Whilst the ideas aired by Tom Holland are new to many, those of us who have engaged with Western academia’s approach to the study of Islam see little originality and much sensationalism.
During the course of the 90 minute long programme I felt as if I had returned to my class at the School of Oriental and African Studies over three years previous and Tom Holland may well have been Professor Gerald Hawting.
I happened to be a student on Professor Hawting’s last class before retirement and I was no less amazed then, as I was when listening to Holland as to how such individuals have forged academic careers upon ideas so far fetched and long discredited.
There was little new in Holland’s assertion that questioned Muslim understanding of the origins of Islam.
His quoting of authorities was a who’s who of the ultra sceptic school that came out of SOAS during the seventies.
As Holland attempted to justify his premise via an incoherent methodology, the programme became a revision exercise in trying to pre-empt the name of any given sceptic scholar who had over the years made laborious attempts to justify their respective theories.
A friend and fellow companion on Professor Hawting’s course, Tam Hussain provided a running commentary via facebook, “Here it comes, Dome of the Rock, classic Hawting I am going to predict that he is going to quote Puin.” And hey presto as attentive a student as ever, he was correct.
The likes of John Warnsbourough, Gerald Hawting, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook among others are the main protagonists of the aforementioned school.
Crone who was used extensively as an authority throughout the programme caused a sensation when publishing her work Hagarism alongside her colleague Michael Cook in the seventies.
The fact that they later refuted their own theories that made up the crux of the book’s argument is enough evidence in itself to rubbish the claims being made by Holland. Alongside their questionable scholarship is a misunderstanding and ignorance of the Arabic language and its grammatical rules and the omission of basic facts.
Glen Bowersock has also found this to be a feature of Holland’s book In the Shadow of the Sword upon which the television programme was based.
This is not surprising given that Holland is considered at best an amateur historian and any expertise he does possess exist outside the realm of Islamic Studies and Arabic.
It made his assertion that he found the work of the great Arab historian Al-Tabari, “overwhelming” even more baffling.
In dealing with the available literary material, Holland’s basic premise in following on from his predecessors is that none of it can be trusted as it is drawn up by Arabs and Muslims and to get a more accurate picture one has to find alternate explanations.
The problem with such an attitude is the total disregard for the oral nature of the Arabs where poetry and language was used to preserve history and tradition as opposed to any written documents.
This attitude is a symptom of a wider problem amongst the adherents of the ultra sceptical school; the idea that if we don't have a reference point for anything in our own historical experience then it can’t be true or have existed at all.
One can put this at the level of sheer arrogance born out of the inextricable link between Orientalism and Imperialism.
This approach holds little weight amongst Muslim populaces and it can be argued even less amongst modern western scholarship.
When studying different cultures one of the principles that academics normally adhere to is to see the world from the perspective of the society you are studying.
The failure of Holland and his predecessors to do this is their greatest misdemeanour and an affront to serious scholarship. Let us take one example from this area of academia to highlight the points made above. The Qur’an uses among others the Arabic term “ummi” in describing the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
The conventional understanding amongst adherents of the sceptical school is that the word means illiterate describing the Prophet’s inability to read and write.
A wholesome understanding of the Arabic language tells us that this is an incorrect assumption. The word only translates as illiterate when we in the West impose our own postulates on Arab society, its language and its people.
Anyone familiar with the teachings of the classical tradition will tell you that the word translates more accurately as orality.
The Qur’an is describing an oral Prophet not an illiterate one.
The importance of this being that orality is a central feature of the Arabs and their language so much so that it was a mechanism for the storing of information the same way that we in the West would use pen and paper or computer in the modern age to do so. This in itself explains the lack of written sources accounting for the origins of Islam. What further exacerbates the case against Holland is the absence in acknowledging the ideas of Western academics who have taken a more sensible approach in studying the origins of Islam.
Their work within the field of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies is more widely accepted. This includes the likes of Hugh Kennedy, Fred Donner, Robert Hoyland and the late William Montgomery Watt amongst others.
Although not all the research published by these individuals would be acceptable in classical Islamic circles the fairness with which they approached their subject is acknowledged and appreciated. What set these individuals apart was that they were infinitely more qualified in the vital disciplines of Arabic and understanding of the region and societies they were engaging with.
Holland’s lack of authority is a worrying element in this whole saga.
There are of course those who may not agree and will see his ideas as another triumph of western academia which forever pushes boundaries and cares little for sentiments in pursuit of the truth.
But whilst the objectives may be noble the means through which they are achieved are also of importance. The study of such a monumental occurrence in human history is best left to those with these means.