|Abd al-Malik constructedthe Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem Courtesy: Wikipedia|
Having watched the C4 documentary based on Tom Holland’s book I am none the wiser and I find myself asking the same question as many of my Muslim friends. What was it all about?
Patricia Crone’s annoying smugness made it a difficult viewing. It was hard to sympathize with Mr. Holland’s earnest efforts to be original as Crone and her ilk have chosen the age-old orientalism of ignoring the obvious.
According to Holland and Crone, Islam went through a sustained period of evolution after the demise of its founder. The Arabs conquered the fertile lands and sought to convert the locals through amalgamating their new faith with that of the Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. Their focus is squarely on the machinations of Islamic conquests during the Umayyad times. A time of ascention for Arabs politically, but of theological confusion for the Muslim masses.
Crone’s book ‘Hagerism: The Making of the Islamic World’ cites the first non-Islamic reference to the existence of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) from Doctrina Jacobi written a couple of years after his death. The reference is indirect, and the narrators unsound based on the quality of the text. But it refers to the Prophet (pbuh) as a warrior and his message was the news of a Messiah to come. The narrator, a Jew by the name of Abraham makes enquiries about the ‘Saracen Prophet’ and concludes from the information that this prophet prefers wars and bloodshed, so he could not be a prophet. Also, being a Jew he treats the coming of the “anointed one” as a significant finding.
Crone, an ‘unbiased’ academic should have done better than poor Abraham. But she calls the Muslim conquest of Palestine under Caliph Umar (ra) a Messianic campaign. The fact is, Muslim tradition also foretells of a Muslim Messiah to appear in the latter days. Quran tells Muslims to expect their Messiah to appear at the time of their spiritual and moral decline (11:18, 61:7, and 62:4). The same Quran also repeats time and again that it is the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) who is the best example, the Seal of Prophets, the bringer of the final revelation, the Mercy on all mankind; his people are called the best of peoples and his religion (deen) the complete way of life. So coming of a Messiah could wait for Muslims until the moral and spiritual decline. Surely a man of Umar’s stature, one of the scribes of Quran and the most highly regarded Sahabi (companion of the Prophet) could not claim to be that Messiah. That would be tantamount to admitting failure, merely two years after the message was completed.
But in early Islamic history, there were internal conflicts where rumors second coming of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were spread and also the return of the assassinated fourth Caliph, Ali (ra). The existence of such stories in early Islamic history does prove a significant Judeo-Christian influence on early Islamic thought. But Quran, the core of all Islamic beliefs and the perfectly preserved scripture not only debunked such rumors during the early days, but also refutes the orientalists of our times. Umayyads, with all their wealth and influence could not produce a reliable claimant for the Mahdi, the Muslim Messiah. If Islamic faith was so pliable in those early days, surely the Umayyads would have greatly benefited from having Divine Sanction. In fact, we do find evidence of fabricated Ahadith to support one dynasty or the other, but Quran is free from such interpolations. If we could draw a parallel with Christianity, dynastic Muslim rulers failed to match St. Paul's success in re-interpreting and even adding to the original scriptures.
Arabs were poor recorders of history. Their history was an oral tradition of poetry. Some of which was written down. We are talking about Arabs of the late antiquity here. A people who did not read or write, did not mint coins and did not indulge in drawing frescoes and writing letters to each other. So we can rely on the earliest written evidence on the origins of Islam, which was spoken by Muhammad (pbuh) and written by his scribes; The Quran.
As far as I know both Crone and Holland accept that Quran was ‘uttered’ by a person called Muhammad (pbuh). They may dispute his location (Mecca or somewhere else), but they cannot dispute its authenticity as the scripture handed over to early Muslims from their prophet. I have discussed this in more details here.
Both Crone and Holland quickly jump to the nearest despots history could offer i.e., the Umayyads. Fortunately, not many Muslims get their religious inspirations from them. Early Islamic scholarship has always been at odds with the ruling classes. Both Umayydis and later Abbasids had suppressed the direct descendants of the Prophet (pbuh) and independent scholars like Abu Hanifa and Ahmad ibn Hanbal as well. Whatever Marwan did in Jerusalem, was done by an Arab-Umayyad who happened to be Muslims.
The best source of Islamic beliefs is the Quran; the historical artifact, the best evidence of the existence of the Prophet (pbuh) and the best method to verify the Hadith accounts. So it is no surprise that Tom Holland did not discuss the Quran in his documentary. He cited it a couple of times in passing, but there is much more in it then the mention of olives and grapes and the town of Bakkah. Surely, Quran has far more to offer than only geographical maps Arabia.