UK-Opinion: In the Shadow of Fiction: How Television Is Making (Up) Muslim History

Huffington Post UK, Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Executive Director of Institute for Policy Research & Development

In Channel 4’s Islam: the Untold Story, aired 28 August, British writer Tom Holland – garbed Indiana Jones-style in billowing shirt and trusty hat – treks across the Arabian desert, talking to local Bedouins, and inspecting historical artefacts to investigate the origins of Islam. Muhammed, he concludes, probably never came from Mecca, but from Transjordania; the Qur’an and its teachings are largely borrowed from local religious traditions, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism; and it is questionable whether ‘Islam’ ever really existed as a distinctive, coherent faith during Muhammed’s reign. Rather, the religion of Islam was an innovation of the Arab empires, cynically manufactured to legitamise its expansion by conquest over much of what we now know as the Middle East.

To vindicate this thesis – based largely on his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword – Holland interviews a handful of sceptical Western scholars of Islam. But his narrative is replete with elementary, often laughable, errors. Perhaps the most glaring is his insistence that Mecca is only mentioned once, ambiguously, in the Qur’an – evidence for Holland that the Prophet never came from Mecca. But this is a strange inaccuracy, for the Qur’an mentions Mecca clearly: “And He it is Who held back their hands from you and your hands from them in the valley of Mecca after He had given you victory over them.” (48:24) He then makes much of the Qur’an’s references to “Becca”, as if this must be a completely different place, oblivious to the fact that in South Arabic, the language used in the south of the Arabian peninsula during the time of Muhammed, the sounds b and m were interchangeable – as documented in 1973 by Princeton University Arabist, professor Philip Hitti.

Holland also argues that the Qur’an’s frequent references to vines and olives points to the existence of an agricultural society. Mecca was barren and lacked agriculture; therefore, hey presto!, Muhammed’s message originated elsewhere. The inference is truly bizarre: neighbouring Medina, where Muhammed emigrated fleeing persecution in Mecca – and where he continued to receive a large bulk of the revelations of the Qur’an – was a thriving “agricultural settlement, with widely scattered palm groves and armed farmsteads.”

Holland’s other pillar of evidence is equally meaningless. Holland visits the site of Sodom, and highlights the Qur’an’s statement that its readers “pass by them in the morning and at night” (47:133-8) Flabbergasted, Holland asks: “What is it doing here – a thousand kilometres from Mecca?” That the Meccans were frequent travelling traders who would have routinely passed through this area – as widely documented by scholars such as William Montgomery Watt in the Encyclopedia of Islam (2008) and Ira Lapidus in his Cambridge University study (1988) – appears to be lost on Holland.

Holland’s lack of familiarity with the wider literature in Western scholarship on Islam is thus painfully obvious to serious historians. Early on, Holland speaks of the study of history in Western universities as based on “scepticism and doubt” – in contrast, presumably, to Muslim historians, who simply shape ‘facts’ to fit their faith. The problem is that even though Holland looks dapper in his Indiana outfit, he is not really a historian – and in his latest work, it shows.

Although for the last nine years Holland has written popular history, the bulk of his writing is fiction – including titles such as The Vampyre (1995), Supping with Panthers (1996), The Sleeper in the Sands(1998), and The Bone Hunter (2001). Yet he has no qualifications in history, and cannot even speak Arabic – which is why he employed a Syriac and Arabic-speaking researcher.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, to find him – in true Indy-style – adopting a 1930s colonial mindset early on, informing viewers that: “To the ancients, the Arabs were regarded as notorious savages.” As if to hit this point home, the only people he finds to endorse orthodox accounts of Islam’s origins are Bedouin Arabs living in the desert. At one symbolic point, Holland prays amongst them, then suddenly – for no apparent reason – extracts himself from the congregation in the middle of the prayer only to peer, wonderingly, around him, as if to underscore the questionable origins of one of Islam’s most sacred rituals.

Strangely, the only other Muslim who makes an appearance to represent the ‘canonical’ view of Islam’s origins is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. Troubled by what he conceives as gaps in the historical record, and inconsistencies between the scriptural account and hard evidence on the ground, Holland is confidently informed by Nasr that such an absence of evidence is irrelevant for Muslims who recognise the limits of reason in the face of transcendental realities.

But Channel 4’s sole selection of Nasr as representative of the orthodox historical account is disingenuous. Although he is a renowned philosopher specialising in comparative religion, Islamic esoterism, philosophy of science, and metaphysics, Nasr has contributed little on the minutiae of Islamic history. Through such selective production values and imagery, the film strikes a stark contrast between Western logic and Muslim belief. Muslims are portrayed as steeped in a strange, backward irrationality – out of touch with the modern world with its newfangled, super-scientific methods of historical analysis, and immune to the impact of reason when it comes to longstanding beliefs.

