Tom Holland’s sloppy Scholarship in his Recent Book!

Written by Zia H Shah MD

“If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and outstanding results are the three criteria of human genius, who could dare to compare any great man in modern history with Muhammad?”  (Alphonse de Lamartine)

It seems that Tom Holland has wasted five years of his life by penning a book, In the shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.  He starts with the assumptions that there can be only secular explanations for achievements of Muhammad, may peace be on him, and rise of Islam and no wonder he reaches the same conclusions.  His 5 year journey seems to be sheer waste, he comes back to where he started, without seeing anything, after a tedious journey through his distorted assumptions.

He wants to constantly bank on the devious and uncertain and disregard the apparent and the obvious.  He seems to be a reverse incarnation of a fundamental teaching of Islam:

He (Allah) it is Who has sent down to thee (Muhammad) the Book; in it there are verses that are decisive in meaning — they are the basis of the Book — and there are others that are susceptible of different interpretations. But those in whose hearts is perversity pursue such thereof as are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and seeking wrong interpretation of it. And none knows its right interpretation except Allah and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge; they say, ‘We believe in it; the whole is from our Lord.’ — And none heed except those gifted with understanding.  (Al Quran 3:8)

This verse is a fitting rebuttal of Holland’s work.  Allah says about those with a negative and prejudiced approach, “those in whose hearts is perversity pursue such thereof as are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and seeking wrong interpretation of it,” achieving nothing, and true knowledge always escapes them.  I would encourage readers to read the commentary of this verse in a five volume commentary to distinguish between honest scholarship and research and sloppy work and propaganda.  Before, we leave this verse, please note that it starts with an address to the Holy Prophet Muhammad and you would note that Holland has missed scores if not hundreds of references to the Prophet Muhammad in the Holy Quran, as will soon become evident, by the first quote from his book.

He discounts the Holy Quran as a source of history of Prophet Muhammad’s life by writing about the Holy Quran:

Those who are named in the pages tend to be angels, demons or prophets.  There are the four mentions of Muhammad himself of course.  Then there is an enigmatic figure called Zayd, who seems to be both the ex-husband of one of the prophet’s wives and his adopted son: tradition would subsequently identify him as one time slave who died in battle as an early martyr for Islam.  Finally, there is an unbeliever by the name of Abu Lahab, who appears in the biographies of the Prophet as his uncle, and who is condemned together with his wife, ‘to burn in the Flaming Fire.’  No other contemporaries are mentioned by name.[1]

Mentioned by name or not, the Quran is filled with accounts of Prophet’s life and those of his companion.  By his half truths, Holland is trying to paint a distorted picture of the Holy Quran as a source of history.  After highlighting limited mention of the Prophet Muhammad by name in the Holy Quran,  he goes onto mentioning the name of Zayd to bring the age old propaganda of Christian apologists against Islam, in as much as the Prophet married the divorcee of his adopted son.  Refutation of that is for another day.  Holland continues his description of the Quran:

The focus of the Qur’an is fixed implacably, not on the personal, but on the divine.  Before the awful dimension of such a radiance, in which God’s omnipotence can be experienced as something both intimate and cosmic, as a presence that is simultaneously closer to the believer than his own ‘jugular vein’ and more remote than the most distant star in the universe, what is any mere mortal?  The voices that feature in the Qur’an are those of God Himself and His prophet no one else gets much of a hearing.[1]

Even though, it is true that the Prophet Muhammad is mentioned by name in the Holy Scripture of Islam only four times, but, he is referred or alluded to scores if not hundreds of times and these references are well known to many a believers, like the back of their hand.  So, Tom Holland’s half truth is only to mislead and misguide naive readers into thinking, as if we cannot learn much from the Holy Quran about early Islam and that is why he puts emphasis on the Hadith and biographies of the Prophet Muhammad and stresses that the earliest biographies were not written until two centuries after his death.[2] This is his way of distorting the early history of Islam, which he calls secularizing of history or its secular explanation and understanding. The name of Jesus son of Mary appears more than 20 times in the Holy Quran and this contrast in the frequency of mention of name of Muhammad himself and an Israelite prophet, should serve as an epiphany, to any open minded researcher that unlike the New Testament Gospels, which have been described as an obsession with the death of Jesus, almost like an obituary of Jesus with a long prologue; the Holy Quran, a literal word of God, does not succumb to any obsession with the name or life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.

