17 February 2013
I bought this book in early 2012 after reading an article about it by Tom Holland, and then reading some reviews. While books that I buy often go straight into my large reading backlog, in this case I read the book shortly after buying it. However it has taken me a little while to write this review.
While Tom Holland is not a professional historian, he got a double First in English and Latin at Queens' College, Cambridge and has written before on the ancient world.
Was Islam a new religion?
Like other Muslims, I believe that the religion of Islam (submission to the will of God) has always existed. This is explained in my piece A brief introduction to Islam for non-Muslims.
However in this review I use the standard historians' terminology in which Islam is regarded as a new religion distinct from Judaism and Christianity, which began with the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
The book looks at the origins of Islam in context, by looking at the history of the region where Islam arose: Arabia, the Levant, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Persia. It covers roughly the period 480 AD-800 AD.
A traditional British classics education, of the kind given to schoolboys learning Latin (as I did in the 1960’s), concentrates on Rome up to about the time of the Emperor Nero. While the later existence of the Eastern Roman Empire was acknowledged, it got no detailed coverage. Meanwhile the area outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire was a sort of “terra incognita” inhabited by barbarians whose only relevance was that they occasionally fought against the Romans.
Accordingly I found the book fascinating, not so much for its coverage of the origins of Islam, but for what it taught me about the pre-Islamic civilisations of that part of the world.
It is a very readable 432 pages, with about another 100 pages of timeline, dramatis personae, glossary, notes, bibliography and index. The book is divided into seven numbered chapters with an un-numbered postscript, listed below with some brief extracts and comments.
In the following material, I can only give a brief impression of the book. With the quoations, in some cases I have added additional paragraph breaks to make the text easier to read on screen.
The book begins with the author describing the collapse of the Jewish kingdom of Himyar in 525 AD in typically colourful language:
"Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar, an Arab king celebrated for his long hair, his piety and his utter ruthlessness, had been brought to defeat. Leaving the reek of the battlefield, he rode his blood-flecked white charger down to the very edge of the Red Sea. Behind him, he knew, Christian outliers would already be advancing against his palace – to seize his treasury, to capture his queen. Certainly, his conquerors had no cause to show him mercy. Few were more notorious among the Christians than Yusuf. Two years previously, looking to secure the South-West of Arabia for his own faith, he had captured the regional stronghold of Najran.
What had happened next was a matter of shock and horror to Christians far beyond the limits of Himyar, the kingdom on the Red Sea that Yusuf had ruled, on and off, for just under a decade. The local church, with the bishop and a great multitude of his followers locked inside, had been put to the torch. A group of virgins, hurrying to join them, had hurled themselves on to the flames, crying defiantly as they did so how sweet it was to breathe in 'the scent of burning priests!' Another woman, 'whose face no one had ever seen outside the door of her house and who had never walked during the day in the city' had torn off her headscarf, the better to reproach the king. Yusuf, in his fury, had ordered her daughter and granddaughter killed before her, their blood poured down her throat, and then her own head to be sent flying.
Martyrdoms such as these, fêted though they were by the Church, could not readily be forgiven. A great army, crossing from the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, had duly landed in Himyar. The defenders had been cornered, engaged and routed. Now, with the shallows of the Red Sea lapping at his horse’s hooves, Yusuf had come to the end of the road. Not all his obedience to the laws granted to God's chosen prophet had been sufficient to save him from ruin. Slowly, he urged his horse forwards, breasting the water, until at last, weighed down by his armour, he disappeared beneath the waves. So perished Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar: the last Jewish king ever to rule in Arabia."
The above extract illustrates the vividness of the author's language.
It also shows a certain lack of precision since at the beginning Yusuf is stated, rather loosely, to be an Arab whereas at the end he is correctly identified as being Jewish. It would also help the reader if the author had spelt out who he had in mind with the phrase "God's chosen prophet." As Yusuf was Jewish, I deduce that it was Moses but the reader should not have to work this out for himself.
