Author Interviews
5:01 pm
Sun June 3, 2012

'Shadow': New Light On Islamic History

Originally published on Tue February 5, 2013 5:11 pm

Lightning from a clear sky — that's how historians have described the rise of Islam. Stories say the Prophet Muhammad received his revelations from the Angel Gabriel deep in the Arabian desert, hundreds of miles away from any outside influences. The Prophet was even said to be illiterate and therefore free of the taint of other religious writings.

That origin story is supported by a scaffolding of commentaries and biographies of the Prophet stretching back through the centuries. But historian Tom Holland has reexamined those sources and come to a different conclusion. His new book, In the Shadow of the Sword, places the rise of Islam within the context of the Roman and Persian empires of late antiquity.

"The whole point of the Muslim story is that Islam is a new beginning, that it owes nothing to the decadent empires and religions that lie farther to the north," Holland tells NPR's Guy Raz. "The problem with that story is that all the sources that are written by Muslims date to ... at the earliest, 200 years after the lifetime of Muhammad."

Holland says that while there's no doubt some historical accuracy in the sources for early Islam, those documents are more likely to be reflecting conditions at the time of their writing in the ninth and 10th centuries. And the Prophet lived early in the seventh century, a time that Holland says historians must consider in order to understand the birth of Islam.

"When you do that, you realize that Islam is palpably, bears the trace elements of Jewish and Christian belief, and not only Jewish and Christian belief but a whole range of heresies: Samaritans, Manichaeans, Jewish Christians, Christian Jews," Holland says.

If you believe the Quran is the word of God, Holland says, then explaining the inconsistencies is easy: All things are possible to God. "If you're not a Muslim, then you have to try and explain where these elements in the Quran might possibly have come from, and that really is what I'm trying to do."

One answer may lie with the Prophet himself, whom Holland suggests was not, in fact, illiterate. "If you look at the Quran itself, there is a passage in which it is strongly implied that Muhammad can not only read, but that he can write," Holland says. "The Quran is an incredibly literate response to the currents of the age."

Also, Holland says, the origins of Islam may not actually be in Mecca. There is one vague reference to the holy city in the Quran, but no other ancient texts mention it until well after the death of the Prophet — and even then, it's described as being in the deserts beyond Iraq. "That makes you wonder, well, where was Mecca?"

Holland says there are several clues in the Quran as to where it may really have been written. First, he says, the Meccans are described as pagans and idol-worshipers, but they're also extremely conversant with Judeo-Christian tradition. "Even Muhammad's enemies are fully familiar with Abraham, with Moses, with Jesus, with all these figures," he says. "And that doesn't square with what Muslim tradition says at all."

And there's something else odd about Muhammad's pagan enemies: "[They] keep cattle. They tend vines. They grow olives. And Mecca, at least the Mecca we now know, is a barren valley," Holland says. In the seventh century, olives weren't even grown outside the Mediterranean.

All these clues, Holland says, add up to something: an origin for Islam much farther north than modern Mecca. "Perhaps in the deserts beyond Palestine," he speculates.

But what about those who say Holland shouldn't question a sacred text? "I'm not a Muslim," he says. "It seems to me that the Quran palpably is a late antique document. It recognizably comes from a certain context. And I don't think that a Muslim would begrudge a non-Muslim an attempt to explain a text that he doesn't believe to be of divine origin in human terms."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Lightning from a clear sky - that's how historians have described the rise of Islam, a religion born in the full light of history in the seventh century. The Prophet Muhammad received his revelations from the Angel Gabriel deep in the Arabian Desert, hundreds of miles away from any outside influences.

That story is supported by a scaffolding of commentaries and biographies of the prophet stretching back through the centuries. But a new book re-examines that story and those sources and comes to a somewhat different conclusion. The book is called "In the Shadow of the Sword," and the author is the distinguished historian Tom Holland. And Tom joins me now from London. Welcome to the program, Tom.

TOM HOLLAND: Thanks very much for having me.

RAZ: So in your journey to sort of get to the bottom of this, you decided to look at sources from a range of places and empires. You looked at the Roman Empire...

HOLLAND: Yes.

RAZ: ...and the Persian empires. Set the context for us. Talk about what was happening in the world at that time.

HOLLAND: Well, maybe I should explain first why it might seem unusual to people that I should do this, I should try and explain the beginnings of Islam in the context of the Roman and the Persian empires, the empires that were overthrown by the Arabs in the early seventh century.

And the reason for that is that, as you said, Muslim tradition says that Islam emerges right in the depths of the desert. Mecca is about 1,000 kilometers away from the frontier of the Roman Empire. Muhammad is said to have been illiterate. The whole point of the Muslim story is that Islam is a new beginning, that it owes nothing to the decadent empires and religions that lie further to the north.

