial evidence which meets higher standards than the Old Bailey, European Court or US Supreme Court, Crone and Holland have set themselves and their audience a standard that makes it impossible to be convinced of much in life!
It is sad that the outrage/confusion expressed by so-many Muslims to this programme is a reflection that they have not readied themselves to respond to difficult and obvious questions that will arise living in a secular materialist society.
But perhaps the programme should be a wake up call for some Muslims, who because of their own lack of preparedness, might have felt-wrong footed by the strange assertions it contained.
And for that reason alone, one might ask whether or not this programme was to be welcomed.