In the remaining of this article, I will mention some of the references to the Holy Prophet in the Holy Quran in chronological sequence, these can be easily picked up in any good Muslim biography of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.  Let me link one here by Sir Zafrulla Khan. In due course of time, we will develop a series of articles bringing out the myopia of Tom Holland’s work, God willing.

I will start my catalog of verses from the Holy Quran, with the very first revelations of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him:

First Revelation

Convey thou (Muhammad) in the name of thy Lord Who created,

Created man from a clot of blood.

Convey! And thy Lord is Most Generous,

Who taught man by the pen,

Taught man what he knew not.  (Al Quran 96:2-6)

Reassurance After a Short Pause

Thy Lord has not forsaken thee, nor is He displeased with thee.

Surely every hour that follows is better for thee than the one that precedes.

Did He not find thee an orphan and give thee shelter?

And He found thee wandering in search for Him and guided thee unto Himself.

And He found thee in want and enriched thee.

So the orphan, oppress not,

And him who seeks thy help, chide not,

And the bounty of thy Lord, proclaim.  (Al Quran 93:4-12)

Migration to Medina

The Meccans had hatched a conspiracy to kill the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, in the thirteenth year of his ministry and he had to escape in the dark of the night and there were no shadows of the swords of Islam, as Muhammad escaped as a refuge and traveled the 210 mile expanse between Mecca and Medina.  Muhammad had to hide with his companion Abu Bakr, later to be the first Caliph of Islam, and this is mentioned in the Holy Quran in the following verse:

If you help him (Muhammad) not, then know that Allah helped him even when the disbelievers drove him forth while he was one of the two when they were both in the cave, when he said to his companion, ‘Grieve not, for Allah is with us.’ Then Allah sent down His peace on him, and strengthened him with hosts which you did not see, and humbled the word of those who disbelieved, and it is the word of Allah alone which is supreme. And Allah is Mighty, Wise. (Al Quran 9:40)

Battle of Badr

Many of the details about the battle of Badr have been described in a Sura or chapter of the Holy Quran called Al Anfal and it is number eight out of 114 chapters.  I will quote just one verse from the Sura, which mentions an event in the beginning of the battle, when the Holy Prophet Muhammad threw a handful of pebbles or sand towards the enemy and God blessed the event by a sand storm, which blew in the eyes of the Meccans, the enemies of Islam and a small an unarmed army of the Muslims was able to score a grand victory over their enemies.  Allah owns the act of the prophet and the companions in so many words:

So you (companions of Muhammad) killed them not, but it was Allah Who killed them. And thou (Muhammad) threwest not when thou didst throw, but it was Allah Who threw, that He might overthrow the disbelievers and that He might confer on the believers a great favor from Himself. Surely, Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.  (Al Quran 8:18)

Muslims were allowed defensive warfare after migration to Medina and it was clearly a defensive stance meant to ensure religious freedom of not only the Muslims but also the Christians and Jews and others.  The verses said:

Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged — and Allah indeed has power to help them — Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ — And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty.  (Al Quran 22:40-41)

Battle of Uhad

Many of the events of Uhad are described in Sura Ale-Imran, the third chapter of the Holy Quran.

Hadhrat Ayesha’s innocence

Many of the events are described in Sura Nur, the twenty fourth chapter of the Holy Quran.

Battle of the Ditch

Many of the events are described in Sura Al Ahzab, the thirty third chapter of the Holy Quran.  Here I quote one of the verses:

O ye who believe! remember the favor of Allah on you when there came down upon you hosts, and We sent against them a wind and hosts that you saw not. And Allah sees what you do. (Al Quran 33:10)

Peace Treaty of Hudaibiyya

Many of the events are described in Sura Fath, the forty eighth chapter of the Holy Quran.  Before the negotiations of the treaty, the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him had taken an oath of allegiance from his companions.  It is mentioned in the Holy Quran in the following verse:

Indeed, those who swear allegiance to thee (Muhammad) indeed swear allegiance to Allah. The hand of Allah is over their hands. So whoever breaks his oath, breaks it to his own loss; and whoever fulfills the covenant that he has made with Allah, He will surely give him a great reward. (Al Quran 48:11)

Fall of Makkah

This is alluded to in Sura Nasr, the 110th Sura or chapter of the Holy Quran.

