Hay Festival 2012: Freedom of Speech: Tom Holland
From the Telegraph
Early Islamic civilisation was forged by Jews and prisoners; this fascinating period deserves better attention from Muslims, writes Tom Holland
Writing ancient history is not usually an activity that requires screwing courage to the sticking place. I will confess, however, that my most recent book, which explores how empires and monotheisms in the late antique Near East fed off one another, did give me the odd sleepless night. In the Shadow of the Sword attempts to demonstrate – among many other things – that the Koran most likely did not originate in Mecca, courtesy of an angel, but rather out of a whole swirl of contemporaneous religious and cultural influences, and that the traditional biographies of Muhammad are deeply problematic as sources for the Prophet’s life.
I found myself developing these arguments not out of any desire to be provocative, but rather because even a cursory survey of scholarly thinking on early Islam demonstrates an on-going shift. While there remains heated debate among specialists, the case that Islam’s beginnings and evolution are best explained as phenomenona of late antiquity is irrefutable.
For a non-believer to prod and probe the fabric of the Koran is liable to be deeply upsetting to many Muslims. Unlike in 19th century Europe, where it was the sons of Lutheran pastors who led the way in subjecting the origins of their ancestral faith to the glare of historical enquiry, the contemporary Islamic world has not, it is fair to say, shown much inclination to follow suit. The authorship of the Koran is not being questioned by the disillusioned offspring of imams. Those few Muslims who have sought to follow the trail originally blazed by 19th century European scholars have opted to publish under pseudonyms – or else been made to suffer for it. In the Arab world, at any rate, to challenge the traditional account of Islam’s origins has rarely been a safe course of action.
And in the West? Here too, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the murder of Theo van Gogh and the Danish cartoons affair have all indisputably had a chilling effect. . . Yet increasingly, the longer I spent on the book, the more I came to feel ashamed of my own nervousness.
The lawyers who formulated the Sunna – whether prisoners-of-war, or Zoroastrians, or Jews – were victims of the conquest. Yet they ended up winning for themselves a rare dignity. It was they, not their ostensible masters, who ultimately emerged as the arbiters of the will of God. I wrote the book in the firm conviction that it is not anti-Muslim, or even anti-religious. On the contrary – I would argue that there is a grandeur in this view of history.
Posted on 06/07/2012 11:40 AM by Esmerelda Weatherwax