What Channel 4 viewers aren’t told is that the theories Holland regurgitates are not only heavily contested in the wider Western scholarly community, they were almost completely discarded some decades ago. One of their core proponents, Patricia Crone, makes a regular talking-head appearance in the film (as well as being heavily referenced in Holland’s book among others). Holland essentially resurrects their ideas – published back in the 1970s – with unnerving gullibility, accentuating the “black hole” of evidence on early Islam where one should expect abundance.

But, unbeknownst to Channel 4 researchers, he is simply wrong. Petra Sijpestein, Professor of Arabic at Leiden University, remarks: “In the writings of 12 years after the death of Muhammad, Muslims are referred to as a separate religious group, first using the term muhajiroun, migrants who had left hearth and home with a purpose, or Saracens, descendents of Sarah and Abraham. And from around 730AD, terms like Islam, Muslims and specific religious customs such as zakat (charity) were already being practiced and described.”

Yet Holland is a man on a mission. Uncritically parroting the Crone thesis that “there is no hard evidencefor the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century” – he infers that the Arab empires self-servingly concocted Islam as a radically distinct faith. For one thing, there are numerous Qur’anic manuscripts from the first century of hijra, which possess no significant textual deviations. But worse, apart from the fact that Islam has never presented itself as an entirely new religion (rather as acontinuation and confirmation of the Jewish and Christian traditions), this theory has almost no currency at all in the very Western universities that Holland claims to admire.

As noted by the late Robert Seargeant, Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University, Crone’s argument “is not only bitterly anti-Islamic in tone, but anti-Arabian. Its superficial fancies are so ridiculous that at first one wonders if it is just a ‘leg pull’, pure ‘spoof’.” No wonder that the theory of a “reconstructable past” which “relies only on sources outside of Islam”, has “been almost universally rejected” according to Gordon Newsby, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University. This is because, says David Waines, an Islamic Studies professor at Lancaster University, it is “far too tentative and conjectural (and possibly contradictory).”

Serious debate on Islamic historiography is welcome – including re-evaluation of hadith (oral traditions of the Prophet), and re-assessing regressive elements of ‘Shari’ah Law‘ belonging to the cultural conventions of Arab dynasties. Channel 4‘s film distracts from this urgent task by popularising outmoded anti-Arab theories, long ago dismissed by most serious Western academic institutions as Eurocentric Orientalist fictions.

Now read the excellent well researched refutation written by the extremely learned, eloquent and well informed brothers Hamza Tzortzis and Adnan Rashid at IERA: Islamic Education and Research Academy

9pm – 29th August 2012

This paper is a response to the Channel 4 Programme “Islam: The Untold Story”, which was shown on Tuesday 28 August 2012 and presented by Tom Holland. The paper will address each of the main claims made by Holland.

1. The claim that there is no historical evidence in the seventh century on the origins of Islam:

Tom Holland’s assertion that there is no historical evidence for the seventh century origins of Islam is historically inaccurate. This notion cannot be sustained in light of the contemporary non-Islamic as well as material evidence. For instance, early Christian chronicles in the seventh century elaborate on the origins of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and some of the laws practised by the early Muslims. Below are some examples of these chronicles:

Doctrina Jacobi written in 635 CE

A document called Doctrina Jacobi written only two years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) clearly mentions that a prophet had appeared amongst the Arabs:

“I, Abraham, went off to Sykamina and referred the matter to an old man very well-versed in the Scriptures. I asked him: “What is your view, master and teacher, of the prophet who has appeared among the Saracens”.(1)

Here it can be clearly seen that a prophet among Saracens  [i.e. the Arabs] is  mentioned.  The questions is: who was this prophet among Arabs? And what does  a prophet do? The Prophet of Arabs was non other than Muhammad (peace be upon him)  and it appears that the meaning of the term “prophet” was clearly understood by the author of this narrative. A prophet, in a Judeo-Christian sense, leads his people and teaches them about God and this is exactly what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did. A Christian chronicler couldn’t have understood the term differently. Holland’s claim that there is no evidence of Islam before the early Islamic conquests is anachronistic. If there is evidence of a prophet among Arabs, why then one should doubt the existence of the teachings of that prophet?

A record of the Arab conquest of Syria written in 637 CE

A record of the Arab conquest of Syria written in 637 CE, just 5 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), clearly mentions him by name. Interestingly, the date of the document agrees with the best Arab date for the battle of Yarmuk:

“…and in January, they took the word for their lives did the sons of Emesa, and many villages were ruined with killing by the Arabs of M?hammad and a great number of people were killed and captives were taken from Galilee as  far as B?th.” (2)

In this record, the name of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is clearly mentioned. Holland’s claim that the Prophet does not appear in records until 60 years after his death is historically obnoxious.

