Tom Holland's Islam film: the scholar versus the booby

by - 5th September 2012

Historian Tom Holland is bravely shrugging off Twitter threats this week following broadcast of his Channel 4 documentary Islam: the Untold Story.

What’s been even harder for him to take is the media’s inability to cope with it: religious illiteracy to coin a phrase.

Now Channel 4 have cancelled the screening party due to be held next week.

I have to declare at the outset – Holland’s a trustee of Lapido, so I’m biased. But as someone who’s been writing about Islam for 24 years, and who knows the lonely often nerve-wracking slog it is, the ‘bias’ I could be accused of is probably legitimate.

I think it’s an important film, - see it here and here - not because, as a believer in a mystery myself, I relish sceptical historicism for its own sake, but because surely Holland’s done Muslims, relatively unexposed to the acids of secular discourse, a favour.

He’s shown all of us that Islam is interesting enough to be taken seriously. He’s refused to stick his head in the sand and play blind about the problems or internal tensions that all thinking Muslims know are there.  He’s not trammelled the sacred heart of an ancient mystery, but found hints of an even greater, and more awesome reality that is tantalisingly beyond our grasp at the moment, but could just be the key to a shared past and shared future.

Religions evolve in their own self-understanding in different ways.  The great Bishop Hugh Montefiore said it.  Ziauddin Sardar says it, so does Professor Abdullah Saeed.

Even Professor Hossein Nasr of George Washington University commends on film an honest examination of his faith.

So Islam should be allowed to be uniquely ignored by serious minds in public then?  

Instead of which Holland bravely ploughed on even when he realized he’d stumbled upon something lacking in all his other forays into the civilizational dungeons – i.e. contemporaneous [seventh-century] writings on the beginnings of their own history by the people involved, in this case Muslims. That is not to deny the religion its credentials; it just adds complexity.

Saying so apparently justifies the threat of an Ofcom investigation, according to the Mailhere.

Infidel testimony

Holland did not say there was no evidence, but that it was obscure and attributable to non-Muslims.

Unbelievers are considered by Muslims to be unreliable witnesses in courts in Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan where they are accorded half the value of a Muslim, and women even less so.  So it is curious that some of Britain’s Muslims are resting the entire Islamic edifice on it.

The previously unheard of ‘IERA’ [Islamic Education and Research Academy] put out a ‘paper’ beginning at length with the very ambiguous testimony of one infidel writing about the ‘Saracen prophet’ (not named; not described as Muslim). Wade through that here.

Mixed up: ‘Sheikh’ Abduraheem GreenThe Guardian and the Daily Mail both simply based their pieces on this, repeating the damaging errors in it without any checks into the credentials of this group - which incidentally states its income as £850,000 a year.

Yet the IERA turns out to be the platform of the controversial convert Sheikh Abduraheem Green, a mixed up cross-culture kid if ever there was one: a public-schoolboy convert to Islam, currently with two wives, and at different times, an advocate of holy war, and hell for Mother Theresa.


The programme which aired on 28 August made several astounding claims – but implying the non-existence of Mohammed was absolutely not one of them, as the press reported.

Even to insinuate such a thing carries the mandatory death sentence in Pakistan.

So for the Mail to reinforce, in bold across four columns, some of the most abusive, erroneous and actionable tweets, is insanely irresponsible.

So too is pitting the IERA verbatim without substantiating its credentials, against the award-winning Cambridge-educated historian who was also chairman of the Society of Authors and is on the Committee of the Classics Association.

The most cursory google would have turned up the bogus nature of the group behind the ‘row’ the press were, true to template, implying. Read what Wikipedia for one says about the IERA here, and marvel at our media.

Green justifies for instance keeping a second wife on the dole and his right as a husband to administer a ‘light beating’ to keep both from evil.


Other luminaries like Inayat Banglawallah also put the boot in: he’s a regular guest on Radio 4’s Any Questions and founder of Muslims4UK – a group set up to ‘celebrate Britain’s democratic traditions’.

He magisterially declared on his blog Inayat’s Corner: ‘Channel 4 should be ashamed of themselves’.

Now Dr Keith Small, one of the world’s top Quran scholars, author of the acclaimed Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts who last week hosted an exploratory meeting of a new International Quran Studies Association at Pembroke College, Oxford has accused Holland’s detractors of ‘theological mugging’.

In response to a query from me, he writes: ‘Why must honest questions about the origins of Islam be met with such hostility?

‘Tom Holland asks his questions with sincerity, sympathy, and intellectual integrity. Isn't the legitimate academic study of history driven by this kind of honest questioning?’

Most damning in the IERA ‘statement’ he says, is its reference to ‘isnads’ – the chains of sources alleged to have passed stories and sayings of Mohammed down the generations, some of which are considered even by Muslims to be more reliable than others.

Says Small, whose doctorate sets out to examine what scientifically verifiable foundations these chains rest on: ‘Their answers concerning the historical credibility of isnads confuse what became an extensive, rigorous practice in the 9th and 10th centuries, with a much simpler and less rigorous system in the 8th.

‘Evidence of what kind of isnads were used in the 7th century are simply not available. Isnads become simply assertions that do not prove or disprove whether something was a historical event in the 7th century.’

He dismisses the IERA’s ‘paper’ as an exercise in ‘argumentative misdirection leading to logical fallacies leading to a large dose of theological mugging’.

‘It is like a dictator requiring a certain conclusion without allowing legitimate investigation’ he concludes.

Which is just the point. The quality press’s willingness to cite releases by sources as illegitimate as the IERA indicates the almost farcical ignorance there is about Islam and the ways religion works.

It is a Socratic axiom that you cannot compare like with unlike. You cannot compare pears with oranges. Or in this case, a scholar with a booby.

The modern multi-faith context demands a new approach by the media. Journalists who treat religion like politics, a game of ping pong between left and right, are betraying their ignorance - and their fear.