holland - origins

Transcript of the post-screening discussion with Tom Holland, following a screening in the Netherlands of his film documentary Islam: The Untold Story, which is a version of his book In The Shadow of the Sword. Holland has a slightly camp speaking style which I've tried to include by bolding the text when his emphasis is idiosyncratic, often on the verbs.. which perhaps fits with his view of history as an actively constructed human process rather than a record of objective facts.
I have split the discussion into sections.

Dodging a Fatwa

Interviewer. Maybe just to start off. One of the most embarrassing moments in the movie, you said you weren't gonna mention it. But now I wonder which one was it? I thought it was the moment you were praying in the desert..  
Holland. That's exactly the one.
Interviewer. Oh right.
Holland. And it was embarrassing because, we'd been out in the desert for about a week. We obviously hadn't told the Bedouin, who were our hosts, exactly what the film was about. Beyond the fact that I was on a search for the origins of Islam. So they clearly thought that I was on some sort of spiritual quest. We got on very well, and at the end of the week, as a mark of hospitality they invited me to pray. And so I couldn't turn it down? But clearly I was mortified, simultaneously.
And I went and told Kevin (the director) "I've got this..", you know, "..this nightmare situation", and he went "Brilliant!" [laughter] "Lets get the camera on this!" And the embarrassment that, I think is evident in that footage. Was of course exactly what he wanted. Because it expresses far more vividly than a whole article could express the problems that confront anyone who is writing from a non-believing point of view, about ..belief. And it is a peculiar challenge.  
Interviewer. There came over a thousand official complaints about your movie. You weren't able to show it in front of an audience of historians [..] What is the most contested thing in the movie and the book? Because the book and the movie are making the same point, in a way.. The book is much, much more elaborate and tells a lot of things about the Persian empire which is not in this movie, but..  
Holland. Looking back on it, there was a problem with how the film was marketed, because watching that film, I'm taken back to how protracted and painful the process of making it was. That's 72 minutes, and it took 21 weeks in the editing room. And there were endless discussions, we just went round and round, basically trying to square an impossible circle. We were trying to satisfy academic standards, we wanted to make sure the script was accurate. That when you talk about Islam or Judaism or whatever, you are of course opening an entire can of worms academically.
We had to satisfy the commissioning editor, who wanted to make sure the average listener [..] so it was a very complex and protracted ..gestation. So by the end of it, everyone was a bit nervous as to what the reaction would be. And the press release when it went out, and the press release fed into the listings magazines, saying what the film was about, it basically said "A Film about the Origins of Islam." That I go in search of the origins of Islam. And there was nothing particularly flagged up that this was in any way going to be controversial. And so I think what happened was an awful lot of Muslim ..viewers in Britain thought "Oh wonderful! At last!" And also it was being screened just after Ramadan, it was postponed til just after Ramadan was over, they thought it's a post-Ramadan present from Channel 4, "How kind of them! Lets gather everyone around and watch this."
And I was sort of tracking it on Twitter, and seeing that it wasn't going down tremendously well [nervous laughter] with a lot of people. And I think that if we said, right from the front, "This is going to be a controversial take" then probably people would've been less cross, But as it was, there was .. a great deal of anger. [pause] Quite a lot of the responses. Quite a lot of the responses on Twitter, on the emails, and everything, were quite violent. Quite aggressive. Erm.
It reached the scale that there was going to be a private screening for historians, for MPs, journalists, for trustees of Channel 4.. Rather like this.. And the police advised Channel 4 that they couldn't guarantee the safety of the people coming, because of the volume of threats was such. And so Channel 4 decided they had no choice but to cancel this private screening. The problem was that because they'd invited lots of people from the press, this then in itself became the story, because it fed into the narrative of Muslims stopping freedom of speech, and everything. And so the film was stuck in between two very polarised sides, one of which was Muslims - Muslims of the more extremist wing - saying "This is all a Western conspiracy" and implying I was a Zionist, or stooge of the Vatican, or the CIA or something. And on the other side it was people who were very anti-Muslim saying "This is what Muslims do, they stifle freedom of speech.." And both of them were, kind of feeding off one another. And I was sort of stuck in the middle trying to fend all this off. And eventually the police just said "Look, you've just got to stop defending yourself. Just, shut up." So I did shut up.
And then the thing that became really nervewracking, the only time I got really anxious about the response, was that you may remember this other film came out, made by a cop I think in California, called The Innocence of Muslims which was basically a piss-poor version of the Life of Brian .. vehemently anti-Muslim, and scabrously so. And PressTV, which is the Iranian propaganda channel, released this film in which they conflated our two movies, and implied they were absolutely on a level, they were both equally parts of a global conspiracy against Islam. And that was the moment that.. [laughs and cringes] people.. I could sense people's faces going white, and mine certainly was, because we didn't know what would happen. Because this was the kind of thing that happened with the Satanic Verses. Basically the Iranians decided that they didn't like it, and they lit the blue touch paper. But fortunately it didn't get any traction, and it got overtaken by the tragic events in Benghazi when the American ambassador got killed. Our film got left behind, and I was able to emerge back blinking..
Interviewer. ..into the light.
Holland. ..into the light, and it was all right.