Sebeos, Bishop of the Bagratunis (Writing c.660 CE)

A mid seventh century account of Islam comes from Sebeos who was a bishop of the House of Bagratunis. This chronicle suggests that he lived through many of the events he relates. As for Muhammad (peace be upon him), he had the following to say:

“At that time a certain man from along those same sons of Ishmael, whose name was Mahmet [i.e., M?hammad], a merchant, as if by God’s command  appeared to them as a preacher [and] the path of truth. He taught them to recognize the God of Abraham, especially because he was learned and informed in the history of Moses. Now because the command was from on high, at a single order they all came together in unity of religion. Abandoning  their vain cults, they turned to the living God who had appeared to their father, Abraham. So, Mahmet legislated for them: not to eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsely, and not to engage in fornication. He said: with an oath God promised this land to Abraham and his seed after him forever. And he brought about as he promised during that time while he loved Ishmael. But now you are the sons of Abraham and God is accomplishing his promise to Abraham and his seed for you. Love sincerely only the God of Abraham, and go and seize the land which God gave to your father Abraham. No one will be  able to resist you in battle, because God is with you.” (3)

This narrative by Sebeos clearly undermines Holland’s assertion that there are no historical records elaborating on the life, teachings and mission of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In fact this particular narrative  suggests that  the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had taught his companions about Islam and the tenets of this faith were well established and understood by the time Sebeos  was writing his chronicle. Holland, for some reason, failed to notice these important non-Muslim testimonies as to the established existence of Islam as a  way of life in the mid seventh century. Some more evidence of the early mention of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) can be seen here:

Holland appears to have turned a blind eye to the rich Islamic historical tradition. There are no “black holes” and there is no missing information. There is plenty of material evidence available to substantiate the accuracy of the Islamic narrative on the early history of Islam. For instance, there are thousands of inscriptions on rocks  in Saudi Arabia confirming the chronological accuracy of the Islamic historical records such as Hadith and Sira/Maghazi literature. One such inscription can be  found here:

This inscription states ‘In the name of Allah, I, Zuhayr, wrote [this] at the time Umar died in the year four and twenty (i.e. 24 AH)’. This dated early text confirms the established existence of the Islamic Hijri calendar, the truth of the event of Hijrah (migration) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the existence of Umar bin Khattab (the second Caliph of Islam), and the accuracy of the Islamic chronology, as according the Islamic historical records, the second Caliph of Islam died in the year 24 AH (644 CE). Also, there is an undated early seventh century inscription, which documents the Islamic Shahadah proclamation. It can be found here:

There is also plenty of Papyri evidence available to confirm the chronological as well as the factual accuracy of the Islamic narrative. Some of this papyri evidence can be witnessed here:

Why would Holland ignore all of this visible evidence and turn a blind eye to it?

2. Unjustified rejection of the Islamic narrative:


Tom Holland’s presentation was clearly biased in the programme, as he ignored other scholarly views that would call his approach into question. For example, Michael Cook, a historian specialising in early Islamic history explains the importance of early non-Muslim accounts of the origins of Islam:

“What does this material tell us? We may begin with the major points on which it agrees with the Islamic tradition. It precludes any doubts as to whether Muhammad was a real person: he is named in a Syriac source that is likely to date from the time of the conquests, and there is an account of him in a Greek source of the same period. From the 640s we have confirmation that the term muhajir was a central one in the new religion, since its followers are known as  ‘Magaritai’ or ‘Mahgraye’ in Greek and Syriac respectively. At the same time, a  papyrus of 643 is dated ‘year twenty two’, creating a strong presumption that something did happen in AD 622. The Armenian chronicler of the 660s attests that Muhammad was a merchant, and confirms the centrality of Abraham in  his preaching. The Abrahamic sanctuary appears in an early source dated (insecurely) to the 670s.” (4)

Holland’s rejection of the Islamic narrative lacks academic rigour. Commenting on Holland’s approach Peter Webb, who teaches Classical Arabic literature at SOAS, the University of London, explains the “resilient” and “robust” nature of the Islamic tradition:

“Over the past century, the Muslim tradition has been challenged by many academics and it has proven remarkably resilient in its own defence…but the Muslim account of history, the textual integrity of the Koran and the mnemonic capacity of oral traditions are more robust than Holland gives them credit…few scholars today would claim it was entirely fabricated. Holland would have done better to adopt a cautious and sensitive approach to the Arabic sources, rather than abandoning them in favour of a sensational rewriting of history.” (5)