The Holy Prophet Muhammad had to engage in defensive warfare, but was very mindful of casualties on both sides. The total casualties in all the wars that he engaged in were no more than 500. Here I present to you two quotes about what the non-Muslims had to say about his entry into Makkah as an absolute ruler, after being persecuted for thirteen years and battled against for another eight years. Reverend Benjamin Bosworth Smith (1784-1884) was an American Protestant Episcopal bishop, he wrote:

Now would have been the moment to gratify his ambition, to satiate his lust, to get his revenge. Read the account of Muhammad’s entry into Mecca along with the account of Marius Sulla as he entered Rome, one would be in a position to recognize the magnanimity and moderation of the Prophet of Arabia. There were no proscription lists, no plunder, no wanton revenge. From a helpless orphan to the ruler of a big country was a great transition; yet the Holy Prophet retained the nobility of his character under all circumstances. (R. Bosworth Smith (Muhammad and Muhammadanism)

Stanley Lane-Poole (18 December 1854 – 29 December 1931) was a British orientalist and archaeologist, he wrote:

But what is this? Is there no blood in the streets? Where are the bodies of the thousands that have been butchered? Facts are hard things; and it is a fact that the day of Muhammad’s greatest triumph over his enemies was also the day of his grandest victory over himself. He freely forgave the Kureysh all the years of sorrow and cruel scorn they had inflicted on him; he gave an amnesty to the whole population of Makkah. Four criminals whom justice condemned, made up Muhammad’s proscription list; no house was robbed, no woman insulted. It was thus that Muhammad entered again his native city. Through all the annals of conquest, there is no triumphant entry like unto this one. (Lane Poole, quoted in Introduction to Higgins’ Apology for Mohammad pp ixxi)

Whereas, the First and the Second World War had millions of casualties, the early Islamic wars, had minimal casualties in comparison.  This was a result of peaceful teachings of Islam, even in the face of war.  Allah said in the Holy Quran:

And fight in the cause of Allah against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Surely, Allah loves not the transgressors.  And kill them wherever you meet them and drive them out from where they have driven you out; for persecution is worse than killing. And fight them not in, and near, the Sacred Mosque until they fight you therein. But if they fight you, then fight them: such is the requital for the disbelievers.  But if they desist, then surely Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.  And fight them until there is no persecution, and religion is freely professed for Allah. But if they desist, then remember that no hostility is allowed except against the aggressors. (Al Quran 2:191-194)

Battle of Hunain

Allah says:

Surely, Allah had helped you on many a battlefield, and on the Day of Hunain, when your great numbers made you proud, but they availed you nought; and the earth, with all its vastness, became straitened for you, and then you turned your backs retreating.  Then Allah sent down His peace upon His Messenger and upon the believers, and He sent down hosts which you did not see, and He punished those who disbelieved. And this is the reward of the disbelievers.  Then will Allah, after that, turn with compassion to whomsoever He pleases; and Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.  (Al Quran 9:25-27)

Last Pilgrimage

Under this heading I have borrowed the whole description from the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, written by Sir Zafrulla Khan.

As indicated in the opening words of his address on the Day of Arafat, the Holy Prophet knew that this was to be his only pilgrimage, and this consciousness added to his eagerness to leave no part of his task undone. A Muslim’s knowledge that the Holy Prophet knew that what he esteemed as his greatest and final pilgrimage was not to be long delayed makes the memory of all that he did and said in the course of this pilgrimage poignant and precious.

On the tenth day of his journey the Holy Prophet reached Saif, an easy stage from Mecca; there he rested for the night, and on the morning, having bathed and mounted Qaswa, proceeded towards Mecca. He entered the upper suburbs by the same route, which he had taken two years before and, passing down the main street, approached the Ka’aba. As he passed through the Bani Shaiba Gate, with the Holy House full in view, he raised his hands to heaven, and invoked a blessing on it: ‘O Lord, add unto this House in the dignity and glory, the honor and the reverence, which already Thou hast bestowed upon it. They that for the pilgrimage, and the Umra, frequent this House, increase them much in honor and dignity, in piety, goodness and renown.’ Then, mounted as he was on his camel, he performed the prescribed circuits with other preliminary rites, and afterwards retired to a tent pitched for him in the valley.

On the seventh of the month, after the midday Prayer, the Holy Prophet preached to the concourse assembled around the Ka’aba. Next day, followed by myriads of devotees, he set out for Mina where he performed the ordinary prayers and slept in a tent. On the second morning at sunrise he moved to Arafat, where he arrived shortly after noon. The plain of Arafat, in which 100,000 eager pilgrims were gathered, was humming with Takbir, Talbeeh, Tasbih, Tahmeed and calling down blessings on the Holy Prophet. He proceeded through the throngs to Jabal Rahmat (Mount of Mercy).