The author proceeds to point out that the sixth century is hard to categorise, looking backward to the world of classical civilisation and forward to the world of the Crusades. By then, the western half of the Roman Empire had ceased to exist, taken over by barbarians such as the Franks whose names endure even today in the countries they established such as France. In the East, the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire still existed and, as we have seen in the conflict between Yusuf and the Ethiopians, religion had started to play a very significant role in the identity of these empires.
At times, the author assumes that you already know quite a lot of history. For example:
"Winners were the favourites of heaven.… Eusebius certainly took it for granted.… No need for the Caesar who had first bowed his head before Christ to wait for death to receive his due reward. Eusebius, who combined the talents of an instinctive polemicist with a profound streak of hero-worship, wrote an entire biography of the Emperor, just to round the point home."
The author regards it as unnecessary to inform you that the Caesar being referred to is the Emperor Constantine, or when Eusebius lived.
"Awkwardly, the more Christian the Romans became, the more their empire’s frontiers seemed to contract."
Moving forward to 800 AD, the author points out that the Persians had been crushed by new conquerors who had also deprived the Romans of their wealthiest provinces. These new conquerors were "a people previously scorned as the ultimate in savagery and backwardness: the Arabs"
The author reminds us that with the rise of the Arabs, their language, Arabic achieved a new status with a vast amount of written output. He goes on to tell us about Ibn Hisham who lived in Egypt and wrote the first biography of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) who Muslims believed had received the Quran from God via the Archangel Gabriel. Ibn Hisham was followed by other biographers.
"As the years went by, and ever more biographies were written in ever more extensive detail, so the Prophet came to be ever more venerated. That his birth had been marked by incontrovertible wonders, whether the appearance of strange stars in the sky or the whisperings of jinn in the ears of clairvoyants, fortelling a new age to come, had been well-known to Ibn Hisham; but time would radically improve on this record of miracles.
Fresh evidence – wholly unsuspected by Muhammad's earliest biographers – would see him revered as a man able to foretell the future, to receive messages from camels, and palm trees, and joints of meat, and to pick up a soldier's eyeball, reinsert it, and make it work better than before. The result was one yet additional miracle: the further in time from the Prophet a biographer, the more extensive his biography was likely to be."
The author also briefly covers the emergence of hadith (recitations of the sayings and doings of the Prophet).
"The stakes, then, could hardly have been higher. Establish the hadiths as genuine, and the present would be grappled impregnably to the past. Naturally, it was essential that the straps and supports deployed for this purpose – the 'isnads', as they were termed in Arabic – be strong enough to hold firm across the centuries. Only an unbroken succession of authorities, each traceable to the next across the generations, culminating in a personal report of the Prophet himself, could be fit for purpose. Fortunately, there was no shortage of such chains of transmission. The links of the isnads held true.
Five hundred years on from the death of Muhammad, and it seemed to many Muslim scholars that there was barely an aspect of human life that had not, thanks to all their titanic efforts, been safely secured and fettered to some salutary hadith. There was now not the slightest risk that the faithful might lose sight of the Prophet's example. Just the opposite: the moorings that bound past to present could hardly have been rendered any the more secure. The isnads, like a tracery of filaments forged across time, seemed as infinite as they were unbreakable. Far from receding out of view, Muhammad's life had been preserved in an almost pointillist depth of detail."
The author goes on to describe how in the 19'th century Jewish and Christian religious texts were subject to critical scrutiny which, at that time, did not touch the Muslim Scriptures. However from 1890 onwards scholars have been challenging the reliability of hadith.
"Far from bearing witness to the opinions of Muhammad, they in truth bear the unmistakable stamp of controversies that were raging two whole centuries after the hijra. Over and 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 in the laws, the customs, or the superstitions of infidel peoples.
What the jurists of the early Caliphate had succeeded in pulling off, by means of 'a fiction perhaps unequalled in the history of human thought', was the ultimate in lawyers' tricks: a quite breathtaking show of creativity and nerve. Stitching together a whole new legal framework for the infant Empire, it had become a habit of these ingenious scholars to attribute their rulings, not to their own initiative or judgement, but rather to that ultimate in authorities: the Prophet."