Professor Robert Hoyland from the University of Oxford highlights how conclusions similar to Holland’s, including the view that Mecca was in a different place, is a result of not studying the Islamic material and developing scenarios not based on evidence:

“..the historical memory of the Muslim community is more robust than some  have claimed. For example, many of the deities, kings and tribes of the pre-Islamic Arabs that are depicted by ninth-century Muslim historians also feature in the epigraphic record, as do many of the rulers and governors of the early Islamic state. This makes it difficult to see how historical scenarios that require for their acceptance a total discontinuity in the historical memory of the Muslim community – such as that Muhammad did not exist, the Quran was not written in Arabic, Mecca was originally in a different place etc. – can really be  justified. Many of these scenarios rely on absence of evidence, but it seems a shame to make such a recourse when there are so many very vocal forms of material evidence still waiting to be studied.” (6)

3. Rejecting the Islamic oral tradition:

As discussed above, Holland’s approach is inherently biased as he unjustifiably rejects the entire corpus of the Islamic tradition, including the oral Prophetic traditions. Patricia Crone asserts in the documentary that with oral traditions “you remember what you want to remember”. With this assertion Holland attempts to undermine the entire science of Hadith (Prophetic traditions). The science of the Prophetic traditions is based upon scrutinising the isnad (chain of narrations) and the matn (the text). Nabia Abbot, a prominent academic who has conducted extensive study on the Prophetic traditions, explains how the growth of these traditions was as a result of parallel and multiple chains of transmission which highlights that these traditions are trustworthy and a valid source of historical information. She writes:

“…the traditions of Muhammad as transmitted by his Companions and their Successors were, as a rule, scrupulously scrutinised at each step of the transmission, and that the so called phenomenal growth of Tradition in the second and third centuries of Islam was not primarily growth of content, so far as the hadith of Muhammad and the hadith of the Companions are concerned, but represents largely the progressive increase in parallel and multiple chains of transmission.” (7)

Harald Motzki, an academic on Hadith literature, has similar sentiments. In an essay that appeared in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies he concludes that the Prophetic traditions are an important and useful type of source concerning the study of early Islam:

“While studying the Musannaf of `Abd al-Razzaq, I came to the conclusion that the theory championed by Goldziher, Schacht and in their footsteps many others – myself included – which in general, reject hadith literature as a historically reliable sources for the first century AH, deprives the historical study of early Islam of an important and a useful type of source.” (8)

Hence, even a sceptic like Motzki couldn’t resist the strength of the preservation the Islamic Prophetic tradition. On what basis then people like Holland reject the entire Islamic literary corpus?

4. The absurdity of rejecting the oral tradition:

Even if we were to follow Holland’s line of enquiry, it would lead us to absurdities. The philosophical implications of rejecting the Prophetic traditions are quite damning. In epistemology – which is narrowly defined as the study of knowledge and belief – testimony is considered as one of the sources of knowledge, and when applied properly it can form justified beliefs. Testimony is a valid source of knowledge only when it comes from a reliable source especially if there are multiple sources in agreement. Obviously there are conditions as to how we can use testimony, but in the majority cases we consider testimony as a valid source of knowledge. For instance, take our certainty on the fact that China exists. Many people have never been to China, eaten Chinese food in China or spoken to someone in China. All they have as evidence is a map of the world and people telling them they have travelled to China and others claiming to be from China but is this sufficient? However, if we examine why we have such a high level of certainty that China exists, regardless of the above questions, we will conclude that it is due to recurrent testimony. Recurrent testimony is when such a large number of people have reported a claim to knowledge (such as the existence of China) that it is impossible for them to agree upon a lie or to simultaneously lie. This is accentuated by the fact that most of these people never met and lived in different places and different times. Therefore to claim that they have lied is tantamount  to propose the existence of an impossible conspiracy.

Linking this to the Prophetic traditions, not only do we have mass testimony of events and statements of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), we have a detailed science dedicated to authenticate these traditions. Prophetic traditions consist of two components: isnad (chain of narrations) and matn (text). Each of these have detailed criteria that scrutinise the chain and the text to a degree that leaves very little room for doubt. To reject these traditions is tantamount to rejecting facts such as the existence of China or the entirety of history, as these events have been verified via recurrent testimony also. Moreover, each Prophetic tradition has been scrutinised more rigorously than any historical fact we have with us today. Thousands of  companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) narrated reports from him and these reports were then transmitted to subsequent generations with maximum care and authenticity. An anonymous report or a narration originating from an unknown source was immediately rejected. Companions such as Abdullah bin Umar, Anas bin Malik, Abu Hurairah, Aysha, Hudaifah bin Yamaan and many more narrated reports from the Prophet and they were then passed onto the next generation. A very good treatment of this subject can be found in M. M. Azami’s “Studies in Early Hadith Literature”.

