ISLAM, the Untold Story, which aired on Channel 4 last week, came pretty close to suggesting that Mohammed may have been a man of myth.
Reviewing the programme for the Telegraph, James Walton wrote:
Presenter Tom Holland took the brave step of applying the West’s own (admittedly more recent) traditions of scholarship and scepticism to Islam’s origins. What he found was rather surprising. In the 7th century, the Arabs did indeed roar out of their desert peninsula and conquer half the world. But in those days were they Muslims at all? And if so, why didn’t they, or anybody they conquered, mention the fact?
Clearly these are uncomfortable questions – and for a while Holland kept asking them without providing an answer. Eventually, though, he forced himself to come clean. No, those world-conquering Arabs probably weren’t Muslims. Only later did Islam appear, and possibly as a neat variation on the Roman use of religion to demonstrate God’s approval of their empire. Moreover, Prophet Mohammed’s life is a historical blank and for decades after his death, Mecca was a place of no special significance. Holland – who by now seemed to be involved in a game of How Far Can You Go? – did stop short of questioning whether Mohammed ever actually existed. But only just.
Throughout the programme, he [Holland] allowed an American Professor of Islamic Studies to champion the oral tradition against the arrogance of the Western “intellectual elite”. None the less, there was no doubting that in its quiet, somewhat earnest way, this was explosive stuff – and, for Channel 4, a welcome return to the fearlessness of its glory days.
Explosive stuff indeed. Today we learn that the documentary has triggered nearly 550 complaints to both the television regulator Ofcom and Channel 4 itself.
It has also sparked a bitter war of words on Twitter involving leading historians and Islamic scholars.
Since it was screened last week, presenter Tom Holland, a historian with a double first from Cambridge, has been subjected to a torrent of abusive tweets, some of which have included physical threats.
He is accused of distorting the history of Islam by claiming the Koran makes little or no reference to the religious city of Mecca.
One Twitter user accused Mr Holland of trying to destroy Islamic history while another called him a “fool” for suggesting Islam is a “made-up religion”.
The Islamic Education and Research Academy has published a lengthy paper denouncing the programme. But historians have rallied to Mr Holland’s defence.
The Academy claims the programme’s assertion that there are no historical records detailing the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad is flawed, saying:
Holland appears to have turned a blind eye to rich Islamic historical tradition.
Ofcom, which has received 150 complaints about the programme’s alleged bias, inaccuracy and offence caused to Muslims, is considering an investigation.
The BBC’s new sitcom Citizen Khan, which confronts the issues faced by a modern Muslim family, is also being considered for investigation after receiving just 20 complaints.
Last night Holland said:
The origins of Islam are a legitimate subject of historical inquiry and this film is wholly in keeping with other series and programmes on Channel 4. We were of course aware that we were touching deeply-held sensitivities and went to every effort to ensure that the moral and civilisational power of Islam was acknowledged.
More on this documentary here.
Hat tip: BarrieJohn & Pete H.