Constructing the Past

Interviewer. And to dive into the matter of the movie a little bit more, apart from the controversy. Because, it seems to me, actually, that you're saying that we don't have any knowledge about Mohammed from his lifetime..
Holland. Scraps..  
Interviewer. Tiny scraps. And there's 80 years, 100 years of gap, which you call the Black Hole. And then this Abd al-Malik, who's the builder of the Dome of the Rock, which you go into..  
Holland. He's like Constantine and St Paul rolled into one.  
Interviewer. Exactly. And he comes up with this new religion, this new idea. And before that, are you implying it was a sort of hotch-potch of.. something like Jewishness, but a little bit off, or something..?
Holland. I guess.. Perhaps the best metaphor would be, a planet in the early days of the solar system, with a flux of gas and rock, and it's starting to cohere, but it takes time to become a planet. And it's kind of true for what's going on in the 7th century. There are various elements, there are Jewish elements, Christian elements, all these heretical elements. Then there is clearly the figure of Mohammed. In some way he is seen as a prophetic figue. And the confluence of all the conquests. And.. [pause] There are certainly Arabs in the conquest who view Mohammed as a significant figure. But I don't think he's a significant figure for the people who are ruling - people like Muawiyah who seems to be more of a Christian if anything..
Interviewer. That's the first ruler of the Caliphate after..  
Holland. He's the first historically attested Arab ruler that we have.
 Interviewer. ..And he's more of a Christian because..  
Holland. He seems to be. We don't really know. But there are inscriptions in which there are crosses, he is described as.. He is hailed as the ruler of the Arabs - not in Medina but in Jerusalem, and he goes on a pilgrimage round the sites, the Christian holy sites. And it's rather odd if he's a Muslim. And then you have Abd al-Malik, and Abd al-Malik is forged in the civil war..
Interviewer. Against.. the warlords from Arabia..
Holland. Yes. And I think what they discover is that by invoking what is a prophet of God, you then have a kind of supernatural patron. Anything you want to happen, you can say "Well, the prophet says so." And the thing is, for Abd al-Malik, as the deputy of God, he sees himself as no less a figure than Mohammed, than the prophet. And in the dynsaty that he establishes, the Caliph has a kind of sacral role, that is incredibly potent and incredibly significant.
And what happens, which I go through in the book, is a kind of bottom-up Islam emerges. Because the conquered peoples, The Jews, the Christians, the Zoroastrians, start to turn to the Koranic teachings, whatever they are, wherever they come from, that go to form the Koran. They start looking at them and saying, "Well, your prophet says that he doesn't like the proud. He doesn't like the overmighty. He doesn't like the overbearing. So, what about it?" So they start turning these teachings against the Caliphs. And ultimately against the Arabs. And all these various Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian traditions, fragments of Persian law, Roman law, start going into a kind of vast casserole.
Interviewer. And the casserole is the Koran?
Holland. The casserole is the Sunna, is the compilation. So, the sayings of the prophet. Because the way in which you get these various ingredients into the casserole is to attribute them to the prophet, at a given time and a given place. Once you've done that, they pass into.. they become part of what you're cooking up.