Muhammad, the Chosen of Allah; rejected by Quraish; persecuted; penned in with his family and a few Companions for thirty months in Shi’b Abi Talib and denied all provisions and contact; hounded out of Taif; forced out of Mecca with a price of one hundred camels proclaimed for his person, dead or alive; pursued by the hatred of Quraish even in Medina; challenged by force, besieged, plotted against; faithful, loyal, steadfast, humble, obedient servant of Allah; His Messenger par excellence; in rejection and in acceptance, in trial and in triumph proclaiming as his stand: ‘Sufficient unto me is Allah, there is no god but He, in Him is my trust, the Lord of the Glorious Throne’ (9:129); Muhammad was now surrounded by an ocean of faithful, devoted hearts, all proclaiming the glory of Allah, celebrating His praise, affirming His Unity, supplicating Him for forgiveness, mercy, compassion, invoking His blessings upon Muhammad. Arrived at the Mount, the Holy Prophet stood on the back of Qaswa and made his address:

‘I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship save Allah, the One, without associate, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Servant and His Messenger.

‘I do not think, O people, that we shall be gathered together here again. Your belongings, your honor, and your lives are sanctified and made inviolate like the sanctity of this day, this month and this city. You will soon appear before your Lord and He will call you to account for all your doings. Take heed that you do not go astray, after I am gone, and start slaying one another.

‘Take note, that I trample underfoot all un-Islamic customs and traditions. All blood-feuds are utterly wiped out. I hereby remit everything owed to any member of my family on that account.

‘Riba [interest] has been declared unlawful and is no longer due. I hereby remit any interest due to any member of my family; for instance, all interest due to my uncle, Abbas bin Abdul Muttalib, is remitted altogether.

‘Be ever mindful of the duty you owe to Allah in respect of your wives. You have married them with the guarantee of Allah’s name, and you have made them lawful for yourselves in accordance with Allah’s word. So be mindful of your covenant. They owe you fidelity; for any default on their part you may correct them gently. You owe them suitable maintenance. As regards those under your authority, see that you feed them with such food as you eat yourselves; and clothe them with the stuff you wear. If they commit a fault, which you are not inclined to forgive, and then sell them, for they are the servants of the Lord, and are not to be tormented.

‘Allah has made you brethren one to another, so be not divided. An Arab has no preference over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; nor is a white one to be preferred to a dark one, nor a dark one to a white one.

‘I am leaving something with you that will safeguard you against all error, if you hold fast to it. That is Allah’s Book.

‘There is no new prophet after me, nor any new law. Worship your Lord, observe Prayer, observe the fast during Ramadhan, pay the Zakat cheerfully, perform the Pilgrimage to the House of Allah, and obey those in authority among you; Allah will admit you to His Paradise.

‘You will be questioned concerning me also on the Day of Judgment. Tell me, then, what will you answer?’

There was a tremendous response: ‘We bear witness that you have conveyed all Allah’s commands to us.’ The Holy Prophet raised his finger to heaven and then pointed it at the people, and voiced the adjuration, ‘Hear, O Allah.’

The people affirmed, ‘You have discharged in full your obligations as Prophet and Messenger.’

In the same manner again, the Holy Prophet begged, ‘Bear witness, O Allah.’

A third time came the response, ‘You have made clear to us that which is right and that which is wrong.’

Again the entreaty went up from the Holy Prophet, ‘Hear, O Lord.’

He then charged those present to convey the substance of his address to those absent, observing that perchance he who hears at second hand may retain it better then one who is present.

As soon as he concluded, the revelation came: ‘This day have I completed My commandments – for you, and have brought to its fullness the favor that I have bestowed upon you, and have chosen Islam as your religion’ (Al Quran 5:4).

Why the Holy Quran is an accurate source of contemporary history

The Holy Quran has to be taken as a very accurate source of contemporary events in the life of the Prophet Muhammad for a very simple logic and reason and many an orientalists have yielded to this reality.  As the Quran was claimed as the literal word of All-Knowing God, if it was wrongly stating the events as they were unfolding before the eyes of believers and non-believers alike, it would have created a havoc and a large scale apostasy among the believers.  So, for Tom Holland to trivialize an all important source of history does not make any sense.  I would rather suggest that all other historical sources should be interpreted in light of the established facts outlined in the Holy Quran and all the differences between Tom Holland, fair minded Christian biographers and insightful Muslim biographers, will disappear in thin air.

