Monday, March 26, 2012

The true origins of Islam

Bryan Appleyard
25 March 2012

Tom Holland: In the Shadow of the Sword

In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for the Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World, by Tom Holland, is published by Little, Brown at £25.

Before a drop of his blood touched the ground, Mohamed Merah found himself in Paradise. Having killed three French soldiers and four Jews and, having been dispatched himself by a single shot to the head from a special forces rifle, he was a shahid, a martyr, one of the elect who had died for his faith.

Or so he would have been told by the men that claim to be his sponsors, Jund al-Khilafah, the Soldiers of the Caliphate, a group based on the Afghan-Pakistani border and linked to both Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, the most resilient anti-Nato force in Afghanistan.

Such groups have their political ends in this world, which they pursue by sustaining young men in a permanent rage. But these ends are underpinned by an absolute certainty about the next world, a place that can be entered only by the pure, those who have faith in the Koran as the words of God transmitted to his prophet, Muhammad, and in the exact details of the life and sayings of the prophet as laid down by Islamic tradition since the 9th century. Non-Muslims may not share this certainty but they fear its power. In what is only the latest sign that the West’s liberal values have been compromised by the jihadists’ homicidal rage, a few days ago The New York Times refused to carry a full-page ad critical of Islam. What was shocking was that the paper had just carried a full-page anti-Catholic ad.

In London the National Theatre is staging a play about the deathly silence that often falls when talk turns to Islam. Can We Talk about This?, by Lloyd Newson, investigates the way Islamism collides with western free speech. In total contrast, the British Museum’s Hajj exhibition celebrates the beauty of the faith. That it has been made possible by Saudi money infuriated the columnist Nick Cohen, who claimed it was a whitewash of the violence and oppression that lie behind Saudi management of the great Muslim pilgrimage. Islam is everywhere accompanied by anxiety and controversy.

But what if it’s not true? None of it? An average western non-believer may think it is not true that “martyrs” go straight to heaven or that the Koran is the literal word of God, but will probably accept the narrative laid down by Islamic scholars. This is generally thought to be more historically secure than any of the stories told by the other great religions. Even Salman Rushdie, one of Islam’s hate figures, thinks so.

Holland’s book leaves almost no aspect of the traditional story of Islam intact “The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small,” he has written, “whereas for the life of Muhammad we know everything, more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socioeconomic circumstances of the time.”

Most western academics would now disagree with every word of this, and their scholarly scepticism is about to explode into the wider world with the publication of a book by the historian Tom Holland — In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.

In essence, it is Holland’s view that Muhammad’s life and sayings were constructed long after his death in 632 (or, according to some scholars, 634) to support and explain the Koran. He embarked on the project five years ago with the usual assumption that the stories were literally true.

“When I began to write,” he says, “I had no real idea of the minefield I was stepping into. From various books about Muhammad I had assumed the sources were pretty solid and there must be contemporary sources for these stories. It was quite alarming when I discovered this wasn’t the case. I would keep going to the British Library and my jaw would drop at the implications of what I was reading.”

He found that we seem to know next to nothing about the central sacred text of Islam. This holy text, not the prophet, is the core of Islam. It is what Christ is to Christianity. It is the message; Muhammad is only the messenger. Yet Fred Donner, one of America’s greatest Islamic scholars, rounded up his life’s work with a remarkable profession of ignorance.

Donner wrote: “Those of us who study Islam’s origins have to admit collectively that we simply do not know some very basic things about the Koran . . . They include such questions as: how did the Koran originate? Where did it come from and when did it first appear? How was it first written? In what kind of language was — is — it written? What form did it take? Who constituted its first audience? How was it transmitted from one generation to another, especially in its early years? When, how and by whom was it codified?”

The Koran was undoubtedly already around at the time of the prophet, though in what form is not clear. For centuries there were different versions of it. The belief that there was only one text dates from as recently as 1924, when an edition was published in Cairo that, as Holland puts it, “went on to become the global standard”.

In an astonishing discovery 40 years ago, 17 sacks were found by workers in the ceiling of a mosque in Sana’a, now the capital of Yemen but once the capital of the Jewish kingdom of Himyar. They contained parchment fragments of “what are almost certainly the oldest Korans in existence”.

Only two German scholars were allowed to study them, and one, Gerd- Rudiger Puin, concluded that the book, like the Bible, had evolved over time and was a “cocktail of text” — a finding that casts doubt on the belief that it is the final word of God. The Yemeni authorities were furious. The texts have remained unpublished and no western scholar has since been allowed to examine them.

“If, as both Puin and his colleague have argued, these earliest fragments are to be dated to the beginning of the 8th century, it would suggest that their ultimate origins must lie well before that time,” writes Holland.

Holland also does not think Mecca, revered as the birthplace of Muhammad, can have been where the story of the prophet was based. The multiple references to cattle, which could not be raised in such a dry place, and olive trees, which similarly did not grow there, suggest a location further north. Mecca barely seems to have existed at the time and is never referred to even by the highly organised Romans.

