Can Islam ever accept higher criticism?

Tom Holland

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Last night’s Islam: The Untold Story will have made uncomfortable viewing for some people. It certainly seemed to be for one of the featured experts, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian Islamic philosopher who had the look of a man whose faith is facing the rising tide of scepticism and godlessness. It is one Christians from the past century and a half, from the early days of higher criticism to the recent plummet in religious attendance, will recognise well.

In this atmospheric and intelligent documentary Tom Holland, whose recently published In The Shadow of the Sword took the burgeoning study of early Islam to a popular audience, looked at the early history of the religion and sought to explain what evidence we have for the traditional history, as viewed by the faithful.

“The evidence is almost nonexistent,” he says. “When you start looking, everything is up for grabs.”

The peoples of antiquity, whether Persians, Greeks, Egyptians or Romans, saw the Arabs as a backwards, obscure people from the desert. As for their religion, they worshipped a number of deities, including cubes, although there were Christian and Jewish communities scattered along the Arabian Peninsula.

But in the seventh century these “despised” people rode out of the desert and embarked on a series of conquests that would soon have them running an empire that stretched from central Asia to the Loire Valley.

And yet the strangest thing about this period, known by posterity as “the Muslim conquest”, is that there is little evidence that they were Muslims at all. When the Arabs arrived in Jerusalem in 636 under Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab none of the chroniclers of the period have anything to say about what religion the new conquerors were.

Palestine had been under the control of the Byzantines, who had expanded the number of churches and encouraged Christian settlers, leading to much friction with the Jews. The new masters, who had just smashed a Byzantine army five times as large, seemed to look at Jewish sites with reverence, which led some Jews to see them as saviours and many Christians to feel paranoid about a Jewish reconquest.

And yet no one describes them as “Muslim”; nor does the Arab ruler of Jerusalem mention the Prophet Mohammed anywhere.

Read more at the Telegraph

Here is the trailer:

Historian Tom Holland explores how a new religion – Islam – emerged from the seedbed of the ancient world, and asks what we really know for certain about the rise of Islam.

The result is an extraordinary detective story.

Traditionally, Muslims and non-Muslims alike have believed that Islam was born in the full light of history. But a large number of historians now doubt that presumption, and question much of what Muslim tradition has to tell us about the birth of Islam.

As a result, Tom finds himself embroiled in what, for 40 years now, has been an underground but seismic debate: the issue of whether, as Muslims have always believed, Islam was born fully formed in all its fundamentals, or else evolved gradually, over many years – and in ways that Muslims today might not necessarily recognise.

So who was the historical Muhammad, and where – if not from God – might the Qur’an, the Holy Book of Islam, actually have come from?

By asking these questions, Tom – as a non-Muslim – has no choice, over the course of the film, but to negotiate the fault-line that runs between history and religion, between doubt and faith.



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  1. Pingback: Islam: The Untold Story « The Templar Knight

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