But what that requires it that, as a former rabbi or Zorozastrian priest or whatever, it requires that you deny the role that you are playing in that. Everything has to be attributed to Mohammed. And so ultimately the reason why we have no records, we have no biographies for Mohammed before about 800 AD, we have no collections of hadiths, we have no commentaries on the Koran, or anything we recognise as Islamic writings til about 800, is because the form of Islam that we would now recognise as Islamic doesn't exist until then. The process takes almost 200 years until that has been achieved.
And it comes in 2 levels: there's the Koran, and what are the various constituent elements in the Koran: which I approach nervously in the film.. and then we sort of shrank back from..
Interviewer. On the shore of the Dead Sea, by the Pillar of Lot..
Holland. And then there are all the sayings attributed to Mohammed, which come later.
Interviewer. And you drawing, in the book, a parallel between what happened in Babylon, between Talmudic Jewish traditions who became forged there, and what happened to the Koran and the Islamic traditions..  
Holland. At the heart of the film, and I suppose at the heart of the whole study, is the issue of "To what extent can you rely on oral tradition? To what extent can you rely on unspoken repetition of phrases, passing down the generations. Does it become Chinese Whispers? Is this a framework for smuggling in things that people want to smuggle in?" Or "Are they authentic? Can you accurately transcribe these things down the generations?" And so that's why we had Patricia Crone representing skepticism towards that view. And Seyyed Hossein Nasr representing the Islamic philosophical view of it. And I think that that really lies at the heart of the issue.
I suppose that the reason that I incline towards Patricia Crone's view, is partly because having looked at any number of ancient traditions: so Greek, Roman, early medieval, I'm highly suspicious that these traditions, when they get written down, correspond to, you know, actual fact, I really am. So that's one reason. But the other reason is that the idea, the notion of laws, of sayings being passed down the generations, is not culturally neutral. It is not something that just happens. It's something that's actually very culturally specific.
And if you look around the near-East in the 6th and 7th and 8th centuries, the era in which the hadiths are starting to be transcribed, the notion of a Muslim oral law descending from the prophet is starting to be canonised, you say "What is the context for this? Is there any other example of this going on?" Well, there is, and it's very obviously the Talmudic tradition. Because this is absolutely the golden age, the 5th, 6th centuries, the golden age of the Talmud. And the Talmudic tradition embodies the notion that when Moses received the law from God on Sinai, some were written down, and some were orally passed on to the Judges and then to the rabbis. And it seems to me that that is the tradition that is hovering in the background of the construction of the Sunna. It's very telling that the great centre of Talmudic scholarship, the city of Sura, which is nowadays Fallujah..
Interviewer. ..in Iraq.
Holland. ..is very close to Kufa, which is the early centre of hadith scholarship. And I think that the construction of the Sunna derives from Jewish tradition.
 Interviewer. Because it's physically near, and it's spiritually near - it's the same approach.
Holland. But.. but the point is the idea of there being a written law, and an oral law which subsequently gets transcribed - it's a very culturally specific ide-.. notion. It's not the sort of thing that just pops up, willy-nilly, all throughout history. It happened, in Mesopotamia, in the 5th and 6th century, and then it happens again, in Mesopotamia, in virtually the same region, in the 7th and 8th century. And the question is, "Is that coincidence?" Or not. And I think the balance of probability is that it is not.

