In the shadow of the sword
The battle for global empire and the end of the Ancient World
Origins of Islam under scrutiny
IN THE SHADOW OF THE SWORD
The battle for global empire and the end of the Ancient World
By Tom Holland
Little Brown. 526 pages. £25.00
ISBN 978 1 408 700 075
Readers may remember previous articles outlining how Islamic polemicists often utilise liberal scholarship, such as the works of Bart Ehrman and the Jesus Seminar, in their propaganda against Christianity. They clearly believe that theological liberalism undermines biblical Christianity.
However, even a short visit to Speakers’ Corner — where evangelists such as Jay Smith and others often employ the works of critical scholars who present an equivalent understanding of Islamic origins — would display that such Muslims are less than keen (to use traditional British understatement) to see the boot on the other foot. The writings of scholars such as John Wansbrough, Michael Cook and Patricia Crone, among others, question the historical understanding Muslims have about how their religion arose, and these are the studies which Christian apologists at Hyde Park and elsewhere use in their counter-polemics.
Leaving aside for one moment the validity or otherwise of their claims, the works of scholarly critics of Islam would be largely inaccessible to someone not grounded in academic Islamic Studies, and so most ordinary Christians would be unaware of the questions which they have raised. Holland’s book is an excellent, lucid volume, explaining the core issues in a way that anyone could understand. He is an historian, and follows the path of historical criticism in his treatment of the subject. His book, which has already received great attention, is a worthy investment.
To explain the question as simply and concisely as possible: a historian’s job is to investigate historical phenomena based on whatever sources at or near the time are available, whether they be literary works or archaeology (oral tradition plays a role, but not at the level of these other sources). What is especially helpful is when we have mutually hostile sources telling us the same thing. For example, early pagan sources berate Christians for not participating in heathen religious events, something with which Christian sources agree. Hence, on this basis, we can infer with some measure of certitude that Christians did not participate in pagan ceremonies. Such evidence is even more valuable when it is not produced by the state authorities. We all know how even modern democratic states can be tempted to embellish claims, as the ‘dodgy dossier’ episode in Britain in the run-up to the Iraq war demonstrated; how much more so those regimes which do not face a legal opposition or a free press! That is, governments engage in propaganda.
In regard to Christian origins, we know that, in the first three centuries, the state authorities, far from being controlled by Christians, were often hostile towards them. There are also hostile non-Christian religious sources, especially from the second century onwards, as Christianity began to expand across the Roman Empire. Therefore, the New Testament, even from a non-believing standpoint, owes nothing to government involvement.
However, this is not the case with Islamic origins. As Muslims never tire of declaring, Islam is as much a state as it is a religion — Muhammad was a ruler and a preacher. Furthermore, according to Islamic sources, in the reign of the second caliph, Umar, Jews and Christians were expelled from the Arabian Peninsula south of Transjordan and Iraq, and paganism was also suppressed. Together with the supposed illiteracy of Arabia at this time, this means that the historian has no Arabian pagan, Jewish or Christian sources from the time of Muhammad and the first caliphs; all he possesses are Muslim sources. Moreover, since these were circulated by the state authorities, with no opposition or free media (obviously), he must be cautious about the possibly propagandistic nature of the material.
Problems for Islam
This is where the problems begin with Islamic history. Usually, books on Islam present its historical origins as outlined in the Hadith (the words, deeds and silences of Muhammad, regarded as the secondary authority in Islam) and the Sira, the biography of Muhammad, which is considered by Muslims to be useful, but not authoritative. Muslims will often passionately declare to Christians that their hadiths are reliable because they are supported by isnads — chains of narration recording the name of those transmitting the message.
However, Holland observes that in the ninth century AD, Muslim scholars had examined the hadiths and ‘freely acknowledged that innumerable hadiths had been faked; that caliphs, lawyers and heretics had invented them willy-nilly to serve their purposes; that many hadiths contradicted one another’ (p.35). Indeed, the great ninth-century Hadith codifier al-Bukhari had collected 600,000 hadiths, and whittled them down to 7,725.
By the end of the 19th century, Western scholars were expressing doubts even about these traditions. In the following century, the great Islamic studies specialist Joseph Schacht, having studied how the Hadith corpus emerged, rejected the idea of ‘an authentic core of information going back to the time of the Prophet’ (p.36). As time went on, more critical scholars such as Crone noted the absence of any early evidence for Mecca being a trade centre, despite Islamic tradition (p.303). If the early external historical evidence was largely absent, and the isnads were undependable, then we know little about the actual circumstances in which the Qur’an arose.
Compilation of Qur’an
One point Holland does not make is that, the Sunni and Shia having rival Hadith collections, there is some disagreement about the collation of the Qur’an. The Shia claim that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, son-in-law and fourth caliph, wrote it down in full during Muhammad’s lifetime. Sunnis, however, declare that it was collated by Zaid ibn Thabit during the reign of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, and then finally by Zaid again under the third caliph, Uthman, who also burned all previous copies.
Hence, according to traditional Islamic history, there is no consensus about the compilation of the Qur’an. Sunnis declare that Abu Bakr was elected by the community, as revealed in the Sunni Hadith, while the Shia Hadith accuses him of usurping Ali’s divinely-revealed position. Given the role of the state in producing the collated Qur’an and Islamic traditions, the issue of political legitimacy in Islam is not equivalent to the Wars of the Roses, because the authenticity of Islam’s religious sources are at stake. However, if the isnads are unreliable, as modern critical scholars suggest, we cannot know the actual early history of the Qur’an, or what was the early political history of Islam. Further, scholars are naturally suspicious of what could be state propaganda.
Holland also raises the point that the Hadith and Sira are used to both interpret the Qur’an and provide a historical back-drop for certain events. For example, Muslims always state that Muhammad was called to prophethood when Gabriel appeared to him in a cave on Mount Hira. Of course, being an alleged supernatural event, the historian, using natural historical tools, can neither affirm nor disprove such an alleged encounter. However, the problem for Muslims is that if the Hadith and Sira are rejected, there is no clear reference to this event in the Qur’an (p.47). Similarly, Muslims always regard the Battle of Badr, when an outnumbered Muslim force bested the pagans, as a central political/military event and proof of divine intervention, but reference to it in the Qur’an is sparse — we have to rely on ninth century accounts from later sources (p.39).
Essentially, Holland presents an image of Islam as a syncretistic mix of various Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, Samaritan and pagan traditions, edited to fit the political and religious requirements of Caliph Abd al-Malik (685-705) and the emerging grouping of Islamic religious scholars (p.389ff). It was during his reign that Arabic was made the official language of the Islamic empire / caliphate, that the Dome of the Rock was built, and that currency proclaiming the prophethood of Muhammad was issued. Holland suggests that it was at this time that the Qur’an was actually collated (p.389), noting that contemporary Christian scholars referred to ‘a jumble of fragments’ rather than a complete book. Interestingly, claims of a syncretistic origin of the Qur’an were presented at the start of the 20th century by an Anglican missionary to Iran, William St. Clair Tisdall, in his book The Sources of Islam.
It must immediately be observed that the revisionist school represented by Cook and Crone has not become the default position of modern scholars of Islam, even when they question traditional Muslim claims about historical origins. Sometimes, Holland’s work seems speculative — doubtless the product of preparing a work for popular, rather than purely academic consumption. Nonetheless, he has undoubtedly performed a service to the wider public by issuing this work, which will be a good aid to ordinary Christians struggling to understand the competing claims about the historical origins of Islam, and reminding Islamic polemicists against Christianity that utilising critical scholarship is a double-edged sword.