Despite vastly increased western interest in Islam, the fierce controversy over its origins has not reached the public realm. Holland says: “What is interesting about the academic debate is that it is so seismic and yet it has barely been noticed in the world outside academia.”

Seismic is the word. Holland’s book leaves almost no aspect of the traditional story of Islam intact as he charts its rise to global power from the ashes of the Roman and Persian empires.

Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, the ruler who launched the great phase of Arab imperial growth in the late 7th century, established Muhammad and the Koran as the foundations of this new empire’s faith. Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and inscribed it with passages from the Koran and references to the prophet. “He was like a cross between the emperor Constantine and St Paul,” says Holland.

Both the detailed biography of Muhammad and the enormous list of his sayings — the hadiths — were compiled almost 200 years after his death, supposedly passed down orally from eyewitnesses through the generations. In fact, they were attempts to codify the faith of an empire that was rapidly spreading from India to the Atlantic.

To justify these additions, explanatory links — isnads — back to the time of the prophet were constructed by Islamic scholars. They are easily debunked, however, because “once you tug on one thread, the entire tapestry falls apart”, says Holland.

Hadiths were supposed to contain “timeless and universal” advice. Yet even early on, he points out in his book, “a number of towering Muslim scholars . . . freely acknowledged that innumerable hadiths had been faked; that caliphs, lawyers and heretics had invented them willy-nilly to serve their various purposes; that many hadiths contradicted one another”.

Modern scholars, he adds, have shown that even the most seemingly authentic hadiths reflect controversies that were raging 200 years after Muhammad’s time. “Over and over again, the prophet had been made to serve as the mouthpiece for a whole host of rival and often directly antagonistic traditions. Many of these, far from deriving from Muhammad, were not even Arab in origin, but originated instead in the laws, the customs or the superstitions of infidel peoples.”

If the hadiths were fakes, Holland points out, then so were the isnads that had been deployed to buttress them, “. . . and if the isnads cannot be trusted, then how can we know for sure that the Koran dates from the time of Muhammad? How can we know who compiled it, from what sources and for what motives? Can we even be sure that its origins lie in Arabia? In short, do we really know anything at all about the birth of Islam?”

He finds a clue in the similarity between some hadiths and the Jewish Torah. Both prescribe stoning as the punishment for adulterers, yet the Koran suggests “100 lashes”.

Holland points out that Islam continued the Christian and Jewish tradition of faith in one god. “Is it possible,” he asks, “that Islam, far from originating outside the mainstream of ancient civilisation, was in truth a religion in the grand tradition of Judaism and Christianity — one bred of the very marrow of late antiquity?”

Holland knows taking a historical scalpel to the body of faith causes pain, and he regrets that. “On the other hand, if you want to make sense of Islam and you are not a believer, you have no choice.”

Is Holland worried for his own safety after publishing such material? On the contrary, he is remarkably calm. “I can’t imagine that any Muslim would be overly upset because by definition I am not a Muslim so I don’t think the Koran comes from God and everything is predicated on my presumption that the story of Islam must be human. My take is very, very overtly that of someone who is not a Muslim.”

Omar Bakri Muhammad, the Islamist leader who once threatened to give the West a 9/11 “day after day after day”, confirms this on the phone from Lebanon. “People are entitled to write the books they like as long as they do not insult the honour of the prophet. Some have said he is a homosexual or that he had sex with children: these are insults. But he can say he does not believe or even that the prophet does not exist and Muslims will just laugh. It is all in the scriptures.”

The really big question is what effect research into the roots of Islam will have on the faith worldwide. Christianity has already gone through this crisis. In the 19th century biblical scholars examined the Christian stories as history. Their conclusions, combined with discoveries in biology and geology, resulted in a crisis that spread secularism throughout much of the West. Yet the faith survives precisely because it is a faith. Would Islam, if it were subjected to the same critical analysis? Many liberal Muslims say it already has been.

From the beginning Islam has been a pluralist faith and its scholars have engaged in debates about the meaning and truth of all interpretations. Fundamentalists will reject such accounts and debates. They seek an absolute, literal truth to shore up their faith.

Holland compares the Islamists’ search for a core simplicity to the rise of Protestantism in Europe. Hardline Protestants wanted to sweep away the impure accretions of tradition embodied in the Catholic Church. In one sense it worked, but in another it didn’t. Protestants renewed their faith, but their critical methods later undermined the faith of millions.

“If fundamentalists of any type attempt to go back to a truth that has been hidden, to get back to the original,” Holland says, “they risk finding out that there is nothing there.”

The violent radicals who back dangerous outcasts such as Merah will dismiss all this as a western plot to crush the faith. But there are many more moderate Muslim voices.

Ed Husain abandoned radical Islam and is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He retains his faith and argues that the gap between the prophet and the written versions of his life and sayings is easily explained.

“Islam was always an oral tradition,” he says. “The hadiths and the Koran were orally recorded by others and the whole tradition was passed on from person to person. They still stand the test of time.”

