The new book by Tom Holland on the origins and rise of Islam and the collapse of the Roman and Persian empires, In the Shadow of the Sword, has been gathering mixed reviews in the general press. Barnaby Rogerson in the Independent dismissed a few of Holland’s ideas on the birth and nature of Islam as fanciful or speculative, but saw these as only “slight flaws” in an otherwise compelling narrative of the period; Michael Scott in the Telegraph produced a masterpiece of evasion, describing it as a handsome volume tackling an important question from a novel perspective with a fluid style that was “also bound to encounter the full spectrum of critical reaction”; Ziauddin Sardar in the New Statesman objected, more in sorrow than anger, to Holland’s dismissal of the entire Muslim scholarly tradition on the development of Islam and the Qur’an and his reliance instead on the controversial theories of Patricia Crone and her associates. Finally, there was the magisterial academic demolition job offered by Glen Bowersock in the Guardian: “Holland came to his work on Islam unencumbered by any prior acquaintance with its fundamental texts or the scholarly literature… Holland seems to have confined himself largely to interpreters, learned or otherwise, writing in English, but his efforts to inform himself, arduous as they may have been, were manifestly insufficient… Holland’s cavalier treatment of his sources, ignorance of current research and lack of linguistic and historical acumen serve to undermine his provocative narrative.” Holland has now offered a response to the last of these.I don’t intend to get involved in the detailed arguments about the interpretation of unpublished early Qur’anic manuscripts and the like; my experience in this field is limited to teaching a single class on the early centuries of Islam as part of a general course on late antiquity, a class based entirely on a synthesis of standard works in English. Clearly, given the likely reach of Holland’s work into the student population and hence the likely appearance of this ‘revisionist’ approach in discussion and essays in years to come, I’m going to have to familiarise myself with his argument, and read more of Crone’s ‘Hagarism’ thesis than I’ve hitherto been inclined to do. For the moment, however, I simply want to comment on one aspect of Holland’s defence of his book, and the questions it raises about the enterprise of ‘popular history’.
One of Bowersock’s criticisms was that Holland had missed an important manuscript; the latter’s response was that he had on the contrary deliberately left it out because of uncertainty about its date – “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”. This is all too believable – and scarcely a unique occurence, even if it isn’t normally stated so baldly. Historians – I’m trying to resist the phrase ‘proper historians’, without much success – focus on such problems, teasing out all the different strands and debating the different possibilities and interpretative strategies; even when (or if) they settle on a reading, they are expected to show their working, so to speak. Popular historians omit any such complexities and suppress any doubts, for fear of unsettling their readers by revealing unexpected gaps or inconsistencies in the story. The traditional reflex response of historians to more or less anything, especially to the claims of social scientists about the past – “yes, but it’s rather more complicated than that” – is wholly suppressed.
I’ve lamented in the past the fact that television programmes on historical subjects, especially on antiquity, tend to present a seamless and final narrative or descriptive account, offered up by a single figure of authority who clearly has absolute command of the entire subject; in contrast, at least some archaeology programmes are prepared to focus on the process of discovery and the existence of debates and uncertainties. Of course they’re equally fictitious, just different kinds of stories about the past and our relationship with it, but there is nevertheless a striking difference in the effects and affect of these different accounts, the kinds of knowledge and understanding they claim or attempt to convey. On the one hand, the past appears as something known; on the other, the past appears as something that has to be discovered and reconstructed. The historian who simply knows stuff versus the archaeologist who investigates it. The demise of talking heads in history programmes – which, silly though they often were, at least gave the impression of history as in some sense a collaborative enterprise and a matter of debate – in favour of the single omniscient presenter simply reinforces this idea.
Works of popular history are often rather more sophisticated than this; the author is more likely to acknowledge his or her dependence on the scholarship of others, and notes and bibliographies are normally provided for anyone who wants to consult them – even if they’re kept well out of the way of the main text, to make sure that they don’t disrupt the flow and confidence of the narrative. In a few cases, there are even attempts to highlight the existence of debate and of alternative accounts. However, consciously or unconsciously, the model for such attempts is not the work of conventional academic historians but the literary mode of Dan Brown: the traditional account of the past is revealed to be a conspiracy promoted by some kind of shadowy establishment forces, heroically opposed by a small group of marginalised iconoclasts who uncover the truth. The Catholic Church has suppressed the true story of the descendents of Jesus in order to maintain its own power, until the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail came along; Islam invented stories about its origins in order to present itself as a new revelation and to underpin its drive to conquer the world, opposed only by Crone and Holland.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that Holland is consciously signing up for a crusade against Islam, or deliberately seeking to target those demographics that are already convinced that every Muslim is secretly plotting to establish a worldwide Caliphate. Indeed, there’s evidence that he’s quite oblivious to these possibilities. Bowersock’s review noted that the Dutch edition of the book appeared under the title The Fourth Beast, and expressed concern that “a marketing strategy of this kind looks like a conscious effort to profit from recent Dutch anxiety over Muslim immigrants”. Holland’s response was that the title had been chosen from a list of possibilities that he’d produced for all his publishers, and that the Fourth Beast in the prophecy in Daniel 7 has been taken to refer to both the Roman Empire and the original Caliphate, hence it’s a perfectly appropriate title. He may genuinely not see that these two positions aren’t incompatible; it may not be his marketing strategy, but his Dutch publisher might have fewer scruples or illusions about the appeal of such a title.
This is of course tangential; the most detailed and scrupulous scholarship can be driven by a dubious political agenda, or appropriated by others regardless of the author’s intentions. Bowersock’s review over-stepped the mark in appearing to ascribe malevolence to the author rather than naivety. It also, it must be said, showed remarkable naivety of its own in claiming that the quality of the book (as revealed through his detailed criticisms) would undermine its hopes for success. On the contrary, a detailed academic critique of such a book entirely misses the point in this context, as far as many potential readers are concerned; it simply reinforces the impression of a heroic outsider having the courage to tell the truth in the face of the criticisms of the academic establishment and the complaints of over-sensitive Muslims. “Academic nit-picking, point scoring and sheer spleen,” says one letter to the Guardian. “The proof of Holland’s scholastic integrity is in the reading.” I honestly don’t know what that means – he tells a good story so it must be true? – but it does confirm my sense that I am entirely, congenitally incapable of writing that sort of book or attracting that kind of reader.