The Virgin Birth

Interviewer. ..And Crone says.. "Why is it put deep into the deserts of Arabia..?" They needed it to be.. You're saying they needed to be uninfluenced by anybody else, they put it as far away as they could. Because it would be a real miracle that it would be brought down like diss to the prophet..?  
Holland. Compare Islam to Christianity: both of them have at their heart the extraordinary notion that the divine has entered the flow of history. And in Christianity it's the Messiah, the figure of Christ. And so therefore it's very important to Christian theodicy that the mother of Christ be a virgin. Because if she's not, then it's possible that what rabbis reported of Jesus, that he's the son of a centurion, that he's a bastard offspring, could be true. He has to be the son of a virgin or else there's the possibility of human contamination.
Essentially the same is true of the Koran. The Koran has to have been delivered.. there has to be a kind of prophylactic immensity around the place where it is delivered. Because if it isn't, there is every possibility that the writings of the Koran come from human writings.
 Interviewer. From a hotbed of religious ideas during middle-East wars..
Holland. Exactly. So everything within the Muslim tradition as finally transcribed at the beginning of the 9th century supports the view that the delivery of the Koran is miraculous, that it can only be explained as a miracle. So we are told within the Muslim tradition that, although the Koran contradicts all these points, that the opponents of the prophet are pagan - the Koran contradicts that. That Mohammed receives the first of his revelations in the midst of a vast desert - again, that's contradicted within the Koran. And we're told also that Mohammed is illiterate - so there's no prospect of him having read any other material - despite the fact that there are hints within the Koran that this isn't the case, and the Koran is incredibly literary. And the texts throughout the Koran are a running metaphor.
So I think the biography of Mohammed as it's constructed does not correspond to memories of a historical Mohammed: It is dictated by the theological requirements of this emerging religion.
Interviewer. But if you say that all the all the parts of the Koran that allude to trees or whatever.. they could have been put in later. If you're looking at it as an historian they're no proof..
Holland. But if you say that, you're forging a new narrative that the Koran isn't coming from Mohammed..
The challenge with this is the only account of how Islam comes into being is the Muslim one. So once you leave the Muslim narrative, you are then kind of groping in the dark. We have no Arab records of what happened. At all. There's nothing. It's as if a pattern was drawn on the sand, and then it's smoothed out and a whole new pattern drawn. So it is very challenging.
And so.. this is a hypothesis. There is no hard proof. Looking at all the various pieces of the jigsaw, that is the conclusion I have come to. Drawing on the work of many scholars who are far greater than me.
But it's important to emphasize that the traditional Muslim account is just as hypothetical. That is is just as much dependent on uncertainties and improbabilities. And in many ways I think it is harder to.. [sighs] ..harder to construct a narrative of Islam's beginnings that is historical, than that of the beginnings of Christianity.
And I think most people would think it was the other way around.
It's really, really difficult to make sense of. But completely fascinating, because there are just enough clues to get some sense of what's been going on. And the answer really lies in the fact that the Caliphate that emerges is recognizably an empire in the tradition of empires that existed before. And the Koran and the Sunna are recognizably in the tradition of narratives and forms that existed previously.
Now, had the Koran appeared in 5th century BC New Zealand, or 7th century Peru, that would be miraculous. But since it appears [laughs] in the near East, at a time when the near East is full of these kinds of ideas, it seems to me that you don't need God to explain its emergence.
Which is why I didn't end up a Muslim!