Tom Holland at odds with other Historians

His assumptions and methods are completely at odds with other historians and no wonder his findings are terribly strange as they are.  Contrast his biography with those of Montgomery Watt, Karen Armstrong, Thomas Carlyle and Godfrey Higgins and one finds day and night difference.  Here, I highlight some views about Montgomery Watt from Wikipedia:

Watt believed that the Qur’an was divinely inspired, though not infallibly true.[3]

Martin Forward, a 21st century Non-Muslim Islamic scholar states:

His books have done much to emphasize the Prophet’s commitment to social justice; Watt has described him as being like an Old Testament prophet, who came to restore fair dealing and belief in one God to the Arabs, for whom these were or had become irrelevant concepts. This would not be a sufficiently high estimate of his worth for most Muslims, but it’s a start. Frankly, it’s hard for Christians to say affirmative things about a religion like Islam that postdates their own, which they are brought up to believe contains all things necessary for salvation. And it’s difficult for Muslims to face the fact that Christians aren’t persuaded by the view that Christianity is only a stop on the way to Islam, the final religion.” [5]

Charlotte Alfred, a reporter for the journal founded in Watt’s department at Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Middle East Report, pointed out:

His views on Islam and Christianity have at times been controversial. He rejects the infallibility of both the Bible and the Qur’ān, but regards each as divinely inspired. He has argued that the Muslim and Judaeo-Christian traditions have much to teach each other, personally commenting that his study of Islam deepened his understanding of the oneness of God.[6]

Carole Hillenbrand, a professor of Islamic History at the University of Edinburgh, states:

He was not afraid to express rather radical theological opinions – controversial ones in some Christian ecclesiastical circles. He often pondered on the question of what influence his study of Islam had exerted on him in his own Christian faith. As a direct result, he came to argue that the Islamic emphasis on the uncompromising oneness of God had caused him to reconsider the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which is vigorously attacked in the Koran as undermining true monotheism.
Influenced by Islam, with its 99 names of God, each expressing special attributes of God, Watt returned to the Latin word “persona” – which meant a “face” or “mask”, and not “individual”, as it now means in English – and he formulated the view that a true interpretation of Trinity would not signify that God comprises three individuals. For him, Trinity represents three different “faces” of the one and the same God.[7]

Karen Armstrong has published two biographies of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, in recent years and her first biography is much more accurate, in my opinion, and the second one is influenced to some degree by the Islamophobia, created by the unfortunate events of 2001 and Tom Holland’s scholarship is a complete reflection of Islamophobia, coined in gentle and deceptive terms.  I provide links here for the work of Thomas Carlyle, Godfrey Higgins, Prof. Laura Veccia Vagleiri, John Davenport, and SP Scott, to be able to contrast their work with that of Tom Holland.


In this age of information as the arguments of the truth of Islam become more easily available to the Christians in the West, the exodus that we are seeing from Christianity towards agnosticism and atheism may well soon be directed to Islam.  This is the fear that is the root cause of books by Tom Holland, Salman Rushdie and Robert Spencer.  If this fear was not consuming Christian and agnostic apologists, they may as well ignore every thing about Islam.  In conclusion, let me applaud Holland for putting a beautiful quote by George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the book.  But, allow me to put a different twist on it.  Hegel, an influential German philosopher of the 19th century, says: “Once the world of ideas has been transformed, reality cannot hold out for long.” This profound observation may soon become true in favor of Islam as the Western readers begin to see through the distortions of propagandists against Islam.

In the end I link one of my previous articles that was published in Muslim Sunrise, titled: Rising of the Sun from the West in the Latter Days.


1.  Tom Holland.  In the shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.  Little Brown, 2012.  Page 308.

2.  Page 303.

3. Interview: William Montgomery Watt

4. The Herald, The Scotsman, The Times, 27 October 2006.

5. The Prophet Muhammad: A mercy to mankind.

6. Obituary by Charlotte Alfred. Edinburgh Middle East Report Online. Winter 2006.

7. Professor W. Montgomery Watt by Carole Hillenbrand

The featured picture is courtesy of:

  1. Interview: William Montgomery Watt
  2. ^ The Herald, The Scotsman, The Times, 27 October 2006
  3. ^ The Prophet Muhammad: A mercy to mankind (dead link)
  4. ^ Obituary by Charlotte Alfred. Edinburgh Middle East Report Online. Winter 2006.