The criteria used to verify prophetic traditions are summarised below:

Some criteria for the evaluation of Isnad

The unblemished and undisputed character of the narrator was the most important consideration for the acceptance of a prophetic tradition. A branch of the science of hadith (‘ilm al-hadith) known as asma’ ar-rijal (the biographies of the people) was developed to evaluate the credibility of narrators. The following are a few of the criteria utilized for this purpose:

  1. The name, nickname, title, parentage and occupation of the narrator should be known.
  2. The original narrator should have stated that he heard the hadith directly from the Prophet.
  3. If a narrator referred his hadith to another narrator, the two should have lived in the same period and have had the possibility of meeting each other.
  4. At the time of hearing and transmitting the hadith, the narrator should have been physically and mentally capable of understanding and remembering it.
  5. The narrator should have been known as a pious and virtuous person.
  6. The narrator should not have been accused of having lied, given false evidence or committed a crime.
  7. The narrator should not have spoken against other reliable people.
  8. The narrator’s religious beliefs and practices should have been known to be correct.
  9. The narrator should not have carried out and practiced peculiar religious beliefs of his own.

Some criteria for the evaluation of Matn

  1. The text should have been stated in plain and simple language as this was the undisputed manner of speech of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
  2. A text in non-Arabic or containing indecent language was rejected (for the same reason as above).
  3. A text prescribing heavy punishment for minor sins or exceptionally large reward for small virtues was rejected.
  4. A text which referred to actions that should have been commonly known and practiced by others but were not known and practiced was rejected.
  5. A text contrary to the basic teachings of the Qur’an was rejected.
  6. A text contrary to another established prophetic tradition was rejected.
  7. A text inconsistent with historical facts was rejected.
  8. Extreme care was taken to ensure the text was the original narration of the Prophet and not the sense of what the narrator heard. The meaning of the Prophet tradition was accepted only when the narrator was well known for his piety and integrity of character.
  9. A text by an obscure narrator which was not known during the age of the Prophet’s companions or of the subsequent generation was rejected.

It is clear from the above that the criteria for verifying the Prophetic traditions is comprehensive and robust. Even in the philosophy of history we do not find such comprehensive criteria.

5. The textual Islamic tradition:

Holland continues to espouse his uninformed perspective by claiming that there is an absence of textual evidence from the Islamic narrative. In response to this there are a myriad of written works in the early period of Islam. Below is a list of some of the early works:

Saheefah Saadiqah: Compiled by Abdullaah Ibn ‘Amr ibn al-Aas during the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). His treatise is composed of about 1000 prophetic traditions and it remained secure and preserved.

Saheefah Saheehah: Compiled by Humaam Ibn Munabbih. He was from the famous students of Abu Hurairah (the eminent companion of the Prophet). He wrote all the prophetic traditions from his teacher. Copies of this manuscript are available from libraries in Berlin and Damascus.

Saheefah Basheer Ibn Naheek: Ibn Naheek was also a student of Abu Hurairah. He gathered and wrote a treatise of Prophetic traditions which he read to Abu Hurairah, before they departed and the former verified it. (9)

One of the early Hadith compilations was Muatta of Imam Malik , compiled by Malik bin Anas (d. 179 AH/795 CE). A fragmentary papyri manuscript of this collection from the time of the author is extant to this day. It can be seen here:

This clearly shows that the Hadith literature existed in textual form and was written with extreme care and enthusiasm. Malik bin Anas was a student of Nafi’, who  was a student of Abdullah bin Umar and Abdullah narrated directly from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). This is an uninterrupted chain of Hadith (also known as the Golden Chain).  Malik narrates extensively from Nafi’ in his book and all these reports reach the Prophet Muhammad directly and some of these reports can be verified in manuscript form in international libraries.

In light of the above, the claim that there were no texts or historical documents in the early seventh century is a false one, and clearly undermines the integrity of the programme.  All authentic Hadith literature can be traced back to the Prophet and much of this literature existed in written form in the early days of Islam.

6. Further baseless assumptions:

Holland’s unjustified rejection of the oral and textual Islamic tradition forces him to attempt a coherent alternative. Admitting that he cannot do this, many times describing his source of information as a “black hole”, he uses certain Quranic verses in an attempt to justify his revisionist approach to the Islamic narrative. Holland uses the story of the Prophet Lot and the so-called non-mention of the city of Mecca as means to justify his alternative theory.