Foundation Stories

Interviewer. You said, writing about these Christian and Islamic traditions and empires, it's very nice to move back to the antique world, to Zeus and..
Holland. ..to a world where there are gods you can no longer believe in..
What's fascinating writing about the Julio-Claudians, Augustus and Tiberius and Caligula and so on, is that particularly in the reign of Augustus it's the period where the early history of Rome is, essentially, invented. You know, this is when Virgil is writing, and Livy, and they construct the model of early Roman history, the history of Romulus, and the kings, and the founding of the Republic that we get now.
And so when you look back at the beginnings of Rome you're faced with very similar questions: you know "Was there a Romulus? Did the founding of the Republic happen as it was said?"
And the wonderful thing about writing about Augustus and the essential thing about forging a new future for Rome, he has to do it by also constructing a new past. You realise that this is the same thing going on with the Christian and the Muslim empires as well. It's just that no one's going to get cross with you for doubting the existence of Romulus. (There may be some Romans, but I don't think so..)  
Interviewer. Maybe in some dark Teutonic wood.. So to forge an empire, you have to forge a history.
Holland. I think so.
Interviewer. And that's what the 8th century rulers did, what Gregorius did. Or Augustus. Or the Achmenid dynasty did in Persia.  
Holland. Yes. And you have to be militarily potent. You have to be better at killing people than anyone else, in an ancient empire - that is the ultimate talent you have to possess. You also have to have control of wealth, so in the film the coin was very important.
But above all you have to have an ideology that people are willing to buy into. You have to persuade people that they want to be part of your empire. And long before Orwell, Abd al-Malik, Constantine, Augustus, understood that the best way of controlling the future was to control the past.
Interviewer. Stalin was very well known for doing that.  
Holland. Yes. But if you can.. I make it sound too reductive, too cynical, as if they know it's all bogus, and they're just sitting down and making it all up as a huge scam - it doesn't work like that. I'm sure that emotionally they believed it's true. But part of the reason they emotionally believe it's true is because it's satisfying their need. These men, and it's always men, believe they are the agents of the gods, of the divine. And because they rule, therefore the gods must've chosen them.
And therefore the pattern of the past they construct to explain that, must be true. And if the empire, or the ruler, is sufficiently powerful, then that stamp on the past will pass into the bloodstream of the future.  
Interviewer. And if you look at those traditions, and look in a utilitarian way, from the rulers, or the makers, of the empire. If you look at the quality of the construction, would you say there's a difference between the forging of a Christian empire, or a Muslim empire?  
Holland. I think the parallels are more interesting than the differences - on the most basic level. Because I think that what is fascinating is to look..
Traditionally we're prone to think of Christendom, and the house of Islam, as radically separate. All our history encourages that. But there is another way of looking at it: from the perspective of someone in China, actually Christians and Muslims and Jews have far more in common than separates them. And it's interesting to think of the commonality of the Christian and the Muslim worlds by say the year 1000, as being a common culture in which from the west Atlantic coast to the walls of China, people have the same understanding of angels, and prophets, and saints. And, so, it's..
And then you have this religious war: why did this happen? Why did this process of change which spanned, from 300 when Constantine converts, to around 800 when Baghdad is founded, what was going on? And I think the reason why both Christianity and Islam are both so successful from a utilitarian point is that it clearly serves the needs of the ruling elite, the emperors and caliphs, who can cast themselves as the deputies of god - that just as one omnipotent God rules the universe, so his deputy rules all the world.
But that's not all. Because at the same time what Christianity and Islam are giving the vast mass of people is a hugely inflated sense of dignity. An understanding of themselves as valuable that the pre-Christian religions hadn't given them.
And so, you know even as the emperor in Constantinople is arrayed in purple, he knows that when he reads the Sermon on the Mount, "It is the meek and the poor that will inherit the earth".. And just as the caliph in Baghdad has his silks and his sherbets and his dancing girls, he knows that there are scholars who are saying the ultimately it's the Brotherhood of Man that matters, and the way to God is to free slaves and to care for orphans.
And so both the mighty and the oppressed are given a stake. And I think that explains the incredible emotional power of both faiths, and why they both continue to have such an incredible hold on people right into the present.  
Interviewer. Because you're saying that the previous empires lacked that sort of idea of humanity.  
Holland. To reduce it to the most base, Darwinian terms, it was a kind of mutation that bestowed.. bestowed evolutionary advantages on the nations that adopted them.

