Can Islam ever accept higher criticism?

Last night’s Islam: The Untold Story will have made uncomfortable viewing for some people. It certainly seemed to be for one of the featured experts, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian Islamic philosopher who had the look of a man whose faith is facing the rising tide of scepticism and godlessness. It is one Christians of the past century and a half, from the early days of higher criticism to the recent plummet in religious attendance, will recognise well.

In this atmospheric and intelligent documentary Tom Holland, whose recently published In The Shadow of the Sword took the burgeoning study of early Islam to a popular audience, looked at the early history of the religion and sought to explain what evidence we have for the traditional history, as viewed by the faithful.

“The evidence is almost nonexistent,” he says. “When you start looking, everything is up for grabs.”

The peoples of antiquity, whether Persians, Greeks, Egyptians or Romans, saw the Arabs as a backwards, obscure people from the desert. As for their religion, they worshipped a number of deities, including cubes, although there were Christian and Jewish communities scattered along the Arabian Peninsula.

But in the seventh century these “despised” people rode out of the desert and embarked on a series of conquests that would soon have them running an empire that stretched from central Asia to the Loire Valley.

And yet the strangest thing about this period, known by posterity as “the Muslim conquest”, is that there is little evidence that they were Muslims at all. When the Arabs arrived in Jerusalem in 636 under Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab none of the chroniclers of the period have anything to say about what religion the new conquerors were.

Palestine had been under the control of the Byzantines, who had expanded the number of churches and encouraged Christian settlers, leading to much friction with the Jews. The new masters, who had just smashed a Byzantine army five times as large, seemed to look at Jewish sites with reverence, which led some Jews to see them as saviours and many Christians to feel paranoid about a Jewish reconquest.

And yet no one describes them as “Muslim”; nor does the Arab ruler of Jerusalem mention the Prophet Mohammed anywhere.
Most puzzling of all is the fact that Mecca, birthplace of Mohammed and holiest place in Islam, is not mentioned until a century after the Prophet’s death, and appears just once in the Koran – otherwise the book mentions “Bakkah”, which in Muslim tradition is another name of Mecca.

Yet as Holland points out in the book, the Koranic Mecca, a place where Christians and Jews lived, does not seem to fit with the distant Arabian town of that period. From a historian’s point of view the description of the city given in the Koran far better matches various settlements in what is now Syria or Israel, the same regions that “the believers”, as the Arabs were first called, were settled in when the Koran first started to be written. So it’s possible that Bakkah was located around there. Holland even visits the site of the first known mosque, which faces not towards Mecca but east.

The implication is clear – that what came to be called Islam developed much later than the Prophet Mohammed’s life, and by Arab leaders in more northerly lands who now found themselves in control of a huge, diverse empire filled with Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.

The documentary features several scholars of Islam, all of them from the West, which raises some difficult questions about whether Islam can be brought into a sceptical age, along with the other Abrahamic religions.

The difficulty is that the great sceptics of Christianity and Judaism were Christians and Jews, or at least from those traditions – but people instinctively react when they feel outsiders are threatening their traditions, even traditions they have doubts about.

Holland is clearly not trying to threaten anyone’s traditions, and is not anti-Islam nor anti-religion, as anyone who has read the book will testify; he prays with the Bedouin and is awed by the beautiful Dome of the Rock. His previous book, Millennium, was a very sympathetic look at how Christianity forged European civilisation, and in particular how the Pope and emperor of the 10th century helped to make secularism possible one day.

Professor Nasr clearly respects his motives, Holland’s “honest effort”, and yet it is clear he feels culturally under attack from Western-dominated criticism. And it’s hard not to feel sympathy when he says that “once the world is reduced to a mechanical way then all the other versions of reality lose their status as being real. And are relegated to the realm of so-called superstition. And what is not seen is considered not to have existed.”

It is an understandable fear, and yet although many of us lament in some way the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of Christianity’s fading strength, we accept that with knowledge comes doubt, and that we cannot cling to the comfort of certainty. If the Islamic world is to go forwards in a direction that makes life better for its inhabitants, and its neighbours, it needs to face these uncomfortable questions and embrace the pain of doubt.

This article was published at Telegraph Blogs

Comments so far

  1. Higher Criticism is the greatest threat today to conservative Christianity. If not stamped out, it will decimate the Christian Faith. Here is an example why:

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