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iERA response to Tom Holland’s comments

iERA response to Tom Holland’s comments


4th September 2012

On 31 August 2012, Tom Holland responded to the many complaints Channel 4 had received with regards to his recent documentary “Islam: The Untold Story” [1]. He made a number of points in his defence and the most important of them will be addressed below. Holland’s words will be in bold italics and our response will follow his statements. He stated in his response:

‘The origins of Islam are a legitimate subject of historical enquiry…’

We agree and this legitimate enquiry should continue. We applaud and appreciate the efforts of any sincere, honest and objective scholar in this regard. In fact Muslims were the first people to scrutinise their own historical tradition and came up a systematic method to do so: ilm ul hadith (the Science of Hadith). Thousands of early Muslim authorities have put a tremendous amount of time and effort to ensure an unadulterated authentic transmission of the prophetic tradition to subsequent generations. We invite Holland to pay more attention to the science of Hadith and a number of works have been written in the English language for him to peruse.

‘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.’

Here Holland suggests that “ordinary Bedouin” were the right people to represent the intricate details of Islamic historiography or the Islamic academic position. How could the desert Bedouin present an academic view on the origins of Islam, as they are known to be not very well educated? They certainly do not have access to some of the early dated papyri evidence scattered all over international libraries, which mentions the disciples of the Prophet (peace be upon him). How could the Bedouin contribute to an academic debate at all? Instead of going to people like Patricia Crone and Fred Donner, why didn’t Holland visit the local public house to seek advice on matters academic for a non-Muslim perspective, just like he went to the tea drinking Bedouin in the desert to seek opinions on the historical origins of Islam?

As for Seyyed Hossein Nasr, he is indeed a very well established academic and has written extensively on Islamic philosophy. But the question is: was he the right person to consult on a specialist subject like the early Islamic history, when we have hundreds of other specialists/academics to deal with the topic? Early Islamic history is a very specific subject and requires a specialist to comment on it. The Nasr Foundation website describes his expertise as follows and early Islamic history is not one of them:

‘Professor Nasr speaks and writes with great authority on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from philosophy to religion to spirituality, to music and art and architecture, to science and literature, to civilizational dialogues and the natural environment.’ [2]

Dr Nasr may well be qualified to speak on Islamic topics but some of the questions posed to him ended with a “yes” or “no” answer. Having seen the biased selection of authorities in this programme, how do we know that Nasr’s views were even represented without any necessary editing?

While visiting the Bedouin in the desert, Holland should have taken some time to visit some of the academics in Arabia to ask the very questions he was asking Patricia Crone. We are sure he would come away enlightened. Holland further said:

‘An accusation laid against the film is one of bias and, although I believe that absolute objectivity is a chimera, what was incumbent upon us, in making the film, was to be up-front about my own ideological background and presumptions, and to acknowledge the very different perspective that Muslim faith provides.’

Our view is that Holland’s presumptions were historically anachronistic and we have already shown that conclusively in our response. Our response to the documentary presents some relevant crucial primary evidence and quotes from some of the major authorities in the field. Why would Holland deliberately presume the worst, especially when all historical evidence suggests otherwise?

‘If the film was about the origins of Islam, then it was also about the tensions between two differing world-views. Whether one accepts or rejects the truth of the tradition is ultimately dependent upon the philosophical presumptions that one brings to the analysis of the sources.’

There is no inherent tension between the “two world views” as far as the historical enquiry is concerned. Even if one was to accept the dichotomy of “two world views”, one would come to realise that truth and honesty are virtues common to all world views. Historical enquiry must be based upon truth and the whole truth can never be known until one has all facts explored. The programme utterly failed to take all facts into consideration, as seen from our response to the programme. The film was clearly biased in its presumptions and some of the evident presumptions were the non-existence of contemporary Islamic evidence and the rejection of the Islamic historical tradition. This was shown to be a misconception in our response to the programme.

‘It has been suggested that I say in the film that Mecca is not mentioned in the Qu’ran. In fact, I say that Mecca is mentioned once in the Qu’ran. As a historian I have to rely on original texts and although later tradition (as brought to us through the hadith) has come to accept that other names are synonymous with Mecca, the fact is that there is only one mention of Mecca in the Qu’ran (although due to an unwarranted interpolation, a second one does appear in the Pickthall translation).’