The author points out the absence of sources.:
"Certainly, it can come as a jolt to discover that, with a single exception, we have no extant descriptions of the Battle of Badr that date from before the ninth century AD. We do not even have Ibn Ishaq's original biography of Muhammad – only revisions and reworkings. As for the material on which Ibn Ishaq himself drew upon for his researches, it has long since vanished. Set against the triumphal hubbub raised by Arab historians in the ninth century, let alone the centuries that followed, the silence is deafening and perplexing.
The precise state of play bears spelling out. Over the course of almost two hundred years, the Arabs, people never noted for their reticence, and whose motivation, we are told, had been an utterly consuming sense of religious certitude, had set themselves to conquering the world – and yet in all that time, they composed not a single record of their victories, not one, that has survived into the present-day.… Why… do we have no Muslim records from the age of Muhammad? Why not a single Arab account of his life, nor of his followers' conquests, nor of the progress of his religion, from the whole of the near two centuries that followed his death?
Even the sole exception to the rule – a tiny shred of papyrus discovered in Palestine and dated to around AD 740 – serves only to compound the puzzle… Over the course of only eight lines, it provides something truly startling: a date for the Battle of Badr that is not in the holy month of Ramadan. Why should this come as a surprise? Because later Muslim scholars, writing their learned and definitive commentaries on the Quran, confidently identified Badr with an otherwise cryptic allusion to 'the day the two armies clashed' – a date that fell in Ramadan. Perhaps, then, on this one point, the scholars were wrong? Perhaps. But if so, then why should they have been right in anything else that they wrote?"
Having emphasised the almost total absence of written sources for this 200 year period, the author concludes:
"Far from Islam having been born in the full light of history, its birth was shrouded in what has appeared, to an increasing number of scholars, an almost impenetrable darkness.
To be sure, there are very few scholars who would go so far as to claim that the Prophet never existed. Someone by the name of Muhammad does certainly appear to have intruded upon the consciousness of his near-contemporaries. One Christian source describes 'a false prophet' leading the Saracens in an invasion of Palestine. This was written in AD 634 – just two years after the traditional date of Muhammad's death. Another, written six years later, refers to him by name.
Over the succeeding decades, a succession of priests and monks would write of an enigmatic figure whom they described variously as 'the general', 'the instructor' or 'the king' of the Arabs. Yet these cryptic allusions – not to mention the fact that they were all made by infidels – merely highlight, once again, the total absence of any early Muslim reference to Muhammad. Only in the 690s did a Caliph finally get around to inscribing the Prophet's name on a public monument; only decades after that did the first tentative references to him start to appear in private inscriptions; and only around 800, of course, did biographies come to be written of Muhammad that Muslims took care to preserve."
The author goes on to mention the various revisionist theories of the origin of Islam that have arisen over the last 40 years. He points out that these normally appear in very academic books, in obscure language, with little impact on public consciousness. He goes on to give a reason for this obscurity:
"Nor is the inherent complexity of the subject the only reason for this… there are many today no less nervous [than Darwin] about causing offence to people whose whole lives are grounded in their faith. For a non-believer to claim that the Quran might have originated outside of Arabia, or derived from Christian hymns, or been written in Syriac, is liable to be no less shocking to Muslims than has the Muslim denial of Jesus's divinity been to Christians.
Unlike in nineteenth-century Europe, where it was disillusioned seminarians and the sons of Lutheran pastors who led the way in subjecting the origins of their ancestral religion to the full pitiless glare of historical enquiry, the contemporary Islamic world has not, it is fair to say, shown a great inclination to follow suit.… Those few Muslims who have sought to follow the trail originally blazed by nineteenth-century European scholars have generally opted to publish under pseudonyms – or have suffered the consequences. In the Arab world, at any rate, to doubt the traditional account of Islam's origins has been to risk death threats, prosecution for apostasy, or even defenestration."
The author reminds us that we are not ignorant of the world into which Islam was born.
