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Islam: The Untold Story

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Tom Holland Responds to the Programme's Critics

31 August 2012 By: Tom Holland


Tom Holland
Tom Holland

Channel 4 has received a number of criticisms over my documentary, Islam: The Untold Story. This is a brief response.

The origins of Islam are a legitimate subject of historical enquiry and this film is wholly in keeping with other series and programmes on Channel 4 where the historical context of world religions has been examined, such as The Bible: A History. A considered exploration of the tensions that inevitably arise when historical method is applied to articles of faith was central to the film. We were of course aware when making the programme that we were touching deeply-held sensitivities and went to every effort to ensure that the moral and civilizational power of Islam was acknowledged in our film, and the perspective of Muslim faith represented, both in the persons of ordinary Bedouin in the desert, and one of the greatest modern scholars of Islam, Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

It is important to stress as we do in the film that this is a historical endeavour and is not a critique of one of the major monotheistic religions. It was commissioned as part of Channel 4's remit to support and stimulate well-informed debate on a wide range of issues, by providing access to information and views from around the world and by challenging established views.

As a non-Muslim historian I tried to examine, within a historical framework, the rise of a new civilisation and empire that arose in the late antique world as the two great ancient empires of Rome and Persia were in decline. The themes in the programme have been previously written about extensively by many other historians including: Patricia Crone, Professor at Princeton; Gerald Hawting, Professor at SOAS; and Fred Donner, Professor at Chicago  all of whom lent their support to the programme. The themes it explores are currently the focus of intense and escalating academic debate.

An accusation laid against the film is one of bias and, although I believe that absolute objectivity is a chimera, what was incumbent upon us, in making the film, was to be up-front about my own ideological background and presumptions, and to acknowledge the very different perspective that Muslim faith provides. If the film was about the origins of Islam, then it was also about the tensions between two differing world-views. Whether one accepts or rejects the truth of the tradition is ultimately dependent upon the philosophical presumptions that one brings to the analysis of the sources.

To answer some other substantive points:

1. It has been suggested that I say in the film that Mecca is not mentioned in the Qu'ran. In fact, I say that Mecca is mentioned once in the Qu'ran. As a historian I have to rely on original texts and although later tradition (as brought to us through the hadith) has come to accept that other names are synonymous with Mecca, the fact is that there is only one mention of Mecca in the Qu'ran(although due to an unwarranted interpolation, a second one does appear in the Pickthall translation).

2. On the broad perspective some complaints assert unequivocally, as is often said, that Islam was "born in the full light of history unlike the ancient faiths". That may have been the belief of Western scholars back in the days of Ernest Renan, but it is most certainly not the academic consensus today. One leading authority, Professor Fred Donner, who appears in the film, has written:

"We have to admit collectively that we simply do not know some very basic things about the Qur'an - things so basic that the knowledge of them is usually taken for granted by scholars dealing with other texts. They include such questions as: How did the Qur'an 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 first 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? Those familiar with the Qur'an and the scholarship on it will know that to ask even one of these questions immediately plunges us into realms of grave uncertainty, and has the potential to spark intense debate."

This summary may fairly be said to represent the current state of play in the academic debate.

3. It has also wrongly been suggested that we said there is no historical evidence for the seventh century origins of Islam. What I actually said in the film was that I had expected to find contemporaneous Muslim evidence - "but there's nothing there." And the Qur'an aside, the first mention of the prophet Muhammad's name in Arabic is on the coin that we featured in Part Five, and on the Dome of the Rock, which we also featured prominently. The evidence provided by Christian contemporaries was mentioned in Part Three, and is dealt with at greater length in the book.

Obviously in a film of only 74 minutes, which opens up very rich and complex arguments and brings to light detailed academic scholarship, which has been going on for over forty years, it is impossible to articulate all the resonances and implications of every argument. Much more detail, with full citation of sources, will be found in my book In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. All the film can hope to do is to introduce this fascinating (but until now, largely academic) debate with careful contextualising to a larger television audience. The subject, it should be said, is advancing and changing all the time as new discoveries are made, and new insights are gained. That is precisely what makes it such a fascinating area of research, and an entirely valid topic for a documentary.

Islam: The Untold Story synopsis

Many historians are challenging long-held opinions of the origins of Islam. Tom Holland examines whether the religion was born fully formed, or if it evolved over many years.

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