Friday, August 31, 2012

The "Religion of Peace" Naked At Last?

Best selling author Tom Holland has written a book about the early history of Islam. Barnaby Rogerson, writing for the Independent, nicely summarizes the gist of what Holland is up to:
This is a history of the history as it were, telling how the warrior-dominated Empires of Antiquity were transformed into the first monotheistic states; how the old inclusive conquest states, with their comparatively simple desire for submission and tribute were replaced by states which imposed systems of total belief and demanded exclusive loyalty.

(link to full review dated March 30)
Rogerson begins his review by saying "This is a book of extraordinary richness. I found myself amused, diverted and enchanted by turn," and ends it with "Even with these slight flaws In the Shadow of the Sword remains a spell-bindingly brilliant multiple portrait of the triumph of monotheism in the ancient world." So it appears that he rather liked it.

Anthony Sattin, writing for the Guardian, was also very positive about Holland's book, which he characterized as "brilliantly provocative".

Here is the concluding paragraph of Sattin's review:
The Qur'an anticipated the day of Holland's coming (or someone very like him). Sura 25 instructs Muslims to counter the claim that "these are fables of the ancients which he has got someone to write down for him" with the insistence that it was "revealed by Him Who knows every secret". For believers, these words are proof enough of the veracity of the Qur'an. Some have gone further and used them as justification for intellectual, legal and physical attacks on people who claim otherwise. The lives of some people who have dared to question the historicity of the prophet Muhammad and the Qur'an have been ruined, even ended. We must hope that Holland is spared their wrath and that his excellent book will be lauded, as it should be, for doing what the best sort of books can do – examining holy cows.

(link to full review, dated April 5)
Ziauddin Sardar, writing for the New Statesman, spews forth a predictable apolgetic hit-job in his "review" of Holland's book. Sardar frames his attack in terms of what Holland is "ostensibly ... concerned with", as opposed to what Holland's "real aim" is. Further, Sardar attacks Holland's sources, Holland's colleages, anyone who agrees with Holland, and the horse he rode in on. In all, it is exactly the kind of obscurantist tripe that one expects from a Left-Islamic cultural warrior like Sardar. Here is a link to Sardar's full review, dated April 25.

Not wanting to be outdone in the political-correctness department by the good Fabians over at the New Statesman, the Guardian decided to publish another review. This time it was the turn of G.W. Bowersock, one of the world's premier historians of late antiquity, who wrote sneeringly that:
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'.

(link to full review dated May 4)
Bowersock ends his review by openly questioning Holland's motives and personal character. This kind of unhinged attack is nothing new for Bowersock, as those familiar with his obsessive hatred for the Emperor Julian are already aware. While generally a staid and reliable scholar, Bowersock reacts to certain subjects the way Rigby Reardon (in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid) reacts to any mention of "the cleaning woman".

Fortunately, Tom Holland was given the opportunity to respond to Bowersock's screed. This excerpt gives a taste of Holland's highly effective and dignified rejoinder:
If I did not cite a manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale dated by the French scholar François Déroche to the third quarter of the seventh century, it was not – as Bowersock charges – because I had "missed" it, but because the dating of early Qur'an manuscripts is notoriously a work in progress. Déroche himself, for instance, originally placed the origins of the Bibliothèque Nationale manuscript in the early eighth century – and there are other scholars who still do. Nor, unfortunately, does carbon dating offer any greater certainty. At a conference in 2010, the same Christian Robin cited by Bowersock in his review revealed that a preliminary carbon dating of some pages from one of the Sana'a palimpsests had given dates in the late 500s – a most awkward misfire. I hope, then, that it will be understandable why, in a book aimed at a general readership, I opted not to venture into such a quagmire.

(link to full response, dated May 7)

David Frum very much liked Holland's book. Frum is an interesting guy who went from being a celebrated right-wing pundit to, well, the kind of guy who resigns/gets fired from the American Enterprise Institute because he was sick and tired of the Republican obstructionism in Washington, especially with respect to President Obama's Affordable Care Act. This is important to note because it means that Frum is definitely not a knee-jerk reactionary who simply spouts well-rehearsed xenophobic talking points any time the subject of Islam is mentioned.

The beginning of Frum's review (written for the Daily Beast) is worth quoting at length:
"Over the past century, modern scholarship has pretty thoroughly debunked the standard story of the birth of Islam.

The Quran was assembled over a century or more, not revealed in one go.

The religion we call Islam coalesced after the Arab Conquest of what is now Syria and Iraq, not before.

We have no reliable biographical details at all of the life of the prophet now known as Muhammad, but if he existed at all, he was likely a native of someplace in what is now Jordan, not the Hijaz, much less Mecca.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Until now, however, if you wanted more than just an "idea," you faced a challenging time. The revisionist scholars of Islam wrote in a style that was at best highly technical and at worst deliberately obscure. Unlike the gleeful debunkers of the self-told histories of Christianity and Judaism, revisionists such as John Wansborough and Patricia Crone have taken enormous pains to tread delicately.

The scrupulosity of these scholars however has left the largest part of the reading public to popularizers like Karen Armstrong, who continue to spread long-exploded versions of Islamic history as if the explosions had never been detonated. Those unwilling to struggle through academic texts have long needed a guide to the story of Islam as it's understood by those with the fullest access to the latest linguistic and archaeological evidence. Now at last in Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword, they finally have it."

(link to full review, dated June 4)


Other reviews:

Finally, Tom Holland's own website has a collection of blurbs from various reviews, some of which are not included in this post.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention! It's now on my holiday wish list.

Aetius

Katy Anders said...

Interesting!

I have to say, I am always intrigued by topics about which we're not allowed" to question the orthodox history and foundational understandings.

And as far as those topics go, you won't find a more thug-like response to questioning orthodoxy in the world today than you do involving Islam.

Of course, objectivity is difficult with something like Islam, but hearing the full spectrum of scholarship on it is important, nonetheless.

Mary said...

Thank you for the reviews on this book - I've just ordered it.

Keep up the good work!