Questioning Tom Holland and his ‘Islam: The Untold Story’

As I mentioned in my previous blog, following the broadcast of his Channel Four documentary ‘Islam: The Untold Story’ on Tuesday evening, I got in touch with the presenter, Tom Holland, via Twitter to ask him some questions about the rather bizarre conjectures he had made – particularly given that he had said at the outset that he was interested in facts.

Tom responded to a number of my questions via Twitter which I thought was very kind of him, especially as he may have received messages from a lot of people. I thought it would be worthwhile reproducing some of our exchanges below.

Just to set the scene, remember that Tom stated in his documentary that he did not accept the traditional Muslim account of Islam’s history in a number of areas including:

1. He argued that the Makka we know today was not the birthplace of Islam. He speculated that the true birthplace was most likely near Avdat a region bordering Palestine.

2. He argued that rather than Islam giving birth to the early Arab/Muslim empire, he believed it was the other way round ie the early Arab empire gave birth to Islam – most probably under the rule of the Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan who ruled between 685 – 705 CE.

3. He argued that Islam and Muslims did not exist for at least thirty years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE.

Now these conjectures are rather spectacular departures from the traditional Muslim account of the history of Islam so I thought it was worthwhile questioning Tom about them.

I first questioned him about his theory that Makka was not the birthplace of Islam.

The theory that a later Arab Caliph moved the birthplace of Islam is a hugely problematic one, not least because it would also mean that the Hajj – which predated the Prophet Muhammad of course – was moved. But I have already blogged about this in a previous post so let’s move on.

The academic paper that Tom Holland was referring was Robert Hoyland’s paper ‘Writing the Biography of the Prophet Muhammad: Problems and Solutions’ which can be read here for free (the link Tom  Holland provided requires you to register first). Anyway, to come back to Tom’s argument, he says that the reason we cannot find written testimony from Muslims in those first early decades after Muhammad’s death (632CE) is that Muslims did not in fact exist. The religion of Islam was a later invention of the Arab empire. However, Hoyland’s paper clearly mentions that several Christian sources do refer to Muhammad and Islam in the early decades after Muhammad. Where would these Christian sources have obtained that information from – surely from their encounters with Arabs and Muslims, right?

I thought Tom’s mention of the ‘Doctrina Iacobi’ from 634CE was quite significant. I had not heard of this before. Now if a Christian document in 634CE – just two years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad – was referring to a ‘Prophet of the Saracens’ that would  certainly call into question Tom’s assertion that Islam and Muslims did not even exist at this time.

To that last question, I am still awaiting a response from Tom Holland. Remember, Tom argued in his documentary that Muslims and Islam did not exist and were a later creation of the Arab empire. However, the Doctrina Iacobi document from 634 CE that Holland himself referred me to talks of a ‘Prophet of the Saracens’ – and this is just two years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE in the traditional Muslim account of history. If – as Holland argues – Muslims and Islam did not exist at the time, then who was this ‘Prophet of the Saracens’ and what religion were his followers?

If Tom Holland does respond to what I think is a very reasonable question, I will happily reproduce his answer below in the comments section.

Update: Tom Holland has now posted a brief response to some of the criticisms made of his documentary by others but it does not seem to cover the questions I have asked above.

Update 2: The full transcript of Tom Holland’s ‘Islam: The Untold Story’ can be read here.

Update 3: Fozia Bora on Deenport has kindly provided a link to an excellent article about the current state of academic knowledge regarding the mention of the Prophet Muhammad in non-Muslim texts.

Update 4: IERA have provided a fine response to Tom Holland’s defence of his programme.

Update 5: The Independent quotes University academics dismissing Tom Holland’s arguments as ‘unconvincing’

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30 Responses to Questioning Tom Holland and his ‘Islam: The Untold Story’

  1. Pingback: Questioning Tom Holland and his 'Islam: The Untold Story' | Inayat's … « Twitter Trends!!

  2. Don’t also understand that Tom completely ignores the oral traditions of Hadith – which have been very tediously classified as strong, weak, reliable and unreliable by Muslim scholars, however, he goes on to use Quran to argue his points. OK, Going by that analogy and the so called historical procedure – using Quran would be far more weaker source to build his arguments (about society and geography) since the Hadith at least have the name of the author and chain of narration while the Surahs of Quran don’t !

  3. It seems people don’t understand the goal and approach of Tom Holland. He does not care about the texts concocted by politically or religiously motivated Muslims hundreds of years after the events.
    He does not want to know what apologists and Islamic scholars say about isnad and all the claims around the hadiths.
    The Arabs would not have relied on hadiths to convert to Islam in the 7th century. Holland set out to find the roots, the contemporary accounts of first hand witnesses who state why they are converting and how and the consequences.
    Why does he do this? He wants to verify as a historian, not a theologian, the claims by Muslims that Islam was kicked off by Arabs wanting the benefits of what Muhammad preached and that this is fully integrated into history and its documentation.
    Muslims don’t question this and expect non-Muslims to do the same and simply accept the claims.
    As long as there are no convincing answers, these questions will be asked again and again.