"Fortunately, amid all the confusion and obscurity, of one thing at least we can be confident: Islam did not originate in a total vacuum. Of the world into which Muhammad was born, with its rival superpowers and its formidable array of monotheisms, we are most decidedly not ignorant. To compare the would-be universal dominions of Persia and Rome with the empire that the Caliphate became, or to trace echoes of Jewish and Christian writings in the Quran, is to recognise that Islam, far from spelling the end of what had gone before, seems in many ways to have been its culmination.
Even the belief to which Muslims have long subscribed, that the Prophet received his revelations, not by means of human agency, but courtesy of an angel, in fact hints at just how deeply rooted are the doctrines of Islam within the subsoil of the ancient Near East.
From where precisely does the tradition of Muhammad's first terrifying encounter with Gabriel in a cave derive? There is no reference to it in the Quran; nor to the Prophet's initial agony when receiving the revelations; nor even to the hearing of any supernatural voice. Across the lands conquered by the Arabs, however, it had long been taken for granted that angels visited those particularly favoured by God – and that the experience was often agonising.
Coincidence? It seems unlikely. Rather, it surely reflects the unique circumstances of the world that the Arabs, building on the foundations laid by the Persians and the Romans, had made their own: a world in which the yearning to fathom the purposes of a single god had become universal, and Gabriel a name on everybody's lips."
Having emphasised the shortage of sources, the author proceeds to give us a really important one.
"'I took from you at Herakleopolis sixty-five sheep. I repeated – sixty-five and no more, and as an acknowledgement of this fact, we have made the present confirmation'. This was the receipt issued by an Arab war band in 642 to the city fathers of Herakleopolis, a somnolent backwater in what only two years previously had still ranked as the Roman province of Egypt.… Fastidiously, they logged the date of their transaction with the city elders: in Greek, as 'the 30th of the month of Pharmouthi of the first indiction', and in their own language, as 'the year Twenty-Two'.
To us, with the benefit of hindsight, it is the latter detail that leaps out. Redeemed from a provincial rubbish tip, it constitutes something truly momentous: the earliest mention on any surviving datable document of what would end up enshrined as the Muslim calendar."
This document tells us that something extremely significant happened 22 years prior which caused the Arabs to count their years from that date. Muslim historians of course record that as the date of the hijra, when Muhammad (pbuh) relocated from Mecca to Medina. While the document by itself is not evidence for the hijra, it is evidence for something very important having happened at that time.
In passing, either the author has written 642 when he intended 644, or the original document is not referencing the actual date of he hijra in 622 AD, since 22 years back from 642 AD gets us to 620 AD.
The author goes on to explain that our understanding of that period of time in that part of the world has changed significantly in recent decades. He points out that:
"… a history of Islam's origins cannot be written without reference to the origins of Judaism and Christianity – and why in turn a history of the origins of Judaism and Christianity cannot be written without reference to the world that incubated them both. The vision of God to which both rabbis and bishops subscribed, and which Muhammad's followers inherited, did not emerge out of nowhere. The monotheisms that would end up established as state religions from the Atlantic to Central Asia had ancient, and possibly unexpected, roots. To trace them is to cast a searchlight across the entire civilisation of late antiquity."
This chapter tells us about the Persian Empire and Zoroastrianism. It also covers the development of rabbinic Judaism in Mesopotamia, where there had been a large Jewish community ever since the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC.
"The task that the rabbis of Mesopotamia had set themselves, of transcribing their talmud, would take entire lifetimes to complete.… The focus of their researches was the entirety of creation, nothing else. They alone, by virtue of their prodigious feats of study, had fathomed the precise configuration of the will of God – and as a consequence, so it seemed to the rabbis, of the past and the future as well.… The prophets of the Tanakh, the angels, even God Himself – all were recast in their own image, as rabbis."
The Western Roman Empire had fallen, but the Eastern Roman Empire lived on with its capital in Byzantium, now renamed as Constantinople. The author recounts the wars fought by the Christian Romans against the Zoroastrian Persians.