The Story of Lot

Holland argues that the Qur’an alludes to places, landscapes and geography that are not descriptive of Mecca and the immediate surrounding areas. He claims that this implies that the Qur’an originates from a location other than Mecca or southern Arabia. He mentions the following verse of the Qur’an:

“And indeed, Lot was among the messengers. [So mention] when We saved  him and his family, all, except his wife among those who remained [with the evildoers]. Then We destroyed the others. And indeed, you pass by them in  the morning. And at night. Then will you not use reason?” (10)

Holland claims that the words “you pass by them in the morning and at night” indicate a place outside of Mecca because the ruins are nowhere to be found in Mecca. With this conclusion Holland makes some bold assumptions. He assumes that Meccans did not travel. This is a blunder as the historian Ira M. Lapidus in his book, “A History of Islamic Societies”, clearly states that the Arabs in Mecca were established traders travelling far and wide:

“By the mid-sixth century, as heir to Petra and Palmyra, Mecca became one of the important caravan cities of the Middle East. The Meccans carried spices, leather, drugs, cloth and slaves which had come from Africa or the Far East to Syria, and returned money, weapons, cereals, and wine to   Arabia.” (11)

If Holland had carefully read the Qur’an, he would have understood that the context of these verses was explained elsewhere in the book, as the Qur’an rhetorically asks the Meccans if they had travelled through the land to see the ends of other civilisations and cities:

“Have they not travelled through the land and observed how was the end of those before them? They were more numerous than themselves and greater in strength and in impression on the land, but they were not availed by what they used to earn.” (12)

The non-mention of Mecca

Holland claims that the city of Mecca is not mentioned in the Qur’an and therefore justifies his revisionist perspective. This is a complete fabrication. The Quran in the forty-eighth chapter clearly mentions the city of Mecca.

“And it is He who withheld their hands from you and your hands from them within [the area of] Makkah after He caused you to overcome them. And ever is Allah of what you do, Seeing.” (13)

This in itself shows as to how reckless, ill-informed and  biased was Holland’s approach to the whole subject.

7. Did the Arab Empire create Islam?

Although this contention of Holland’s does not provide a strong argument against Islamic tradition, it is worthwhile pointing out that his view that Islam emerged as a result of the Arab empire does not make sense when the historical events are viewed objectively. The late professor of Islamic studies William Montgomery Watt asserts:

“Islamic ideology alone gave the Arabs that outward – looking attitude which  enabled them to become sufficiently united to defeat the Byzantine and Persian empires. Many of them may have been concerned chiefly with booty for themselves. But men who were merely raiders out for booty could not have held together as the Arabs did. The ideology was no mere epiphenomenon but an essential factor in the historical process.” (14)

Hence, according to Watt, it was the religion of Islam that inspired the Arabs to unite and consequently carve an empire, not the other way around. In a similar vein the author Dr. Lex Hixon writes:

“Neither as Christians or Jews, nor simply as intellectually responsible individuals, have members of Western Civilisation been sensitively educated or even accurately informed about Islam…even some persons of goodwill who have gained acquaintance with Islam continue to interpret the reverence for the prophet Muhammad and the global acceptance of his message as an inexplicable survival of the zeal of an ancient desert tribe. This view ignores fourteen centuries of Islamic civilisation, burgeoning with artists, scholars, statesmen, philanthropists, scientists, chivalrous warriors, philosophers…as well as countless men and women of devotion and wisdom from almost every nation of the planet. The coherent world civilisation called Islam, founded in  the vision of the Qur’an, cannot be regarded as the product of individual and national ambition, supported by historical accident.” (15)

To claim that the empire of the Arabs produced a religion called Islam is to  assert that a child gave birth to his mother. Holland was certainly attempting to challenge all established historical laws.

8. What if the Qur’an is God’s word?

One of the key reasons of why the Muslim narrative has remained resilient against baseless and uninformed polemics is based on the fact that the Qur’an is from God. The argument is simple yet profound. If it can be shown that the Qur’an is from God, an Infallible and Omnipotent being, then it follows that whatever is in the Qur’an is true. This will include the fact that Islam is a religion sent by God and not the development of an Arab empire, as claimed by Holland.

How can we ascertain that the Qur’an is from the Divine?

The Qur’an, the book of Islam, is no ordinary book. It has been described by many who engage with the book as an imposing text, but the way it imposes itself on the reader is not negative, rather it is positive. This is because it seeks to positively engage with ones mind and emotions, and it achieves this by asking profound questions, such as:

“So where are you people going? This is a message for all people; for those who wish to take the straight path.” (16)

“Are the disbelievers not aware that the heavens and the earth used to be  joined together and that We ripped them apart, that We made every living thing from water? Will they not believe?” (17)

“Have they not thought about their own selves?” (18)

However the Qur’an doesn’t stop there, it actually challenges the whole of mankind with regards to its authorship, it boldly states:

“If you have doubts about the revelation we have sent down to Our servant,  then produce a single chapter like it – enlist whatever supporters you have other than God – if you truly think you can. If you cannot do this – and you never will – then beware of the Fire prepared for the disbelievers, whose  fuel is men and stones.” (19)

This challenge refers to the various wonders in the Qur’an, even within its smallest chapter, that give us good reasons to believe it is from God. Some of these reasons are the existence of supernatural linguistic, historical and factual statements in the Quran and these statements couldn’t possibly have originated from the mind of an unlettered seventh century Arabian inhabitant of Mecca i.e. the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).


