05.09.12

The Origins of Islam: Tom Holland Explains New Book ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’

In an excerpt from his new history of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland explains why he has written a revised history about the origins of the Quran, the home of Muhammad, and its connection to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

It is a curious feature of the Qur’an that it should give a notably starry role to an episode fundamental, not to Muslim, but to Christian faith: the visitation by an angel to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Annunciation is retold in the Holy Book of Islam not once, but twice. Mary was evidently a person much on the Prophet’s mind. Not only is she the one woman in his revelations to be mentioned by name, but she features as well in a whole range of incidents quite aside from the Annunciation. Details left unrecorded by the New Testament—for instance, that she went into labor beneath a palm tree, where her son, speaking from within her womb, encouraged her to snack on a date or two—are given pride of place in the Qur’an. Gratifying evidence, so it appeared to Muslims contemptuous of the Christian scriptures, that they were far better informed about the life of Jesus than were those who, in their folly and delusion, presumed to worship him as a god.

But how had the Prophet come by these various stories? To Muslims, of course, the question was a waste of breath. Muhammad had been visited by the divine. Just as Christians believed that Mary, by giving birth to her son, had delivered what they termed the Logos, or the ‘Word’, so Muhammad’s followers knew that his revelations, gasped out with ‘the sweat dripping from his forehead’, were the veritable speech of God. Muslims were no more likely to ask whether the Prophet had been influenced by the writings of other faiths than were Christians to wonder whether Mary had truly been a virgin. What the stiff-necked Jews and the obdurately blinkered Christians had failed to realise, in the opinion of the Muslim faithful, was that every single prophet mentioned in the Bible had actually been a follower of Islam. Hence the starring roles granted to so many of them, from Adam to Jesus, in the Qur’an. And to Mary too, of course. That stories of the Virgin being succoured by a friendly palm tree had actually been a Christian tradition for centuries, and seem in turn to have derived from a legend told by the pagan Greeks, was blithely ignored—as, of course, it was bound to be. No Muslim scholar could possibly have countenanced a notion that the Prophet might have been in the business of filching anecdotes from infidels. The Qur’an, after all, did not derive from outside sources. Rather, it was the Jews and the Christians, by allowing their holy books to become corrupted, who had ended up with distorted, second-hand scriptures. Only in the Qur’an had the awful purity of the divine revelation been properly preserved. Every last word of it, every last syllable, every last letter, came directly from God, and from God alone.

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Perhaps it was only to be expected, then—despite the profoundly ambiguous testimony of the holy text itself – that a tradition should gradually have grown up, which in due course hardened into orthodoxy, that Muhammad himself had been illiterate. Even had the Prophet wished to curl up with an infidel book or two, in other words, it would have been beyond him to decipher them. Yet reassuring a reflection though this certainly provided to the faithful, it still did not rank, perhaps, as the surest evidence that the Qur’an had indeed descended from the celestial heights. Even more infallible a proof was witnessed by the circumstances of Muhammad’s upbringing. Mecca, after all, had been inhabited by pagans, not Jews or Christians—and it stood right in the middle of an enormous and empty desert. The ancient capitals of the Near East, which for more than four thousand years had served as the cockpits of civilisation, immense petri-dishes teeming with peoples of every conceivable faith, dense with temples, and synagogues, and churches, were a colossal distance away. Even to the borders of Palestine, where Abraham had built his tomb, and Solomon reigned, and Jesus been crucified, it was a full eight hundred miles. What likelihood, then, the Muslim faithful demanded to know, that a prophet born and raised so far from such a milieu could conceivably have been influenced by its traditions and doctrines and writings? The sheer prophylactic immensity of the desert that surrounded Mecca, impenetrable to outsiders as it was, appeared to render the answer obvious. Just as it was the blood and muscle of Mary’s virgin womb that had, in the opinion of Christians, nurtured the coming into the world of the divine, so likewise, in the opinion of Muslims, was it the spreading sands of Arabia which had served to preserve the word of God, over the course of its protracted delivery, in a fit condition of untainted purity.