The Mecca question was one of the most disturbing parts of the programme, as far as historical honesty is concerned. Here is what Holland said in the documentary at 39:20: ‘aside from a single ambiguous mention in the Quran itself, there is no mention of Mecca, not one, in any datable text for over a hundred years after Muhammad’s death.’ How is the reference ambiguous? The mention of Mecca is very explicit and there is only one meaning of the noun i.e. the sacred city where Muhammad (peace be upon him) was born. To suggest that the reference is ambiguous is to deliberately turn a blind eye to established facts. This is the problem with rejecting the Islamic tradition as any meaning and any interpretation, no matter how erroneous, can be entertained. Commenting on the prospect of taking up another explanation for Mecca, Patricia Crone states in the documentary: ‘why take it on, well that’s what historians do, if things don’t fit you try something else that might fit’. Both, Holland and Crone, do not provide any reasons to suspect the historicity of the city of Mecca presented in the Islamic narrative. Holland’s reason seems to be “the absence of evidence is evidence for absence”. But is the evidence absent? Absolutely not, there is more than enough evidence to ascertain the existence of the sacred city of Mecca of the Islamic narrative. By questioning the existence of such a city, Holland is claiming a mass conspiracy on part of the early Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims have been travelling to Mecca from the early days of Islam and this practice never ceased to exist to this day. Before that, thousands of pagans used to visit the city when it was the central place of idol worship in Arabia before Muhammad (peace be upon him) returned it to its Abrahamic origin as a bastion of monotheism. To ask the question whether the Mecca of Islamic tradition existed or not is to ask whether the Arabs of the seventh century were deaf, dumb and blind. Why would hundreds of thousands of people, in the second half of the seventh century, suddenly begin to visit the city of Mecca as a pilgrimage site if they didn’t find their predecessors do it?

‘On the broad perspective some complaints assert unequivocally, as is often said, that Islam was “born in the full light of history unlike the ancient faiths”. That may have been the belief of Western scholars back in the days of Ernest Renan, but it is most certainly not the academic consensus today.’

We ask Holland: have we yet discovered the full light of history or is there still a lot to discover? We quote Robert Hoyland again to show Holland as to the amount of evidence still in need of serious study:

‘The problem of the historiography of this period is certainly a very challenging one, and will remain so while no accepted criteria exist to verify the Muslim literary tradition. And yet there are grounds for optimism. Firstly, we do have a number of bodies of evidence – especially non-Muslim sources, papyri, inscriptions and archaeological excavations – that can serve as a useful external referent and whose riches are only just beginning to be exploited in a systematic manner. Secondly, 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.’ [3]

If there is a lot more to be studied, and that is definitely the case, then how can one even think of a consensus? Robert Hoyland provides some of the epigraphic and papyri evidence to suggest that this material evidence actually confirms the authenticity of the Islamic narrative in many regards. Holland, however, simply doesn’t seem to be aware of this evidence in the documentary.

‘It has also wrongly been suggested that we said there is no historical evidence for the seventh century origins of Islam. What I actually said in the film was that I had expected to find contemporaneous Muslim evidence – “but there’s nothing there.” And the Qur’an aside, the first mention of the prophet Muhammad’s name in Arabic is on the coin that we featured in Part Five, and on the Dome of the Rock, which we also featured prominently. The evidence provided by Christian contemporaries was mentioned in Part Three, and is dealt with at greater length in the book.’

Holland has actually confirmed what we claimed he said in our response. He repeats it here again: ‘I had expected to find contemporaneous Muslim evidence – “but there’s nothing there.”‘ Even though we provided so much contemporaneous evidence in our response, Holland simply failed to acknowledge it again. We presented links to original documents and inscription for Holland (and his likes) to see the evidence in black and white but that doesn’t seem to have changed his mind. Here it is again:


We will ask Holland again: the inscription of Zuhayr, is it not contemporaneous enough? The papyri documents mentioning ‘Amr ibn al ‘Aas by name, are they not enough evidence to confirm the authenticity of the Islamic chronology as well as narrative? We invite Holland to look at the contemporaneous evidence in Arabic provided by Robert Hoyland and the Islamic Awareness team on their website and reconsider his position or provide an alternative objective view on this evidence. One cannot simply claim “there is nothing there” and ignore piles of evidence in front of him. It is really surprising to see Holland accept a pile of undated stones as valid evidence to support his argument for the existence of an early mosque but when it comes to acknowledging dated contemporary texts that go against his “presuppositions”, he simply fails to address them in the documentary.