He says Holland is on much firmer ground when he questions the claim of the fundamentalists that there is one true version of the faith. The radicals ignore the pluralist traditions of Islam when they wave their AK-47s and proclaim their way is the only way.

Maajid Nawaz — one of the founders with Husain of the Quilliam Foundation, which works against extremism — also points out: “Globalisation has allowed previously isolated pockets of parochialism to feel a sense of brotherhood with other extremists who are also isolated, allowing them to connect up and feel they are part of a global community.”

Where once Merah would have been just a criminal outcast, he becomes, online, a global warrior, his squalid death elevated to martyrdom. The rest of the world then finds itself cowering in fear of such people and The New York Times pulls its ad.

In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland
This dramatic investigation of the origins of Islam is both a thrilling narrative history and a compelling piece of detective work
Christopher Hart

Published: 25 March 2012

Tom Holland: In the Shadow of the Sword

“There will be inroads of many barbarous peoples, and the shedding of much blood, and destruction and captivity throughout the world… The Empire itself will fall.”

The empire referred to was the ­Eastern Roman Empire, and this apocalyptic ­warning was delivered at the end of the 6th ­century AD by the ascetic St Theodore, a saint “of such awesome holiness that he wore a 50lb metal corset and subsisted entirely on lettuce”.

Tom Holland, already the acclaimed author of two histories of the ancient world, Persian Fire and Rubicon, has turned his gaze in his new book to the end of this era. In history, though, every ­ending is also a beginning — and the end of antiquity, and especially of those last two colossi, the empires of Rome and Persia, also saw the birth of something with us still today: Islam.

Many of us assume that certain things about Islam are historical facts: there was a man called Muhammad, the Prophet, who was granted a revelation in the form of the Koran; he lived in Mecca, and later Medina; he led his forces at the battle of Badr in AD624; he had a wife called ­Khadijah, and a younger one called Aisha.

Yet not everything is quite as it seems. Post 9/11, there has been a steady stream of eager western essays aimed at understanding Islam. Few of them, though, have grappled with some of the essential questions about the birth of the religion. Karen Armstrong, for instance, so thoughtful and probing a writer on Christianity, gave us a biography of the Prophet that, as Holland notes, “does not so much as mention the problematic nature of the sources”. Muslims themselves have to be careful about inquiring into the historical origins of Islam, or, like poor ­Suliman Bashear, they risk being ­defenestrated: he was thrown out of a ­second-floor window at the University of Nablus by his students, furious at his ­suggestion that the Koran and Islam may have evolved over time. Hence also Rageh Omaar’s recent saccharine history of the Prophet on BBC2, so markedly different from the BBC’s sceptical and inquiring Bible’s Buried Secrets.

Holland disdains such evasions, “whether as a pygmy standing on the shoulders of giants, or as a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread”, he wryly acknowledges. For the blunt truth is, the more one explores the early history of Islam, the more one realises there are no Muslim sources: only tradition and commentary, often from ­centuries after the age of Muhammad.

During those tumultuous 7th and 8th centuries, when the Arabs were conquering with “an utterly consuming sense of ­religious certitude” whole swathes of the tottering Persian and Roman empires (and were turned back in the west only at the battle of Tours, in AD732), they nevertheless “composed not a single record of their victories, not one, that has survived into the present day”. For nearly two ­centuries after Muhammad’s death in AD632, we have no original source, except a shred of papyrus from about AD740, which reveals that the famous battle of Badr, which was so decisive in the establishment of Islam, was not fought during Ramadan — a ­central Islamic tradition.

In scholarly circles, there is a growing amount of doubt and debate about the origins of the Koran. Holland’s great achievement is to popularise such schol­ar­ship, turning it into riveting narrative ­history, and a fiendishly complex detective story. Where did Islam come from? Who were the first Muslims? And what on earth is this extraordinary, often bewildering text called the Koran?

Much of what we think we know about Muhammad can be traced back no earlier than a biography written by one Ibn Hisham, about AD800 — two centuries later. Ibn Hisham discounts many of the stories then circulating about the Prophet as “bogus, irrelevant or sacrilegious”, while adding that his birth was accompanied by signs, wonders and stars in the sky.

As the story unfolds — a complex and satisfyingly demanding one to follow — it gradually becomes clear that Islam was not originally a separate religion from Christianity or Judaism at all. The “first Muslims” didn’t even call themselves Muslims, but “Believers”. They saw themselves as followers of the same monotheism as Judaeo-Christianity, regarded Moses and Jesus as prophets, and so on.

As for the Koran, like the Bible, it is evidently a text both man-made and sacred. Astonishingly, today’s “authentic” single version of the Koran was established in Cairo only in 1924. Before that, there were seven equally valid “readings”. Much of it derives from the Jewish Old, and Christian New, Testament, and it has been repeatedly revised since. The earliest verses we know of are not in manuscript, but appear on the walls of the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem, built in AD691 — and they differ from the same verses in today’s Koran. Another key element of Islam, its Sunnah (body of law), seems to originate — at least in part — from before the life of Muhammad, in the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia, and the teachings of Jewish rabbis.

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