    • Stop Spamming: I think you give Tom Holland too much credit. Although he stated in his documentary that he wanted to approach Islam as an historian and deal with facts – which would have been a commendable approach – he instead made a series of bizarre conjectures which have left him with a lot of egg on his face. Even the hyper-sceptic historian Patricia Crone whom Holland clearly rates so highly refused to speculate on an alternate birthplace for Islam. Yet, Holland had no such qualms and now is left looking rather foolish. In my post above I have dealt with a number of these conjectures which I notice you did not actually deal with.

      • OK, if you think so.
        You have not “dealt” with anything. You embarrassed yourself asking questions which were already answered and misrepresented his answer. Then you try and find some negativity. Tom Holland did not “argue” for anything. He asked questions, valid questions and when there were no answers he looked for alternatives and ways of reconciling facts and claims. Those are not “bizarre” but creative or unusual. Are they wrong? Who knows?

        • shariqueahmad says:

          If he needs answers, Sir, he can invite historians that specialise on Islam rather than Islam skeptics only, which means that he didn’t complete the research properly and provided us all with questions that could have been easily answered on a different forum. This is as we know a half baked research. Even Oxford Uni. recognises the science of Hadith, which are far more extensive and classified.

          Let us say that Tom could even ask why there is no portrait of Muhammad when there are thousands of Roman statues available that predate him by centuries. Asking questions like these are bound to raise concern as they smack of cultural and scriptural ignorance.

          Tom’s area of research is vast, he is a specialist on dinosaurs also, so it is very well possible that he needs to be more in depth on such topics.

          • Ok, your opinion. I maintain an individual should be able to freely choose whom to consult and how to present results. If the answers to his questions are readily available, how come nobody has presented them?
            I don’t care what Oxford Uni does, I don’t see any reason for the word science when referring to hearsay. Look at the reality and how Inayat applied oral tradition and failed.

  4. Stop Spamming: It is not just oral tradition – look at the last exchange I had with Tom Holland. He admitted that there was a written Christian source from 634 CE which referred to a ‘Prophet of the Saracens’. I asked him a simple question: if – as he maintains – Islam and Muslims did not exist for at least thirty years after Muhammad’s death in 632 CE then what is the significance of this phrase ‘Prophet of the Saracens’ and what religion were this ‘prophet’s’ followers? Radio silence from Tom followed because his argument had fallen apart. This is without even mentioning his speculation about Makka being moved…

    • Tom Holland “admitted” there was a Christian source?

      Didn’t he bring it up himself?

      And how do you know the source is dated to 634CE?

      No, why don’t you listen? Tom Holland does not maintain what you are saying. Of course there were Muslims and Islam existed. Just not for any historically documented reason.

      Then, if you look at reality you find the first records decades later and this forces any historian to re-think the approach and find explanations which fit the facts.

      The argument with the prophet is irrelevant and stupid anyway. This “prophet” was termed a false prophet, there is no mention of Muhammad on a chariot anywhere in Islamic texts and it was written after his death.

      Where was the claim that Mecca was moved? Are you listening at all? Why don’t you get the transcript and then check what you think you heard and only then make a comment?

      Why don’t people understand this was historical endeavour and not a critique of Islam?

      • Stop Spamming: Have a read of the second exchange above. Tom Holland clearly says that he believes the reason he cannot find Muslim testimony for the period of 30 years after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE is that ”Muslims’ did not exist at the time.’ So, I then queried the significance of the quotation that Tom himself cited from the Doctrina Iacobi about the ‘Prophet of the Saracens’ which Tom himself says is dated from 634 CE (and a quick Google search will also confirm).

        • Where does Tom Holland say: ”Muslims’ did not exist at the time.’? I just checked the transcription and can’t find it.

          So we have 3 possibilities:
          1. I missed it.
          2. You made it up.
          3. You are lying.

          “Tom himself says is dated from 634 CE”

          I checked the transcript and his reply and did not find this statement from him.

          So we have 3 possibilities:
          1. I missed it.
          2. You made it up.
          3. You are lying.

          “and a quick Google search will also confirm”

          I did just that and did not find a single reference to that exact date categorically. What I did find is that almost all sites mention a date-set:
          Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati (634-640). You need to understand what it is to distinguish between fact and fiction.

          I will not repeat my comment, but you need to be more truthful, accurate and precise when making comments.