As for the mention of Muhammad (peace be upon him), why should we put the Quran aside, which is the biggest source of evidence for the historicity of Muhammad (peace be upon him)? The Quran is a valid form of contemporary evidence, which cannot be ignored. Our view is that if all the available evidence on Islam, excluding the traditional Islamic narrative, is put together it confirms rather than call into question the authenticity of the Islamic traditional narrative. Hence, all epigraphic, numismatic, archaeological, papyri, manuscript and other material evidence in fact confirms the authentic transmission of the Islamic historical tradition. Holland finally stated in the concluding remarks of his response:

“Obviously in a film of only 74 minutes, which opens up very rich and complex arguments and brings to light detailed academic scholarship, which has been going on for over forty years, it is impossible to articulate all the resonances and implications of every argument.”

This is why we were shocked to realize Holland’s choice of Bedouin to represent the Islamic perspective. In an important 74 minutes long full of “complex arguments” and “academic scholarship” documentary, Holland should have spent a little more time with Islamic historians instead of wasting all those precious minutes in learning the way of the Bedouin.

Undercutting Holland’s Revisionist Approach

Tom Holland’s entire argument rests on a daring presupposition: the rejection of the Islamic historical tradition. The Hadith, which forms a substantial part of the Islamic historical corpus, is one of the most valid sources of history. Holland however rejects the Islamic narrative due to his epistemological bias. He argues that the basis of the Islamic tradition, the chain of transmission (isnad), is not a valid source of knowledge. This perspective is philosophically and historically rogue and cannot be taken seriously. As discussed in our paper, testimony is considered as one of the valid 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. The philosopher C. A. J. Coady in his book ‘Testimony: A Philosophical Study’ highlights our dependency on testimony and the implications of rejecting it:

‘…many of us have never seen a baby born, nor have most of us examined the circulation of the blood nor the actual geography of the world nor any fair sample of the laws of the land, nor have we made the observations that lie behind our knowledge that the lights in the sky are heavenly bodies…’ [4]

Therefore the rejection of testimony would be tantamount to rejecting the existence of Peru or the roundness of the earth. Concerning the Hadith, 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 narration or transmission) 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. 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 or untrustworthy source was immediately rejected. This method of authentication validates testimony as an acceptable source of knowledge. The emeritus professor of philosophy, Keith Lehrer, in the book ‘The Epistemology of Testimony’ concludes that testimony provides a valid source of historical information once the ‘trustworthiness of others’ is ‘evaluated’. Lehrer writes:

‘The final question that arises concerning our acceptance of testimony is this. What converts our acceptance of testimony of others into knowledge? The first part of the answer is that we must be trustworthy in our evaluations of the trustworthiness of others, and we must accept that this is so. Moreover, our trustworthiness must be successfully truth-connected, that is, the others must, in fact, be trustworthy and their trustworthiness must be truth-connected. We must accept this is so. In short, our acceptance of their testimony must be justified in a way that is not refuted or defeated by any errors that we make in evaluating them and their testimony. Undefeated or irrefutable justified acceptance of the testimony of others is knowledge.'(emphasis added) [5]

Holland needs to answer the following questions if he wants his work to be taken seriously:

  1. Since authenticated testimony, which forms part of the Islamic historical tradition, is a valid source of knowledge, on what grounds do you reject this well-founded source of history?
  2. If you do reject authenticated testimony, are you willing to accept the philosophical and practical absurdities that follow from your unjustified skepticism?

Holland’s revisionist approach rests on the daring presupposition that authenticated testimony is not a valid source of knowledge. As explained above, this epistemological bias is unfounded and therefore Holland’s entire revisionist argument breaks down. In this light, it appears that Holland was not even interested in a serious academic discussion, hence no mention of the Islamic Hadith tradition and its value. He didn’t even present a valid reason for not considering the Islamic tradition as a historically valid source of information. Even the contemporary epigraphic evidence was ignored by Holland. Just because the Islamic tradition is religious in nature does not imply it is untrustworthy. Perhaps, Holland’s secular outlook prevented him from consulting the most important source of information in this enquiry: the hadith.

So long as the Quran is with us, we will continue to believe and worship the Lord of the worlds. It is the Quran that encourages valid intellectual pursuit. The Quran poses existential questions and encourages mankind to question its prejudices. We, the Muslims, are open to any valid debate and pursuit. May God guide us all to that which is true, Amen.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9504588/Islam-the-Untold-Story-review.html

[2] http://www.nasrfoundation.org/bios.html

[3] Robert Hoyland, New Documentary Texts and the Early Islamic State, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 69,No. 3 (2006), pp. 395-416.

[4] C. A. J. Coady. Testimony: A Philosophical Study. Oxford University Press. 1992, p. 82.

[5] Keith Lehrer cited in The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford University Press. 2006, p. 158.