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A Critical Examination of C4's 'Islam: The Untold Story'

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It seems of late that every change of seasons brings with it another documentary on Islam; this time it was one by Tom Holland, an academic in the field of religious history. Perhaps it was Holland's academic background that made me look forward to watching this- an academic, I thought, would surely apply all the rigour to this documentary that he otherwise would to any serious work which is to bear his name. And as an academic, surely Holland is aware of the importance of scrutinising his research methods, examining his sources, and treating all significant evidence fairly. The 'Untold Story', unfortunately, tells another story altogether, and its impact on British society is one that cannot be overlooked.

On the surface, Holland's 'Untold Story' has all the elements of a great documentary. He appears to challenge the status quo by questioning commonly accepted beliefs about the origins of Islam, he travels to all the exotic places that one would associate with an in-depth study of Islamic history, and he interviews Western academics that appear to be specialists within the field. All of this combined with Holland's romantically ruffled hair, an accent which tells of a privileged upbringing, and poetic phrases which convey a sense that he is uncovering an enigma wrapped within a mystery ("History is like a labyrinth...who knows where it may lead?") added to the several palpable, strategically-placed pauses, could be enough to convince the average viewer of the credibility of his work. Upon scratching the surface, however, I am left wondering what about Islam, if anything, Holland's story tells us at all.

In reality, any scholar of Islamic history will point out forthwith the fatal flaw in Holland's methodology. While he makes references, albeit limited and self-serving, to the Qur'an in trying to uncover the origins of Islam, he also chooses to simultaneously overlook an entire corpus of scholarly material on Islamic history from Islamic sources. As Holland is shown rifling through books in what is presumably a British library, it begs the question- does he not know of the vast body of work that has been put together by Islamic historians in Arabic and Persian, which is housed in seminaries in Cairo, Riyadh and Qom, among others? Does he not realise that scholars of Islamic history dedicate their lives to studying these original texts? Is he really expecting to find evidence of a man who lived and died in Arabia, almost fourteen centuries ago, conveniently tucked away in a library in Britain?

While his conversation with the Danish Professor Patricia Crone alludes to "oral tradition" and its unreliability in trying to create an accurate account of history, Holland never stops to fully justify his outright and wholesale rejection of Islamic scholarly material. Crone scoffs at the inferiority of the oral tradition due to it being tainted by the perception of the reporter, yet to assume as unreliable the entire oral tradition in Islamic records, the examination of which has been brought down to a science in which specialist scholars work tirelessly to sift out strong traditions from weak ones, makes about as much academic sense as assuming that written history has never been tainted by the perception and motives of the person who wrote it.

So convinced is Holland of the worthlessness of Islamic historic records that not only does he make no reference to them, he does not even interview a single seminary-educated scholar as part of his research. Of course he interviews Western and even Israeli academics, along with Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr who provides a Muslim academic perspective, but consulting Islamic scholars and historians is neglected in favour of a much more exotic, oriental experience: speaking to bedouins in the Saudi desert. Even Nasr, except for being a token Muslim voice, provides little which can be considered of academic substance; this is not surprising when one considers that Nasr is not a historian, his specialist subject being Islamic philosophy.

Less than a day after the documentary was aired, the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA) issued a press release with details of several documents in Western history that mentioned either 'a prophet' among the Arabs or 'Muhammad' by name. Proselytising claims aside, the historic evidence presented in IERA's statement proves at least that the existence of Muhammad in (Western) history is not the 'black hole' that Holland purports it to be. Even if it is argued that this is evidence which had not come to Holland's attention, there is still one decisive document that we know he was aware of yet neglected to mention in the documentary.

This is the 'treaty of Medina' and has been mentioned in Holland's book, 'In the Shadow of the Sword' which was published in April of this year. The treaty is a peace agreement between Muhammad and the Muslim and Jewish tribes native to the area at the time, and is described by Holland in his book as "a single lump of magma sufficiently calcified to have stood proof against all erosion." This treaty would have provided answers to some of Holland's questions and rendered others null and void; it is textual and archaeological evidence of Muhammad's existence and his life in Medina (and not the Negev desert). So why didn't Holland, instead of fretting over coinage and post-Muhammad Arab imperialists, include this key piece of evidence? Was it because he was seeking only to promote his own version of events?

In the aftermath of Holland's controversial research being aired and watched reportedly by over a million viewers, many people took to social media and reacted in obvious ways. Recognising the shortcomings in Holland's methodology, Muslim viewers objected to what they perceived as a biased portrayal of Islam. Some who knew little about Islamic scholarship praised Holland's work. Others went a step further and accused Muslims of reacting disproportionately and being incapable of accepting criticism of their faith- these are the folks who live with the dichotomy of upholding liberal values and yet marginalising those who disagree with their secular viewpoint. Still others resorted to inflammatory, hate-filled comments, cursing Muslims and portraying Islam as an ideology that is about little more than hate, violence and oppression. Yes, the Islamophobes had a field day.

It's all well and good for Tom Holland though, as he casually Tweeted, "you win some, you lose some." I wonder if he realises at all that with his research into the origins of Islam, one in which he assumes the superiority of secular Western historic traditions over all others and appears to make his evidence conveniently fit his desired conclusion, he has only served to worsen the understanding of an already poorly-understood faith and its much-maligned adherents.