          • Stop Spamming: I have already pointed you to my twitter exchange where Tom Holland makes clear that he believes Muslim testimony about Islam does not exist in the period up to thirty years after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE because he says ‘IMO ‘Muslims’ did not exist at that time.’ Look at the second twitter extract above as I have already said to you. It is in B&W. The date of Doctrina Iacobi comes from Tom Holland himself. I did not make it up. Look at the third twitter extract above.

            • }”my twitter exchange”
              Ah, now we are getting somewhere. You are making an off the cuff remark on Twitter responsible for a misunderstanding which did not exist in the properly researched documentary.
              And even in his tweet he says there is no Muslim testimony as “Muslims” (in inverted commas) did not yet exist. Why don’t people understand what is so obvious: Tom Holland was looking for historically accurate texts or testimony an why and how Arabs converted and thus formed the origin of Islam. Can you provide this? No! So what is the conclusion? Abort the early quest and go for an alternative to find out what happened.
              If what Tom Holland is wrong, then prove it factually and not by emotionally arguing for something which “feels” good but is without proof.
              What is even worse is embarking on what iERA did.
              The date on the Christian Doctrina Jacobi is partially accurate, but not complete. Why? I have no idea but would speculate due to the restrictions imposed by Twitter. Is that a big deal? Does it falsify or verify the contents? You are so touchy and so demanding on the one hand and totally dishonest on the other.

        • LibertyPhile says:

          This is really very silly. Yes, there might have been/most likely there was a “prophet” amongst the Saracens at that time. (I’m very surprised you did not know of Doctrina Jacobi.) That does not in any way negate the view that Islam and its hadiths (as we have it/them today) are largely a creation of polical circumstances some 100-200 years later!

          I think this is probably why Tom Holland isn’t wasting his time replying to your last question.

          • LibertyPhile: The fact that a Christian document from 634CE – just two years after the death of the prophet Muhammad – talks about a ‘prophet of the Saracens’ and other Christian sources of the 7th century confirm that a ‘Muhammad’ was indeed the leader and guide of the Arab conquerors calls into question Tom Holland’s conjecture that Islam and Muslims did not exist for at least thirty years after Muhammad’s death. The link I posted in my Update 3 lists the currently known evidence from the 7th century and it seems to offer strong support for the traditional Muslim account of Islam’s history.

  5. Regarding your update you call “a fine response to Tom Holland’s defence of his programme”
    1. It was not a defence
    2. It is not his programme
    3. It is the most cruel, obnoxious and arrogant piece of drivel I have ever commented on

    It is despicable. I don’t know any human so dishonest and without any ethics at all. I feel embarrassed for the human species when reading stuff like that. And you call it “fine”? It makes me question your integrity, just as Tom Holland has done when he stated something and you apparently wrote the opposite.

  6. ali says:

    Before labeling any historical evidence a conjecture, please do visit and read the research work done by muslim on sites such as free-minds .org, aididsafar .com , aastana blog, just to name a few. But then even Allah Can’t help u if u going to turn a blind eye , stop thinking logically and start giving KUFR fatwas when it goes against your m o ronic beliefs, as been happening for last 1400 years or so.

  7. If Islam with its strong traditions on applying the life of prophet on oneself , disciplines and oral scriptures needed for the completion of prayers and struggle to convey the message wasn’t the driving force for these Bedouins to conquer the world in such a short space of time, what it was? Nationalism whereby all the warring tribes come together and spread out because they needed to match the other empires? Mr. Holland – Nationalism is a very recent concept. The problem with scholars like you is that you are unable to distance yourself from the environment and prevalent concepts of 21st century to be able to analyse historical realities, no doubt you will be in black hole whatever you search.

    Oral traditions from Hindu scriptures say a lot about life thousands of years before christ, ignore them and you will be again in a black hole.

    • Z says:

      Arabia was a very isolated place with no armies marching through to conquer as there was nothing there, it is logical that the only information about mohamed was would be from the arabs, Secondly, an important key to remember, the arabs were not bug on writing , it was not a written culture, very few made used of this, thirdly why would they need to remind themselves who the prophet was, they knew who he was!

  8. Dr Vinayak says:

    Scientific , impartial ,analysis of past .. or so called history is not compatible with faith of islamic world.Now they will order beheading or persecute Tom Holland

    • Z says:

      Pretty thick coming from a Christian, Holland’s conjecture has been rejected by nearly every western historian I have asked. It seems he wanted a name for himself & found a very long stretch of rubbish to build it. The Bedouin Arabs were tribal, they hated each other, let alone ever fight with each other nationalism that did not exist in their era & environment. Your just an Islamaphobe whose being an opportunists savage trying to eat the dead carcass of a failed documentary

  9. The Reverend Peter M. Hawkins says:

    The transcript seems to be accurate, and I think that the fuss is being created by the ignorant.

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