He also covers the development of Christian theology and the various competing schools of thought such as those led by Tertullian and Arius leading to the Emperor convening the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
In this chapter, the author recounts the religious disputes between Christians and Jews, amongst other matters:
"As things stood, however, many Jews believed that Jerusalem under its Christian rulers was no less polluted than pagan Jerusalem had been: a sump of blood and idols. Ironically enough, those who did journey to the Temple Mount were likely to have been influenced, not by their teachers, but by the example set by Christian pilgrims. Certainly, in the opinion of most rabbis, energies were better devoted to the study of the Torah, the holiness or which remained inviolably sacrosanct, than in trekking to the nest of heretics that Jerusalem had become."
The author also addresses political relations between the Christian Romans and the Arab tribes beyond their borders.
This chapter covers further wars between the Romans, ruled by the Emperor Justinian, and the Persians. The overall message is that the two empires fought each other to the point of mutual exhaustion.
"But what of those who lay beyond the reach of the empire? In 632, the same year that saw Heraclius issue his decree on the forcible conversion of the Jews, barbarian horsemen, 'harsh and strange', descended upon Palestine, ravaging the undefended margins of the province and then disappearing as suddenly as they had arrived. Who were they, and what did they portend? No one could be entirely certain. There were some Christians, however, notwithstanding the triumphant return to Jerusalem of the True Cross, who feared the worst. Dread that the end of time might be at hand had not entirely been abated by the great victory of Heraclius."
The author points out that barely 30 years after the conclusion of the war between Persia and Rome, the balance of power between them had disappeared since Persia had been utterly destroyed by the Arabs. The Roman Empire still stood, but only just.
In the view of the author, this was no surprise to believing Muslims:
"Remarkable though it certainly was that the Dar al-Islam [House of Islam] had been raised upon the rubble of Persian and Roman power, no explanation was needed for this, so Muslim scholars taught, that did not derive from an even more awesome and heart-stopping miracle: the revelation to the Prophet of the Quran. What surprise that a fire lit far beyond the reach of the ancient superpowers should have spread to illumine the entire world, when that fire was the Word of God?"
While a religious explanation is satisfactory for a believer, the author reminds us that secular historians have different requirements.
"Almost fourteen centuries on from the lifetime of Muhammad, the conviction that he was truly a prophet of God continues to move and inspire millions upon millions of people around the globe. As a solution to the mystery of what might actually have taken place in the early seventh-century Near East, however, it is unlikely to strike those historians raised in the traditions of secular scholarship as entirely satisfactory. By explaining everything, it runs the risk of explaining nothing much at all."
The author is making essentially the same point that I made in my piece "Why science ignores God."
"Mecca, so the biographies of the Prophet teach us, was an inveterately pagan city, devoid of any Jewish or Christian presence, situated in the midst of a vast, untenanted desert: how else, then, are we to account for the sudden appearance there of a fully fledged monotheism, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, if not as a miracle? In a sense, the entire history of secular enquiry into the origins of Islam has been an attempt to arrive at a plausible answer to this question.
Muslims, understandably sensitive to any hint that the Prophet may have been a plagiarist, have always tended to resent the inevitable implications of such a project; and yet, once God is discounted as an informant, it is surely not unreasonable to wonder just how it came to be that so many characters from the Bible feature in the Quran. Perhaps, so it has been suggested, Mohammed absorbed Jewish and Christian influences during his business trips to Syria."
In writing the above paragraph the author appears oblivious of the extent to which Muslim histories recount the the Christian and Jewish presence in the Hejaz, that part of Arabia which includes the cities of Mecca and Medina. It is simply not the case that Muslims have painted Jews and Christians out of their description of the Prophet's environment in order to leave God as the only possible source of the Quran. For example, it is Muslim sources which inform us that Waraka ibn Nawfal, a Christian priest, was the cousin of the Prophet's first wife Khadijah.
While Muslims believe that the Quran came from God, the straightforward conclusion for non-Muslims has always been that the Quran was composed from the Christian and Jewish religious materials that were widely available in that part of the world. In my view the author's mistake comes from regarding Mecca as some kind of incredibly distant and incredibly remote location when in fact it lay close to the caravan routes from the North down to Yemen. The author has already told us about the Jewish kingdom that used to exist in Yemen until it was destroyed by Christian Ethiopians.