Categories: Ahmadiyyat: True Islam

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  1. Tribute to Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and Quran by non-Muslim writers

    Samuel Parsons Scott’s book is available in Google books and Barnes and Noble eBooks. He understood part of the charm of the Prophet’s character when he wrote:

    The glories which invest the history of Islam may be entirely derived from the valor, the virtue, the intelligence, the genius, of one man. If this be conceded, the largest measure of credit is due to him who conceived its plan, promoted its impulse, and formulated the rules which insured its success. In any event, if the object of religion be the inculcation of morals, the diminution of evil, the promotion of human happiness, the expansion of the human intellect, if the performance of good works will avail in the great day when mankind shall be summoned to its final reckoning it is neither irreverent nor unreasonable to admit that Muhammad was indeed an Apostle of God.

    What Samuel Parsons Scott missed, Reverend Professor Montgomery Watt a biographer of the Prophet Muhammad grasped or was it a Freudian slip? He high lighted above all virtues the Prophet’s trust in God:

    The more one reflects on the history of Muhammad and of early Islam, the more one is amazed at the vastness of his achievement. Circumstances presented him with an opportunity such as few men have had, but the man was fully matched with the hour. Had it not been for his gifts as a seer, statesman, and administrator and, behind these, his trust in God and firm belief that God had sent him, a notable chapter in the history of mankind would have remained unwritten.

    Read further.

  2. But the question is, how do you KNOW that the passages in the Qur’an you cite do actually refer to episodes from the Prophet’s life, as related in the Sira? Might it not be the other way round? Might not the biographies of Muhammad have been written to explain passages in the Qur’an that Muslims, 150 years or so after the Prophet’s death, simply no longer understood? Surely you would admit that is at least a possibility?

  3. Dear Tom Holland

    You ask an important question, “How do you KNOW?” This opens the issue of commentary of the Holy Quran and at the same time exegesis of the Bible and libraries can be written about them. It made me also think about Rene Descartes’ quote: ‘I think therefore I am!’

    We are willing to argue from first principles, but, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community also has the advantage that God sent a subordinate prophet, for renaissance of Islam, the Messiah, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani, who was taught interpretation of many of the verses of the Holy Quran, by All Knowing God and he challenged all Muslim scholars to compete with him about interpretation of the Holy Quran. He also showed from the Holy Quran and the Bible that Jesus son of Mary did not die on the cross and only went into a swoon or a coma and in so doing he demystified Christianity for us.

    We have a section about Revelation in our new site Islam for the West.

    I am glad you are here and perhaps, over time gradually, we can together read your book aloud, in the comment section here.

  4. Surely as a researcher one must acknowledge that anything is possible. But the astute and honest researcher concludes that which is most probable.

    Indeed it is possible that the sun does not exist and is simply an illusion … or that the treatment doctors give is just random and has no positive effect on the human body. It is just as possible that smoking is not a cause of lung cancer.

    But a researcher of your stature Mr. Holland must know that sufficient evidence turns hypothesis into theory and theory into fact. If the entire argument is “Surely you would admit that is at least a possibility?” then I would admit it is as much a possibility as the fact that the sun is an illusion.

    The honest man does not focus on the doubts and possibilities to prove their hypothesis. The honest man … the astute researcher present evidence in its whole. Would you not agree?

  5. Dear Tom, firstly, may I congratulate you on your previous works which provide a great service in making history accessible to the world at large.

    As you will be aware, the theology and historiography which underpin Islamic thought and history are themselves areas of study which have formed the subject of voluminous studies.

    The historical understanding we take from various verses of the Qur’an are generally studied through books that deal with ”Asbab al-nuzul,” alluding to the reasoning behind, or context of, revelation.

    All of the evidence we have regarding the historical context of a verse is traced back to an individual, a Companion, who understood the context because he/she was present on each mentioned occasion. You will no doubt here make the point that this is all well and good, but it presupposes an acceptance of authenticity of the hadith literature – and rightly so.

