Islamic Origins II

This morning I read Nassim Taleb on Facebook saying, “I just bought Tom Holland’s book on the rise of Islam for the sole reason that he was attacked by Glen Bowesock, the most prominent living scholar of the Roman Levant. Tom Holland is a popularizer and I would not have taken him seriously otherwise.”

He was referring to this review of Holland’s book:

The beginnings of Islam have always been anchored in Mecca in the northwestern part of the Arabian peninsula. Here Muhammad was believed to have received from the angel Gabriel the earliest revelations that became incorporated in the Muslim scripture, the Qur’an. Scholarly debate about the revelations and about Meccan society has gone on for centuries, but no one before has seriously doubted the conjunction of Muhammad and Mecca. Holland wants us to believe that Muhammad did not come from Mecca at all but from southern Transjordan, and that his revelation was a compound of languages and ideas floating around in the Near East.

Holland came to his work on Islam unencumbered by any prior acquaintance with its fundamental texts or the scholarly literature. He modestly compares himself to Edward Gibbon, whom he can call without the slightest fear of contradiction “an infinitely greater historian than myself”. In the Decline and Fall, at the opening of his magisterial chapter 50 on Muhammad, Gibbon had candidly acknowledged his ignorance of “Oriental tongues”, but he also expressed his gratitude “to the learned interpreters who have transfused their science in the Latin, French, and English languages”. Holland seems to have confined himself largely to interpreters, learned or otherwise, writing in English, but his efforts to inform himself, arduous as they may have been, were manifestly insufficient.

He has written his book in a swashbuckling style that aims more to unsettle his readers than to instruct them. I have not seen a book about Arabia that is so irresponsible and unreliable since Kamal Salibi’s The Bible Came from Arabia (1985). Although that work was depressingly misguided in replacing biblical places with their homonyms in the Arabian peninsula, it at least revealed an accomplished scholar who had gone badly astray. Holland has read widely, but carelessly. He starts out with an irrelevant, though arresting, account of a defeated Jewish king in Arabian Himyar (Yemen) killing himself by riding his horse into the Red Sea. It is typical of Holland’s style to lead off with this fanciful story when an inscription from the time of the king’s death records that the Ethiopians killed him.

Holland responded here:

In a dyspeptic final paragraph, he strongly implies that it was cooked up by “author, agent and publisher” as something truly reprehensible: an attempt to exploit Islamophobia for commercial gain.

This is a serious charge – and since it is founded on Bowersock’s claim that my scholarship is shoddy and out on a limb, I hope that he will forgive me defending myself. I am accused of twisting my sources. I could, however, level much the same charge against Bowersock’s criticisms of me.

Holland is also interviewed here:

All three religions, it seems to me, emerged out of the same melting pot – and yet all three have constructed backstories that aim to occlude the fact. In the first three centuries after Christ, Jews and Christians may have had a consciousness of themselves as peoples with distinct identities, but they remained unclear where precisely the border between them lay.

There were Jews who believed that Jesus had been the Messiah and there were Christians who followed the Jewish law – and it took an unacknowledged alliance between bishops and rabbis, in the centuries after the emperor Constantine, to ensure that what had previously been an open frontier became a no-man’s land. Similarly, a lot of Muslim historiography seems to me to have been composed with the aim of spiking the possibility that either the Quran or the sunna [laws] might conceivably have owed anything to infidel precedent.

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