The author informs us that, while Mecca is reported as being a place of great significance and wealth in Muslim historiography, it is not mentioned in written records of the day even when those records cover much other local geography.
He also points out how little reference was made to the Quran in the rulings of Muslim scholars on juridical matters. After explaining why many scholars are dubious about when the Quran originated, the author gives us his own view:
"How far is such scepticism justified? Much, of course, hangs on the answer. Nothing better illustrates the extreme sensitivity of the issues at stake than the fate of a cache of Qurans that were found some forty years ago in Sana’a – capital of what was once the Jewish kingdom of Himyar and is now the Muslim Republic of Yemen… Only two researchers, both German, have been permitted to study them. When one of these, …Gerd-Rudiger Puin, publicly asserted that the fragments demonstrated that the Quran, no less than the Bible, had evolved over time and was a veritable 'cocktail of texts', the Yemeni authorities reacted with fury. To this day, the Quranic fragments in Sana’a remain unpublished – nor have any further Western scholars been permitted to study them. As a result, their true significance remains opaque.
But not wholly so. Granted that Puin’s researches do indeed seem to suggest that words, spellings and even the order of verses in the Quran were perfectly capable of being misread and miscopied, it is apparent as well that these alterations were only ever involuntary errors. There is not a hint of deliberate fabrication in any of the Sana’a fragments. Phrases may vary substantially from manuscript to manuscript, but entire passages never do.… In fact, nothing better testifies to the dread and reverence with which every last word of it, every last letter, was patently regarded than the fact that jurists were prepared to swallow even a glaring embarrassment such as its ruling on adultery. [100 lashes, as opposed to stoning as specified in the hadith.]…
Even the earliest Sana’a fragments reveal an awed sense on the part of those responsible for them that something of profound and terrible holiness was being put to paper, far transcending human invention. If, as both Puin and his colleague have argued, these earliest fragments are to be dated to the beginning of the eighth century, it would suggest that their ultimate origins must lie well before that time. The daring thesis floated some decades back, by a few venturesome scholars, that the Quran might have been the product of protracted evolution, and that it arrived at something like its current state only at the end of the eighth Christian century, seems to have been conclusively disproved. Irrespective of all the provisions and variations Puin has traced in the Sana’a fragments, the bedrock of the Quran appears hewn out of solid granite."
In the above paragraph, the author is referring to the thesis originated by John Wansbrough and taken forward by his students. The author's acceptance that the Quran dates from roughly the date Muslims give it appears to have had limited recognition in some of the criticism that reviewers have directed at the author.
The author goes on to explore possible reasons why the Quran should nevertheless have been neglected by Muslim jurists for such a long period in the early days of Islam.
While the author regularly reminds us that there are no mentions of Mecca in the early records, he does acknowledge the historicity of Medina, and of course also of the Prophet.
"There has been preserved, embedded within the vast corpus of subsequent writings on the Prophet, at least a single lump of magma sufficiently calcified to have stood proof against all erosion. The 'Constitution of Medina', it has been termed: a series of eight brief treaties concluded between the Muhajirun and the natives of Yathrib [the original name of Medina], and which – not least because they refer to the emigrants as 'Believers' rather than 'Muslims' – are accepted by even the most suspicious of scholars as deriving from the time of Muhammad.
Here, in these precious documents, it is possible to glimpse the authentic beginnings of a movement that would succeed, in barely two decades, in prostrating both the New Rome and Iranshahr. That the Prophet consciously aimed at state-building; that it was his ambition to forge his own people and the local Arab tribes into a single Umma; that this confederation was to fight 'in the path of God': these brief details, the veritable building blocks out of which all the much later stories of Muhammad's life would be constructed, do authentically seemed rock solid.
What the Constitution Medina does not tell us, however, is where the Muhajirun had originally come from; nor does it reveal precisely whom they felt called upon by God to fight. Most regrettably of all, it sheds no light on how an alliance stitched together in a remote oasis might conceivably have expanded to embrace the whole of Arabia, and then to take on the world. Nevertheless, its very existence would seem to suggest that the hard core of Muslim tradition may truly derive from the time of Muhammad, and have stood proved, after all, against the weathering effects of time.