Now, the problem with that story is that all the sources that are written by Muslims date to almost, at the earliest, 200 years after the lifetime of Muhammad. The question then arises, to what extent are they likely to be reflecting conditions in, say, the early ninth Christian century, the 10th Christian century, and to what extent are they actually going to tell us the truth of what was going on in the seventh century.

Now, if we want to try and work out, perhaps, where Islam comes from, then it seems to me that it makes sense, as well, to look at the context into which it was born, so the world of the seventh century. And when you do that, you realize that Islam is palpably - bears the trace elements of Jewish and Christian belief, and not only Jewish and Christian belief, but a whole range of heresies: Samaritans, Manichaeans, Jewish Christians, Christian Jews.

Now, if you're a believing Muslim and you think that the Quran, revelations of Muhammad, have come from God, there is no problem in explaining that because, of course, anything is possible to God. But if you're not a Muslim, then you have to try and explain where these elements in the Quran might possibly have come from. And that, really, is what I'm trying to do.

RAZ: Early on, you conclude and said Muhammad was a real person, a real man, a prophet, but you have doubts as to whether he was illiterate and a simple man. You argue that he was actually quite sophisticated, well traveled.

HOLLAND: Well, because the Quran is incredibly sophisticated. It is an incredibly literate response to the currents of the age. And the metaphors and the imagery that run through it, again and again, are drawing on scrolls, on writings, on ledger books. It seems to me that it is the work of a very literate person.

And in fact, if you look at the Quran itself, there is a passage in which it is strongly implied that Muhammad cannot only read but that he can write. That then begs the question, well, why does this tradition grow up that he's illiterate? And I think that it is for the same reason that Christians believe that Mary is a virgin.

Because for Muslims, the Quran is what Jesus is to Christians. It is the intrusion of the divine into the earthly. Unless Muhammad is illiterate, unless he is situated right in the depths of a desert, people might turn around and say, well, you know, he was influenced by infidel writings.

RAZ: Which begs the question of - and you raise this and other historians have raised this - as to whether Islam was actually born in Mecca or perhaps born elsewhere.

HOLLAND: Well, Mecca is a problem. You would get the sense from reading the Muslim sources, the biographies of Muhammad that it is a great center. And if you read modern biographies of Muhammad, you generally get the impression that this is the Dubai of the ancient world, you know, a glittering trading center in the depths of the desert.

The problem with that is that aside from one ambiguous mention within the Quran itself, there isn't a single reference to Mecca, not one, in any ancient text until 741, which is over a century after the death of Muhammad. And even then, Mecca is located in the deserts beyond Iraq. So that makes you wonder, well, where was Mecca?

If you then presume that the Quran is associated with Muhammad, as I do, then it becomes a source of clues. And you can maybe look at the Quran and try and work out from what it says, where perhaps it might have been written. And there are several things within the Quran that don't really fit with the traditional Muslim account.

One is that both Muhammad and his opponents - who in Muslim tradition are generally described as being pagans, worshipers of idols - on the basis of the Quran, it's evident that these are also biblical monotheists. Even Muhammad's enemies are fully familiar with Abraham, with Moses, with Jesus, with all these figures. It's absolutely taken for granted that they know who these characters are. And that doesn't square with what Muslim tradition says at all.

The other thing that I find very peculiar is that within the Quran, these enemies of Muhammad, the people that he is addressing, keep cattle. They tend vines. They grow olives. And Mecca, at least the Mecca we now know, is a barren valley. So all these clues, it seems to me to suggest an origin for the Quran and for the milieu in which maybe Muhammad is operating further north, perhaps in the deserts that lie beyond Palestine.

RAZ: Tom, if you are a faithful Muslim, a believer, the Quran is the word of God. I mean, it is something not to be challenged because it is the absolute truth. What do you say to somebody who is a faithful Muslim who would say, you can't approach it as a historian. You can't do what you do because you're talking about something that is an absolute truth.

HOLLAND: But I'm not a Muslim and so by definition - and so therefore, I don't think that the Quran comes from God. I think that the origins of the Quran must be human. I mean, an interesting corollary to your question is what if when I was studying had I been convinced and become a Muslim?

Well, perhaps, you know, had the Quran appeared in New Zealand in 700 B.C. then perhaps I might have been convinced. But it seems to me that the Quran palpably is a late antique document. It recognizably comes from a certain context. And I don't think that a Muslim would begrudge a non-Muslim an attempt to explain a text that he doesn't believe to be of divine origin in human terms.

RAZ: That's historian Tom Holland. His new book is called "In the Shadow of the Sword." It's about the origins of Islam. Tom Holland spoke to us from our studio in London. Tom, thank you so much.

HOLLAND: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.