The Rabbit Hole

Questionner. ..my other point is even more minor. You looked at a coin that said "Muhammad rassul allah" when you were in the coin museum. Is it certain that Muhammad is a proper name in that inscription? Couldn't it mean, as many scholars suppose, "Blessed is the messenger of God"?  
Holland. It could. And we decided not to venture down that particular dark alleyway. Basically because I think it refers to a historical Muhammad, for all kinds of reasons that .. we felt that we would not go into, because we didn't have the space to go into the technical complexities like that.
I agree that a different kind of film, that would be fascinating would be to explore the implications of this. As I said, the moment you disgard the traditional Muslim narrative, of course you open up the opportunity for all kinds of answers and issues to emerge. And the issue of whether Mohammed existed, and whether these words refer to a person called Muhammed, or whether it's a title, is absolutely fascinating.
As is the other issue of where do all the constituent elements of the Koran come from, if they don't come from God. That also was an area we didn't go into.
So there is certainly all kinds of scope within the film, to go further. And this was one of the frustrations about the reaction to the film, was that I feel that we had erred on the side of caution. And the scale of the outrage suggested that we hadn't.
Questionner. The coin has also an image of a Persian ruler, which totally contradicts the idea that it's Islamic, because the Persian ruler represents a pantheon, which is many gods..
 Holland. ..this was my feeling, that in the context of academic research into this period, this was an impeccably centrist take. You know [laughter] this wasn't particularly radical by the standards of what scholars in this area are saying and researching. But coming as it did, as total news to most people, including most Muslims.. You know, we had to judge the temperature as we did. But I agree, there was an element of wussiness about it.

Real Metaphors

Questionner. Earlier this week.. [inaudible] ..that the West is ration[ality] and the East is emotion. And in your documentary you're trying to discover a religion in a rational and scientific way. But like the priest at Mount Sinai said to you, "What does it matter if it's true or not, if so many people believe in it?" So, I'm really curious: how do you cope wit the difference between your own ratio and the feelings and beliefs of ozher?
Holland. I think you acknowledge there's an enormous tension there. And that's what Kevin the director wanted to articulate. That's why he structured particularly part 2 in the way he did. Between the streets of Princeton, and the desert. In those extremes, And why I think the palpable embarassment I felt in the prayer is, I think, a very effective piece of television.
And it's also why my personal reactions to it are part of the narrative: the feelings of uncertainty I have, the sense of hestitancy and doubt. The tug that I feel, the emotional and spiritual tug. My heart wants to believe it, my head says "No."
And that's why we went to Sinai, which is a place which is holy to the tradition in which I was brought up. It's more effective for being left as a tension which is not resolved. Because I don't think there is a pat way of solving that tension.
Interviewer. In the end you could say that "It doesn't matter if it's true or if it's not.."  
Holland. I could say that. But obviously for lots of people that's not.. that's a weasel way of getting out of it.  
Interviewer. But even if you're a believer you could say.. The Parables, in the Bible, they're obviously not true.. but you could still think "It's a nice way of saying it.."  
Holland. [skeptically] Yes.. But against that.. If you're a Christian and you didn't think that Jesus Christ was crucified and didn't rise from the dead.. as the Koran, for instance says.. then it's hard to be an orthodox Christian.
And likewise there are issues for Muslims, if the traditional account of how the Koran came into being isn't true, if it turns out that it embodies all kinds of recognisably human elements.. Then, it doesn't necessarily dissolve.. it doesn't make it impossible to give God a role in that. Maybe God is spreaking through all the various traditions in the Middle East, in late antiquity.. But I think there's definitely a process of negotiation there.
And at the moment I think traditional Muslim belief is more literalist than certainly Western Christian belief has become. I think in Western Christianity certainly, you know "It's all a metaphor" is a phrase that's reached for with much greater readiness than in Islam.
Interviewer. Even the monk at the end of the movie says "Well, whether or not, in the end this is Mount Sinai, I don't care, it's the City of God that counts." 
Holland. Yes. I agree. That's for him, and for others, to say whether that's a problem or not.