Conflict between the upstart Umma and the Quraysh; eventual compromise on both sides, and the agreement between them of a treaty; a brutal crushing by the new confederation of any Arab tribes bold enough to stand in its way: such a process of state-building seems, at the very least, plausible."
The author goes on to express scepticism about where the Quraysh were located. Muslim tradition puts them in Mecca, but the author states that it also mentions that many leading Quraysh bought estates in Syria during the Prophet’s lifetime. The author finds that very implausible and believes that if the Quraysh came from Mecca, they could not have owned property in Roman territory. Conversely if they owned property in Roman territory, then they could not have come from Mecca. He prefers the second alternative. Instead of originating from Mecca, he believes that the Quraysh originated from further north.
The author's theory is that Islam orginated, and Muhammad (pbuh) originally lived, not in Mecca but further north on the margins of Palestine, not too far from the Dead Sea. The book needs to be read to see the argument laid out in full, but some of his points are:
Later in this chapter the author points out the importance of domestic politics when discussing the Caliph Mu’awiya:
"Shrewd and calculating as he was in all his dealings with mortal powers, Mu’awiya seems to have practised a certain opportunism in his dealings with the heavens, too. Although he termed himself 'Commander of the Faithful', in succession to Umar and Uthman, his definition of who actually ranked as members of the 'Faithful' was altogether more subtle and ambiguous than theirs had been. Rather than gathering to hail his accession at Medina, the Arabs had assembled in the shadow of the Temple Mount: for Mu’awiya had 'refused to go to the seat of Muhammad'.
Not even Umar, the Amir whose attentions to the sacred rock had seen him hailed by the Jews as their 'redeemer', had sought to demonstrate to quite such flamboyant effect the abiding status of Jerusalem as the holiest city in the world.
Mu’awiya, however, in providing this reassurance, was concerned principally to woo, not his Jewish but his Christian subjects. That the Arabs, in their original assault upon Palestine, had fought in alliance with Jews was now, to the new 'King of the Holy Land', something of an embarrassment. Both his tax base and his bureaucracy, after all, were composed primarily of Christians. The Jews could hardly compare.
So it was, in addition to receiving the submission of the Arabs, that he had made sure to mark his investiture as Commander of the Faithful by going on pilgrimage around Jerusalem in the footsteps of Christ – 'and he went up and sat down on Golgotha, and prayed there'. Evidently, that the Prophet had declared the crucifixion a fraud bothered Mu’awiya not a bit."
In this chapter, the author discusses the history of the Umayyad caliphate and its internal wars and the impact this may have had on the development of Islamic practice and doctrine. He also explains his theory about how Mecca came to be chosen as the place of origin of Islam.
One of the most interesting pieces of evidence cited by the author concerns the layout of mosques, which are built with an orientation to the direction of prayer. He mentions that in the period following Caliph Abd al-Malik's pilgrimage to Arabia, the layout of several mosques was amended from pointing towards somewhere between Medina and Palestine to pointing towards Mecca. His notes mention specifically a mosque in Fustat, Egypt reoriented in 710-711 AD, a mosque in the Negev at Be'er Ora and a mosque in Kufa.
The chapter concludes with the destruction of the Umayyad dynasty by the Abbasids.
In this chapter, the author tells us about the construction of Baghdad by the Abbasids as their new capital. He concludes by reminding us of the persistence of religious belief and how it far outlasts earthly rulers.
"The peoples of late antiquity, then, when they imagined themselves to be living through the End Days foretold by the prophet Daniel, had been mistaken. Not the empire of the pagan Romans, nor that of their Christian successors, nor that of the Ishmaelites had proved to be the Fourth Beast. Nevertheless, those who saw in the convulsions of the age a process of transformation unlike any other, by means of which a kingdom would end up established on earth 'which shall be different from all the kingdoms', were not far wrong.
