What’s the difference between a parasite and a career orientalist? Trick question – there isn’t one. Orientalist’s make a career of trying to disprove Islam, conversely they need Islam to continue to exist so they can continue to have a career. Much like a parasite. So we see Tom Holland has attached himself, leech-like, on to the discussion of the veracity of the Quranic fragments. “Aha!” He cries, “the fragments are older than Muhammad!” This has to be the most desperate iteration of the ‘sanad is a weak form of history’ argument yet.
This line of argument has already been debunked by better writers and thinkers than I, but rarely if ever has the subject of western academia’s assumed superiority ever been breached. Like most orientalists, Tom Hollands’ arguments rest on the assumption that all approaches to historic research other than western approach are weak. The truth however is that the western approach to historic research is unclear, undefined and tenuous.
Most modern western history snuggles itself into metanarratives – think of the Whig interpretation of history or dialectic materialism. These are narratives that try and fit history, sociology and even science in to a predefined idea or set of ideas. Simply put, discussions of history in the west are viewed through whatever lens the Historian decides to wear. The obvious implication here is that the facts are twisted to fit in to whatever metanarrative the Historian believes in that day.
This naturally leads to an historical bias. For example, orientalism views the East as a strange, mystical and uncivilised place. The East for the orientalist is viewed only through the interactions of Europeans with it. In other words, an East independent of European involvement is unconceivable for any self-respecting orientalist. These narratives impose themselves on cultures thereby distorting their history. This is what orientalism has sought to do with Islam and Muslim history. Perched in their ivoriest of towers full of disingenuous sympathy they want to re-educate Muslims about their own history; because of course, the collective memory of millions of Muslims was utterly wrong. This is why the Quran fragment found in Birmingham troubles them so, and this is why Holland is attempting to pull off a U-turn that would get him a gold in Olympic gymnastics – his original thesis was that the Quran was written 200 years after the Prophet (saw) and now he claims the Quran predates the Prophet.
According to Edward Said, an expert on orientalism, 60,000 orientalist books were written between 1800 and 1950. The object of these books was to disparage Islam; calling the Prophet SAWS a charlatan or warlord, in order to reinforce the idea of an occidental (western) superiority and the occidental mission. Burke and de Tocqeuville ruminated over the ‘oriental condition’ concluding that the Muslims were so backwards it was only properly humanitarian to subdue them under the butt of western liberty. John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx were also of the opinion that a grand colonial civilising mission should be undertaken against the Muslim world. It was with this philosophy that the west ventured forth and committed some of the greatest colonial atrocities. Holland is only continuing to perpetuate the colonial philosophy of choice.
The isnad method of preserving and passing down history is inherently stronger, firstly because it does not seek to co-opt a culture in to its own history. Islamic history is unique in that it does not ignore the rich cultural history of those that lived within the Islamic state. Secondly, the isnad with specific reference to the Quran and Ahadith did more than pass on ‘words’ and is not in the western sense ‘an oral tradition’. The isnad passed on the exact phrasings (grammatical phrasing being rather more important in Arabic than in English), it passed on context, and it passed on the names of narrators and their characters. After all that, isnad’s were heavily corroborated and graded according to their strength. The isnad method is an precise science and has been codified by the classical scholars; even to this day their exist scholars who can name every single person in a chain of hifz or Ahadith. Contrast this with classicists like Holland who rely on often uncorroborated texts and conjecture while having no knowledge of the Arabic language.
Although I have criticised the western academic approach, it still has to be said that there is still a system in place. PHD supervision, stringent referencing, per reviews et cetera. Holland on the other hand, is a popular Historian, in other words his works are not even subject to the academic rigours of your typical masters student. As a popular Historian, Holland writes primarily to an audience, not for academics. By definition he has very little interest in academic veracity and much vested interest in pushing a political narrative to feed to like-minded gofers. The proof of this is that he has contradicted himself in trying to further the orientalist narrative.
Through this narrative, Holland and other orientalists are trying to make Muslims doubt their own history. If we can weaken the Muslims link to their own history, they reason, then we can stop the Muslims from realising their political objectives. Therefore, Tom Holland is simply following the footsteps of former Orientalists who are not interested in a sincere objective approach towards Islamic history. They have a clear agenda that ultimately exposes their own credibility rather than the origin of the Quran which has ample proofs for its preservation.