    It is here that we arrive at the real dilemma that I am confronted with when reviewing your book. While I disagree with your suspicion surrounding the authenticity of the hadith literature, I do not begrudge you the right to make the point. Goldziher, Schacht and Crone have already made far deeper and more compelling arguments to support your contention and so exploring their arguments, as a historian, is simply being honest to your craft. My issue is that you appear to have based your book almost entirely upon skeptical studies of the hadith literature and not presented the compelling and enormous corpus of works, far outweighing the skeptical works, on the validity and importance of the hadith literature.

    This much is disappointing to me and enough to throw doubt over your latest volume. If there is a reasonable basis for this, then please do enlighten me. For the time being, I cannot think of one.

  6. When I began the book, I had rather presumed that there would be lots of contemporaneous source material for Muhammad’s life – the equivalent, say, of Cicero’s letters and speeches. I soon realised this was not the case – and realised as well that I could not hope to begin my book until I had decided whether the hadiths were to be trusted as a source for Muhammad’s life, or were evidence instead for the gradual evolution of Islam. I spent many months in the library, exploring the seemingly infinite shades of opinion on the matter – from al-Azami through to Cook. It seemed to me, in the end, that there was no clinching proof one way or the other – one has to rely on one’s understanding of the period, and the balance of probability, and make one’s case in that light. Obviously, in such a situation, one brings one’s preconceptions to the party: a Sunni Muslim is strongly predisposed to accept the hadiths as true, just as someone schooled in the way that the ancients attributed rulings and customs posthumously to fabulous lawgivers is liable to be suspicious. What settled me personally was realising just how close were the parallels between the Sunna and the Talmud – and the way in which Islam, if it was indeed presumed to have constructed its own backstory, was doing nothing that Judaism, or Christianity, or Zoroastrianism had not also done. I did write a substantial section on the hadiths, explaining all this in vastly more detail – but it was cut, I think correctly, because my editor said that it would be of interest only to specialists. Some brief skeleton of what I wrote can be found in footnote 68, on page 451.

    Naturally, I appreciate that Muslims will not accept my conclusions, nor would I want to force scepticism down anyone’s throat. That said, I do hope that Muslims will accept that my own doubts are no less sincere than their faith.

  7. I was always puzzled about the ‘Orientalists’ who studied Muslims very deeply. I could not understand how they could not accept Islam, after spending years and years studying the beauties of it. The problems was that they studied it similarly how one would study a butterfly. It is absolutely beautiful – and that is the end of it. I suppose it is the ‘belief’ which makes all the difference, belief in which a Muslim is strengthened by true dreams. But – no, that is not sufficient, because Annemarie Schimmel for instance, the German Orientalist, also had true dreams. Sorry, I just remain puzzled…

  8. Tom, while Quran is not a book of history, it plays the important role of verifying the truth of many incidents that occurred in Prophet Mohammad’s (peace be on him) life. Secondly, the first compilation of hadith was carried out by Ibn Ishaq, who was born 72 years after the passing of the Prophet. He lived in Medina for 30 years and was taught by many teachers who were sons of the Prophet’s companions. His work was refined and authenticated by Bukhari a century later. According to Guillaume, Bukhari was “a man who laboured sixteen years on the compilation of his corpus, who sought the aid of prayer before committing a tradition to writing and who interrogated over one thousand sheikhs living in places so distant as Balkh, Merv, Nisapur, the principal towns of Mesopotamia, the Hijaz, Egypt, and Syria..” Any hadith that did not satisfy the rules for determining the trustworthiness of the source was excluded by him. And what about the Sahifah (The Constitution of Medina)? Scholar’s of all schools of thought consider the document to be “unquestionably authentic” because “No later falsifier writing under the Umayyads or Abbasids, would have included non-Muslims in the ummah, would have retained the articles against the Quraysh, and would have given Muhammad so insignificant a place.” Then there is Kitab-al-Kharaj by Abu Yusaf (731-798), “who deals with the problems of land taxation, the legal positions of non-Muslims and related matters and gives precedents, wherever possible, from the Prophet’s time to establish the law according to his sunnah” and many many more. Any of these materials would have been better suited as ‘contemporaneous source material’ than the sources you used. The Talmudic parallel you found in the Quran is hardly a surprise for a religion that has been openly referred to as the “completion” and “perfection” of the “religion of Abraham.”

    You hear the voice of God in the Quran in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. How be it when he, the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak.. and he will show  you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you. (John 16:7-14)” Who can dispute that the Quran glorifies Jesus, absolves him of suspicious birth and cursed death. There are numerous signs within the Quran that testify to it’s divine nature. I will just quote the one that refers to the Big Bang and challenges people to reflect: “Do not the disbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were a closed-up mass, then We opened them out?” And We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?”