The Qur’an’s use of the Arabic language has never been achieved before by anyone who has mastered the language past or present. As Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, a notable British Orientalist, states:

“…and that though several attempts have been made to produce a work equal to it as far as elegant writing is concerned, none has as yet succeeded.” (20)

The Qur’an is the most eloquent of all speeches that achieves the peak of excellence, it renders peoples attempts to match its miraculous style as null and void. It is no wonder Professor Bruce Lawrence writes:

“As tangible signs Qur’anic verses are expressive of inexhaustible truth, the signify meaning layered within meaning, light upon light, miracle after miracle.” (21)

For more information please read the essays “The Qur’an’s Challenge: A Literary and Linguistic Miracle” and “The Philosophical Implications on the Uniqueness of the Qur’an“.


There are many historically factual statements in the Qur’an that show us that it is from God. One of them is that the Qur’an is the only religious text to use different words for the rulers of Egypt at different times. For instance while addressing the Egyptian ruler at the time of Prophet Yusuf (Joseph), the word “Al-Malik” in Arabic is used which refers to a ruler, king or sultan.

“The King said, ‘Bring him to me straight away!’…”(22)

In contrast, the ruler of Egypt at the time of the Prophet Musa (Moses) is referred to as “Pharaoh”, in Arabic “Firaown”. This particular title began to be employed in the 14th century B.C., during the reign of Amenhotep IV. This is confirmed by the Encyclopaedia Britannica which states that the word “Pharaoh” was a title of respect used from the New Kingdom (beginning with the 18th dynasty; B.C. 1539-1292) until the 22nd dynasty (B.C. 945-730), after which this term of address became the title of the king. So the Qur’an is historically accurate as the Prophet Yusuf lived at least 200 years before 18th dynasty, and the word “al-Malik” or “King” was used for the king of Egypt at the time, not the title “Pharaoh”.

In light of this, how could have the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) known such a minute historical detail? Especially when all other religious texts, such as the Bible are mistaking in this regard? Also, since people at the time of revelation did not know this information (as the Hieroglyphs was a dead language at the time), what does this then say about the authorship of the Qur’an?

There are many more reasons for the Muslim belief in the Qur’an. We hope this provides the window of opportunity for the reader to study further and engage with a text that not only changed Arabia, but the entire world. Johnston , an authority on early Islamic history, agrees:

“Seldom, if ever, has a set of ideas had so great an effect on human societies  as Islam has done, above all in the first half of the seventh century. In little more than twenty years, the religious and political configuration of Arabia was changed out of all recognition. Within another twenty all of the rich, highly developed, militarily powerful world enveloping Arabia was conquered, save for Asia Minor and north Africa.” (23)

One of the biggest effects of the Quran on human history was the survival of Jews and some minor Christian sects due to the protection of Islam. This  outcome of the teachings of the Quran in itself was a phenomenon, please see “Islam’s War on Terror” for details here:

9. Selective Scholarship

Holland’s choice of scholarship was very selective and was carefully planned to substantiate his argument. He appears to have ignored a bulk, in fact the majority, of scholarship to make his point stand out. He relied heavily upon the opinions of Patricia Crone (featured in the documentary), whose theories on the early Islamic history are discarded by most historians today. She has expressed her erroneous views on Islamic sources in a number of works. She went as far as to assert that some of the Islamic sources are ‘”debris of obliterated past”; and some of the early works, including Ibn Ishaq’s Sira (biography of the Prophet), are “mere piles of desperate traditions”. (24)

Crone has been heavily criticised by fellow historians for her radical views. Even Fred M. Donner, another historian featured in the documentary, rejected Crone’s approach. Referring to people like Crone, Cook and Wansbrough, Donner asserts that:

“…the sceptics have encountered some scepticism about their own approach, because some of their claims seem overstated – or even unfounded. Moreover, their work has to date been almost entirely negative – that is, while they have tried to cast doubt on the received version of ‘what happened’ in early Islamic history by impugning the sources, they have not yet offered a convincing alternative reconstruction of what might have happened.” (25)

