On the 28th/August/2012, the British TV broadcaster Channel 4 screened a program titled Islam: The Untold Story by historian Tom Holland. The program claims to trace the historical origin of Islam and concludes that Islam began later than traditionally accepted and was the creation of an Arab empire.
Holland effectively compensates for the lack of documentary evidence of the quality that he looks for with baseless speculations that he weaves into a narrative. In the course of putting together his theory, Holland made a number of assertions that are simply incorrect, including his failure to acknowledge the existence of very early references to Islam and Prophet Muhammad that undermine some of his claims. Holland’s work is poor scholarship and closer to fiction than serious study. It is not my intention here to discuss the merits of Holland’s claims and theories. One good response to Holland’s version of historywas published by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA).
But I would like to first to comment on Holland’s use of simple Muslim Bedouin to argue the case for the traditional Islamic view of the origin of Islam. I cannot find one good reason for this choice. Holland presents his work as being rigorous academic endeavor, yet having simple Bedouin to present the assertions he set out to reject undermines his claim. This is clearly a work that is intended to make sensational and controversial claims, which guarantees publicity. As expected, it worked. His participation in the Muslim prayer of the Bedouin whose beliefs he discredits was deceptive to those well-intentioned people and I found it repulsive.
Holland’s theory is moderate in comparison with the kind of claims that are made against Islam and Muslims all the time, not the least linking Islam to violence, terrorism, and intolerance. Yet, understandably and expectedly, it still managed to generate very strong reactions. I would like to differentiate between two kinds of response. One is to analyze Holland’s thesis and show the fundamental flaws in his research methods and revised history of Islam. The IERA response I cited earlier is one such example. I believe this is the right approach.
A different response is to object to the right to express views such as Holland’s. This position was taken to such an extreme that Holland received threatening messages and a screening of the program at the headquarters of Channel 4 was cancelled by the broadcaster because of concerns over security.
While I do not agree with Holland, I equally disagree with those who try to silence people like him. Provided that someone’s point of view is not demonstrably intended to harm others, I believe that everybody has the right to express their view. Those Muslims who try to prevent views that question the history of Islam and its tenets from being questioned apply double standards, and some of them are aware of this. These very protestors are more than happy for the history and creeds of any religion to be questioned if the conclusion confirms what Islam says. Let me give an example that is very pertinent to the case in discussion.
I write about the history of Christianity. My study has completely convinced me that the form of Christianity that ultimately prevailed developed over decades after Jesus. For instance, the human Jesus of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke is very different from the semi-god Jesus in the later Gospel of John and in the epistles of Paul. The deification of Jesus is something that happened after him and had nothing to do with his teachings. This is not my discovery, but it is a conclusion that is shared by the majority of scholars and historians.
Now, when Muslims hear or read this view expressed, they welcome it and consider it another piece of evidence that supports the veracity of the Qur’an and Islam. This is understandable. But what is not understandable or acceptable is then for some of those Muslims to object to similar views being expressed about Islam and its history. Disagreeing with such views is one thing, and preventing people from expressing them is another. There are a number of issues here.
First, there is a point about fairness, if nothing else. One should not ask to be given the right and time to express a view but deny another person the right and time to express an opposing view.
Second, most Muslim feel that they have a duty to convey the message of Islam to others, including those who live in non-Muslim countries. Yet the message of the Qur’an contradicts some teachings of other religions, including some creeds of Christianity and Judaism. Naturally, Christians and Jews would also want to express their views, which would object to some of what the Qur’an says. There are also followers of other faiths, as well as those who object to any religious faith. Now, we can either have an environment in which all can express their views, discuss their beliefs, and explain why they do not agree with others, or one in which we have to all to hush and keep silent. By definition, the latter would not work for the Muslims, because one aspect of practicing Islam is to talk about it and invite others to embrace it. This is why Muslim must not object to the right of people to express views contradictory to the Islam, because that implies losing themselves the right to talk about their own faith and discharge this duty.
One of the first things that I loved about UK when we first came 20 years ago is the freedom to say what I believe in. This is an example that contrasts having this right and being denied it. In the late 80s, I was involved in Iraq in editing and preparing for publication an Arabic manuscript called Jilā’ al-Khāṭir by the great Shaikh ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Gaylānī (al-Jīlī). The author is one of the most known and respected Sufi Shaikhs and scholars in the history of Islam. The book is a collection of sermons on how to live as a proper Muslim and seek God’s satisfaction. It focuses completely on the spiritual development of the Muslim, with no politics or anything else involved. The editor and initiator of the project is also a well-known and highly respected Sufi Shaikh, Muḥammad al-Kasnazān. Nevertheless, getting this manuscript approved for publication required permissions from various government authorities. You could not just go ahead and publish the book. In contrast, when my wife and I later in the UK translated the book into English we got it published in several countries, including the UK, without having to seek the permission of any authority.
I wrote and still write books and articles about various topics that many in the UK would disagree with. But no one can stop me from expressing my views. This same right allows others to express views that I completely disagree with and at times resent. But I would rather be able to speak out and have others I disagree with their views and intentions to do the same than live in a place where both of us are prevented from speaking or writing about our beliefs. This censored environment is what those want who Tom Holland silenced are after.