Why do the earliest biographies of the Prophet, in the form we have them, originate almost a whole two centuries after his lifetime?

And it is here, of course, in any interpretation of Islam’s origins as an intrusion of the divine into the sweep of earthly events—as a lightning strike from heaven, owing nothing to what had gone before—that history must meet and merge with faith. Almost fourteen centuries on from the lifetime of Muhammad, the conviction that he was indeed 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. Nevertheless, it is a measure of how potently an aura of the supernatural has always clung to the Qur’an, and to the story of its genesis, that historians have found it so difficult to rationalise its origins. 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 might 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 Qur’an.

That Muslim tradition attributes the origins of its holy book to an illiterate man living in a pagan city in the middle of a desert is—to non-Muslim historians—a problem, not a solution. Perhaps, had the revelations of the Prophet materialised in some other period and place, then the fact that the presumptions of the late antique Near East are shot through them like letters through a stick of rock would indeed appear an authentic miracle. As it is, the distance between Mecca and the lands of the Roman and Persian empires to the north suggests a mystery of the kind that perplexed early cartographers when they mapped Africa and South America, and observed that the eastern and western coasts of the Atlantic Ocean seemed to match like the pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Any notion that continents might have been drifting around the globe appeared too ludicrous to contemplate. Only in the 1960s, with the theory of plate tectonics, did a convincing solution finally emerge. A remarkable coincidence turned out not to have been a coincidence at all.

The close fit between the religion that came to be known as Islam and the teeming melting-pot of the late antique Near East would seem to suggest an identical conclusion. To be sure, the order established by the Arabs in the century following the life of Muhammad was indeed something novel. But originality alone does not tell the whole story. Prototype of every subsequent Islamic empire that it was, the Caliphate founded in the seventh century was also something very much more: the last, the climactic, and the most enduring empire of antiquity. Recognition of this fact has prompted historians, over the last few decades, to question much that Muslims believe about the origins of their faith. Why do the earliest biographies of the Prophet, in the form we have them, originate almost a whole two centuries after his lifetime? Where, if not in Mecca, might he have lived? Why are the references to him in the early Caliphate so sparse, so enigmatic, and so late?

That Muslim tradition may be as much a distortion of the past as a monument to it is a possibility that prompts, if not a wholesale rewriting of Islam’s origins, then at the very least a significant redrafting of them. The likelihood that the Qur’an is actually much older than anything we would recognise today as Islam is what has led me—against what were initially my own instincts—to write a history of its emergence that will seem to many Muslims unsettlingly heterodox. In my account of the 7th century in the Near East, Muhammad comes not from Mecca—a place, which, one enigmatic mention in the Qur’an aside, is not so much as mentioned in a single dateable text until 741, over a century after his death, and even then is located in the deserts beyond Iraq—but the desert fringes of Palestine, where there existed during his lifetime more varieties and shades of faith than anywhere else in the entire Near East. It is not Islam which gives rise to the conquests and empire of the Arabs, but the other way round. Its coming is not a radical break with what had gone before, a guillotine dropped on the neck of antiquity, but instead one of numerous manifestations of what was an altogether vaster revolution: a transformation of human society that was to have incalculable consequences for the future.

“We see in late antiquity,” as one of its foremost historians has put it, “a mass of experimentation, new ways being tried and new adjustments made.” What emerged in the century or so after Muhammad as the religion called Islam was one consequence of this “mass of experimentation”—but there were a whole multitude of others too. The most significant of all these, of course, were Judaism and Christianity: faiths that by the time of Muhammad had taken on something like the form they wear today, but had once themselves been swirls of beliefs and doctrines no less unformed than those professed by the Arabs in the first century of their empire. The story of how Islam came to define itself, and to invent its own past, is only part, then, of a much broader story: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians, and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. No other revolution in human thought, perhaps, has done more to transform the world. No other revolution, it might be argued, demands more urgently to be put in proper context.

Adapted from the forthcoming book In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland (c) 2012 Tom Holland, to be published by Doubleday Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.