Angelika Neuwirth, a German scholar on the Quran, has expressed similar sentiments on Patricia Crone and her likes. She states:

“As a whole, however, the theories of the so called sceptic or revisionist scholars who, arguing historically, make a radical break with the transmitted picture of Islamic origins, shifting them in both time and place from the seventh to the eighth or ninth century and from the Arabian Peninsula to the Fertile Crescent, have by now been discarded…New findings of Quranic text fragments, moreover, can be adduced to affirm rather than call into question the traditional picture of the Quran as an early fixed text composed of the suras we have…The alternative visions about the genesis of the Quran presented by Wansbrough, Crone and Cook, Luling and Luxenberg  are not only mutually exclusive, but rely on textual observations that are too selective to be compatible with the comprehensive quranic textual evidence that can be drawn only from a systematically microstructural reading.” (26)

Carole Hillenbrand has also rejected the extremely negative and selective approach of Patricia Crone and her school. (27)

It is clear from above, mainstream scholarly opinions that the Islamic historical narrative is far richer and trustworthier than most historical traditions. Most historians, who have no underlying political or religious agendas, accept the historical validity of Islamic sources.

In summary, Tom Holland has cherry picked from evidence as well as scholarship to take an unsubstantiated and marginalised view on the origins of Islam.  He saw what he wanted to see and rejected recklessly what he didn’t like. His exclusion of established academic positions and material facts points to the only conclusion of justifying his own prejudices and ignorance of Islamic tradition.

1. Doctrina Jacobi, Readings in Late Antiquity: A  Sourcebook, Routledge, 2005, p. 354.

2. A. Palmer (with contributions from S. P. Brock and R. G. Hoyland), The Seventh Century In The West-Syrian Chronicles Including Two Seventh-Century Syriac Apocalyptic Texts, 1993, Liverpool University Press: Liverpool (UK), pp. 2-3; Also see R. G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian, Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam, 1997, op. cit., pp. 116-117.

3. R. W. Thomson (with contributions from J. Howard-Johnson & T. Greenwood), The Armenian History Attributed To Sebeos Part – I: Translation and Notes, 1999, Translated Texts For Historians – Volume 31, Liverpool University Press, pp. 95-96. Other translations can also be seen in P. Crone & M. Cook, Hagarism: The Making Of The Islamic World, 1977, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, pp. 6-7; R. G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian, Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam, 1997, op. cit., p. 129; idem., “Sebeos, The Jews And The Rise Of Islam” in R. L. Nettler (Ed.), Medieval And Modern Perspectives On Muslim-Jewish Relations, 1995, Harwood Academic Publishers GmbH in cooperation with the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, p. 89.

4. Michael Cook. Muhammad, Past Masters Oxford University Press, Page 74. First published 1983 as an Oxford University Press paperback. Reissued 1996


6. Robert Hoyland, New Documentary Texts and the Early Islamic State, 2006

7. N. Abbott, Studies In Arabic Literary Papyri, Volume II (Qur’anic Commentary & Tradition), 1967, The University Of Chicago Press, p. 2.

8. H. Motzki, “The Musannaf Of `Abd al-Razzaq Al-San`ani As A Source of Authentic Ahadith of The First Century A.H.”, Journal Of Near Eastern Studies, 1991, Volume 50, p. 21.

9. M. M. Azami. Studies in Early Hadith Literature. 2001. American Trust Publications.

10. Qur’an 37: 133 – 138

11. Ira M. Lapidus, ‘A History of Islamic Societies’, Cambridge, p.14.

12. Qur’an 40: 82

13. Qur’an 48: 24

14. William Montgomery Watt, ‘Economic and Social Aspects of the Origin of Islam’ in Islamic Quarterly 1 (1954), p. 102-3.

15. Lex Hixon. The Heart of the Qur’an: An Introduction to Islamic Spirituality. Quest Books. 2003, page 3.

16. Qur’an 81: 26 – 28

17. Qur’an 21: 30

18. Qur’an 30: 8

19. Qur’an 2: 23

20. F. F. Arbuthnot. The Construction of the Bible and the Koran. London, p 5.

21. Bruce Lawrence. The Qur’an: A Biography. Atlantic Books, p 8.

22. Qur’an 12: 50

23. Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crises (Oxford, 2010), p. 357-8.

24. Patricia Crone, Slaves on Horses (Cambridge, 2003), p. 10.

25. Fred M. Donner, Modern Approaches to Early Islamic History, New Cambridge History of Islam v. 1, 2010, p. 633.

26. Angelika Neuwirth, Structural, Linguistic and Literary Features, the Cambridge Companion to the Quran, 2006, p. 100-1.

27. Carole Hillenbrand. Muhammad and the Rise of Islam. New Cambridge Medieval History.