by Ahmet Aslan (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 8, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1433)
Fake historian distorts history to attack Islam in the most scandalous way and Britain’s channel 4 provides him air time. Islamophobia is now official policy in much of the western world.
Amid the great furor in the Muslim world over the blasphemous anti-Islam movie Innocence of Muslims which attacks the noble Messenger (pbuh) in such an insulting manner with the clear intent to provoke Muslims, Britain’s Channel 4 announced that it has cancelled screening of the documentary, Islam: Untold Story.
Channel 4 first aired the documentary on August 28 and had scheduled a screening in late September but they decided to cancel it. A Channel 4 spokeswoman said, “Having taken security advice, we have reluctantly cancelled a planned screening of the programme Islam: The Untold Story. We remain extremely proud of the film which is still available to view on 4oD.”
Channel 4 asserts pride in a documentary that is full of spurious arguments and grossly distorts the history of Islam. The producer, self-claimed historian Tom Holland, is the writer of such fiction works as Rubicon and Persian Fire. He based the documentary primarily on his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword.
In the documentary he appears in Indiana Jones-style dress, and ostensibly plays a skeptical historian who is trying to pose rational challenge against the traditional Muslim narrative on the origins of Islam and the Qur’an, “Muslims have held that Islam was fully formed by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the 7th century and Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad (pbuh) from God through angel Gabriel during his lifetime.”
In the documentary Holland argues that this view is not correct since there are not reliable historical data to support it. Instead, in light of what he calls “historical data,” he claims it is more plausible to assume that Islam and the Qur’an were products of collective and gradual process that took place two hundred years after the demise of the Prophet (pbuh). What he means by this is that Islam is not a divine religion; rather it is a man-made religion formed by the collective work of people who lived in the region over a period of time. Further, Judaism and Christianity exerted considerable influence on the formation of Islam, he claims.
Holland also questions the significance of Makkah and the role it played in the origins of Islam. He claims, “Aside from a single ambiguous mention in the Koran itself, there is no mention of [the Muslim holy city of] Mecca, not one, in any datable text for over a hundred years after Muhammad’s death.” He resorts to specious arguments in support of his point. For instance, he states the Qur’an’s frequent references to vines and olives indicate that Makkah is not so important. For Holland Makkah was a barren settlement thus there must be a different place that is mentioned in the Qur’an. According to his claim, this place is somewhere in Syria.
More than 1,000 Muslims complained about the documentary accusing Holland of distorting the history of Islam. Writing on the Channel 4 website after complaints to both the channel and watchdog Ofcom, he said, “We were of course aware when making the programme that we were touching deeply held sensitivities and went to every effort to ensure that the moral and civilizational power of Islam was acknowledged in our film, and the perspective of Muslim faith represented, both in the persons of ordinary Bedouin in the desert, and one of the greatest modern scholars of Islam, Seyyed Hossein Nasr.”
Holland’s documentary could have been considered a Western scholar’s genuine attempt to seek the truth about the religion of Islam. There are, however, a number of reasons that suggest his motivation for making the program was sinister. First, there was nothing new about his investigation as they are based mostly on Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s sensational book Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. The book published in 1977, was influenced by such Orientalists as Alphonse Mingana and John Wansbrough. It disregards all the Islamic sources due to the time gap between the Muslim sources which begin to appear in the middle of the 8th century and the formation of the Islam which took place in the 7th century. Thus, Crone and Cook decided to use Christian sources they deemed to be closer to the occurrence of events.
In their reading of Christian sources Crone and Cook claim that lack of any mention of Islam and Qur’an in such sources means Islam was not formed as an independent religion in the seventh century; rather it was developed at a later date. Under the influence of Judeo-Christian heritage, Islam was crystalized during the reign of Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, according to claims by Crone and Cook.
The book, however, came under heavy criticism even from within Western academia due to flaws in its methodology and selective approach to sources. The book’s heavy reliance on hostile Christian sources and argumentum e silentio as well as selective usage of Christian sources and ignoring the sources that mentioned Islam and Qur’an tarnished its academic value. Even Scholars like John Wansbrough who initiated similar theories harshly criticized the book, thus the value of the book has been reduced to one of speculative work. Holland is not informing the audience about this crucial information, and presents his theory as an undisputed fact.
Holland also does not give voice to anyone who might be critical of his theory. The only Muslim who appears in the documentary is Sayyed Husain Nasr who prefers to take a neutral position due to his philosophical approach on the issue. No Muslim historian is given an opportunity to present the Muslim point of view or challenge Holland’s outdated theory.
Western scholars who work in the field of Islamic studies are often accused by their Muslim counterparts, most of the time unjustly, for their lack of command of the Arabic language. But in Holland’s case, nobody could claim such criticism would be unjust because he has no command at all of the Arabic language. This indeed makes his theory often ridiculous because he has no access to the text on which he makes judgment. Reading the translation he comes up with weird conclusions which would be detectable to anyone who is familiar with the Qur’anic script. For example Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed in his article on the documentary published by Huffington Post points out Holland’s visit of the site of Sodom, wherein he highlights the Qur’an’s statement that its readers “pass by them in the morning and at night” (37:133–8). Upon reading the verse Holland asks, “What is it doing here — a thousand kilometres from Mecca?” Ahmed states, “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.”
It is not fathomable why Holland labels the mentioning of Makkah in the Qur’an (48:24) as “ambiguous.” The ayah unequivocally refers to the word Makkah. Further, although Makkah was a barren settlement, Madinah wherein a significant portion of the Qur’an was revealed was a fertile agricultural settlement and people were involved in all kinds of agricultural activities.
Finally, Holland completely ignores the existence of the Qur’anic inscriptions on the Dome of Rock that are considered to be archeological data about the existence of the Qur’an in a very early period.
Although the documentary seems to be more politically correct, in the end it reflects a similar mindset demonstrated in the despicable movie Innocence of Muslims. They aim at discrediting the very foundations of the Islam: The Prophet and the Qur’an. The only difference is that the Channel 4 documentary expresses it in a more subtle way thus avoiding a strong reaction from the Muslims.