Caesars, Shahanshahs and Caliphs, none of them remain – but the words of the rabbis who taught in Sura, the bishops who met in Nicaea and the ulama who studied in Kufa still shape the world as living things today. There could be no more conclusive testimony to the impact of the revolution witnessed by late antiquity than the existence, in the twenty-first century, of billions upon billions of people who profess belief in a single god and lead their lives in accordance with that belief.
The pen, it seems, is indeed mightier than the sword."
I found the book fascinating to read, and grippingly written. It is not a dry historical text but a genuinely exciting story. The author has vividly brought the ancient Eastern Roman and Persian empires back to life.
The issue he grapples with, the origin of Islam, is something that historians have to address without divine explanations in the same way that scientists seek to explain the world without reference to God. This inevitably requires a search for evidence, and requires the formulation of speculative hypotheses based upon that evidence. This upsets many Muslims but it should not. Religious belief and history are two different things.
Having said that, in my view the author is wrong to put so much emphasis upon the absence of written materials from the first approximately 200 years of the history of Islam. Firstly, as he points out in the book, the absence is not total. The receipt for the sheep mentioned above is fascinating evidence for something of major significance having happened in the same year in which Muslims place the hijra.
More importantly, as I explained in my review of Wansbrough's book Quranic Studies, I believe that it is appropriate to rely upon word-of-mouth evidence to some extent, after one takes into account the historical circumstances of the time, cultural practices, and whether the people whose oral testimony is being relied upon have lived in the same place throughout undisturbed by major displacing conquests.
I recommend the book to everyone who wishes to learn more about that part of the world in that period.
In my view, controversy, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. No non-Muslim is required to believe that the Quran was given by God to Muhammad (pbuh). Instead they are entitled to scour in Jewish and Christian sources for the Quran's origins. Equally, before accepting as reliable Muslim histories written long after the events they describe, they are entitle to require evidence to substantiate them.
At the risk of over-simplifying, the author:
Only item (3) disagrees with the Muslim narrative of history.
The author cites some arguments from the text of the Quran for his view. I regard those interpretations as a bit thin. In my view, he places too much emphasis on words such as those quoted below:
AND, BEHOLD, Lot was indeed one of Our message-bearers; [and so,] when [We decreed the doom of his sinful town,] We saved him and his household, except an old woman who was among those that stayed behind; and then We utterly destroyed the others; and, verily, [to this day] you pass by the remnants of their dwellings at morning-time and by night. Will you not, then, use your reason?
Quran 37:133-138 Muhammad Asad translation
In my view it is extreme literalism to read this as requiring the disbelievers being addressed to live next to the Dead Sea. Muslim histories recount that the Meccan Arabs were traders, whose caravans would have gone much further north than the Dead Sea; passing the environs of Sodom sometimes in the morning and sometimes at night. Furthermore the Quran is addressed to all mankind, not just to the immediate hearers of the message, and is in a poetic style. However the author is free to interpret the text as he wishes.
I find more interesting what he says about the orientation of the early mosques that he mentions. I would however like to have more data, such as what is known about the orientation of other mosques, and the extent to which the mosques he cites point towards the same place. However in my view it would take a large amount of archaeological evidence to cast serious doubt upon oral history spanning a period of only about 150-200 years, in a culture where oral history played a great role. From the author's writings it seems tolerably clear that the Arabs were not great producers of any written records up to about 800 AD, despite conquering from Spain to Afghanistan if not further. Accordingly they must have relied upon memorisation, as the first Arab writers recount.
However I see no reasons for any Muslim to get upset about the book just because it disagrees with part of the Muslim understanding of history.
Channel 4 Television has produced a film watchable at this link, one hour and eleven minutes long, narrated by the author which is based upon the book. The film appears to have caused more controversy than the book, perhaps because more people have watched the film on television or on the internet than have read the book.
In my view the film shows how hard it is to condense difficult ideas into the small amount of time allowed for such a programme. It does not allow the author to develop his ideas properly, which in turn makes it easier for Muslim viewers to get upset, as in the Huffington Post article by Nafeez Ahmed. If you want to understand Tom Holland's thinking, you need to read the book.
Kindle edition above