Third, I strongly believe that any keen seeker of the truth would not want to silence anybody who disagrees with their beliefs or tries to refute them. One reason is that they want to know how others would critique their beliefs and see whether they can answer such criticism. In general, one learns a lot from those who are different and disagree with him. In fact, our learning from those who disagree with us and see things differently is often much more than from those who share our views. This is true in every walk of life, not only religion. Shunning those one disagrees with us closes a major source of learning. Those who fight the right of others to challenge their views show complete ignorance of this fact; their learning is bound to be substantially impaired.
Fourth, some of those who try to silence people who question the veracity of their religion are worried that such argument might affect other people who do not know enough. True, some of those who watched Holland’s program would have accepted what he said, because they do not have the knowledge or skills to see the holes in his arguments. But the way to tackle this is to try and educate people and help them see the flaws in Holland’s theory. It is true one cannot reach all people, but that is a basic fact that we have to live with. If someone is really keen on learning, they will seek more information. This attempt to isolate people from views one disapproves of is futile and counterproductive. Let me cite a relevant incident.
One day two Jehovah’s witnesses knocked on our door to convert us to Christianity. Unlike most people, we always invite them in. As the discussion took longer than it usually does, we ended up with other Jehovah’s witnesses who had finished their work in the area joining their colleagues in our house. There was a girl of 12-13 years old in the last group that arrived. When the mother of the girl listened to how I was debating with her colleagues, including highlighting what I and many scholars consider obvious historical mistakes in the Bible, she asked her daughter to leave the room and wait outside. The mother tried to protect her daughter from listening to the claims that I was making.
Running away from claims that disagree with one’s faith is no escape. There is no escape. The world is full of people who are likely to tell every one of us all the time things that challenge our faiths. I am not the only person who was going to tell this girl of problems in the Bible. She is bound to hear and read this from many sources. The only way to deal with these challenges is to listen to them and try and learn how to respond to them or whether it is possible at all to reject them. Even young people need to be told that whatever version of reality they are given is not the only one out there. They may not be in a position to defend the faith they hold against sophisticated arguments, but they were not in a position to challenge the faith that their parents fed them either!
Those who want to silence the likes of Tom Holland are no different from that protective mother who tried to isolate her daughter from the world. It is futile and naïve. It also suggests that one’s choosing of their faith is based on ignorance of alternative faiths rather awareness of such alternatives and a conscious decision to choose it.
There is another point worth making. I wrote elsewhere about the mobs that are wreaking havoc in various Islamic countries in protest against a movie that insults Prophet Muhammad. I noted that those mindless rioters show complete ignorance of the fact that the internet and the whole world is full of all kinds of material that is offensive to the Prophet, the Qur’an, Islam, and Muslims. The same applies to those who want the likes of Tom Holland to be silenced. The world is full of such people and such views. It is practically impossible to censor such views and stop them from spreading.
But there is an even more interesting point. The media, including TV channels such as Channel 4, broadcast all kinds of programs, often presented by or quote scholars, that question just about every aspect of the history and creeds of Christianity and Judaism. This includes questioning whether Biblical figures such as Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses ever existed. The interesting thing is that these are presented as Prophets in the Qur’an. In other words, any program that rejects the historicity of these Patriarchs is implying that the Qur’an is not the word of God and that it is a book of myths and legends. How is this different from what Holland’s program does? Does it make much of a difference from a Muslim perspective if the Qur’an was put together after Prophet Muhammad, as Holland claims, or was present during the life of the Prophet but is full of historical mistakes, as others claim? It makes no difference whatsoever, because both scenarios equally discredit the Qur’an and Islam. Those who would like to shut up Tom Holland will end up spending their lives doing nothing other than protesting about programs and views that pop up all the time on the radio, TV, printed media, cinema, and the internet.
I should also point out the irony that all this should happen to a program broadcast by Channel 4. This is the only one of the popular British TV channels that is interested in airing views and information that go contrary to the accepted consensus and question established assumptions. When it comes to widely distorted perceptions about political issues in the Middle East, including the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine, the illegal and devastating so-called “war on terror,” and the war on Iraq, Channel 4 was the only channel that broadcast information that rejects the persistent deceptive propaganda, put out by politicians and groups with various agendas, that other channels, including the BBC, bought into, if not contributed to.
I should finally summarize the position of the Qur’an on the central issue this article discusses. The Qur’an commanded the Muslims to move away from people who deliberately try to be offensive and insulting:
He has sent down upon you (O you who believe!) in the Book that when you hear Allah’s signs being disbelieved and made mock of then do not sit with them until they delve into some other talk. Otherwise, you will surely be like to them. Allah shall gather the hypocrites and the disbelievers all in Hell. (4.140)
When you [O Muhammad!] see those who [offensively] delve into Our signs, turn away from them until they delve into some other talk. Should Satan make you forget, do not sit with the wrongdoing people after you remember. (6.68)
There is no point in trying to have a constructive discussion with someone who is not interested in it. As for dealing with those whose differences do not originate from ill-intention but genuine difference of opinion, this is what the Qur’an commands the Muslims to do:
Call [O Muhammad!] to the way of you Lord with wisdom and good admonition, and debate with them in the best way. Surely you Lord best knows those who have gone astray from His way, and He best knows those who are guided. (16.125)