  9. Psycho-analyzing St. Paul

    Dear brother Rafiq

    I hope Tom Holland will respond to your query above, but, here are my two cents, about analyzing an Orientalist. It depends on mind set of any person, as to what he or she determines to be primary and fundamental and what is peripheral and to be explained away. This is also the driving point of the very first verse from Sura Ale-Imran that I quoted in the post. A straight forward person, one who calls a spade a spade, called righteous in the religious jargon, will have correct fundamentals and will reach valid inferences or conclusions, by explaining away what is doubtful.

    Let me illustrate by psycho-analyzing St. Paul. In Jewish or Islamic paradigm, God sends messengers and gives us Law, which we have to follow to achieve salvation. The Law or the Sharia is fundamental in this paradigm and takes center stage. St. Paul on the other hand assumed that Jesus died on the cross. He knew that Jesus was alive after crucifixion, so he argued that he must have been specially blessed by God and must have been his beloved, to some how survive crucifixion. If that be so, why did he die on the cross in the first place? Deuteronomy says that only an accursed person hangs on the cross. So, Jesus was not put on the cross for his faults, so he must have died for our sins, Paul argued in his mind. If he died for our sins, what about the Law? So, Law must be a curse and not relevant. So, see, how by making wrong assumption of Jesus dying on the cross and by starting on the wrong foot and putting the cart before the horse, St. Paul twisted religion completely. After generations of indoctrination, this unfortunately has now become the mind set of each believing Christian.

    This should illustrate clearly that if our premises are wrong the inferences will be wrong, a very fundamental principle taught in logic classes. This is the trap that I believe many an orientalists that fail to convert, fall into.

    Having said all this, I do have to acknowledge that Allah is the ultimate judge of all humans and we should exercise some reasonable humility in our dialogue.

  10. So let it be understood Mr. Holland that false preconceptions have no role in the determination of truth. And any Muslim who is swayed in his faith by blindly accepting preconceptions should worry about the state of their belief. For as Muslims we are not instructed to believe blindly but rather to believe that which makes honest sense (though it may not have been proven without doubt).

    A reasonable example I hinted at was that of smoking being a cause of lung cancer. It was understood by the honest men far earlier than those who had vested interests in the success of the smoking industry. And it was not until sufficient proof had accumulated that even those with vested interests could not turn a blind eye.

    So, in the same way, a Muslim should see Islam as a truth based on his or her unbiased and honest eye and not based on false preconceptions. But God has left sufficient doubt about the truth in religious matters for people with selfish interests to deny the truth. If everything was clear as the shining sun then all would accept and then there would be no test and no distinction between the honest and the dishonest. For as in the case of smoking being a cause of lung cancer even the most selfish have been forced to accept it now.

    The second point that needs to be understood is that there is only one version of the Quran all over the world and available to all. That is enough proof to disregard notions of “evolution” of Islam or the “evolution” of the story of Islam since Islam is based on the Quran. If there was evolution would there not be more than one versions? How it came to be that Islam spread across the Middle East and somehow only a single version of the Quran was allowed to exist. Despite increasing sects in Islam the Quran remains untouched. This simple argument should be sufficient for an honest seeker of truth.

  11. I accept that the Qur’anic text (though not necessarily the Qur’an in the form we have it now) dates from the time of Muhammad, and that it has been regarded ever since as impregnably holy and therefore untouchable. It does not respond to the whims of the changing times, as the hadiths do. But just as the canonical gospels are far older than, say, the Roman Catholic Church, so likewise, I would argue, is the Qur’an much older than Islam. Indeed, it seems to me that the biographies of Muhammad were written in part, at least, to explain passages in the Qur’an that Muslims, by the late 8th Christian century, simply did not understand. Equally, there are some features in the Qur’an – the fact that the supposedly pagan Mushrikun appear to be monotheists, that they keep cattle and grow olives, that they pass “by day and by night” past the site of Sodom – that receive no explanation at all in Muslim tradition.

  12. Dear Tom Holland, you wrote:

    Naturally, I appreciate that Muslims will not accept my conclusions, nor would I want to force scepticism down anyone’s throat. That said, I do hope that Muslims will accept that my own doubts are no less sincere than their faith.

    The only way for us to know your sincerity would be by your openness and honesty in your dialogue here. I hope all of us can learn from each other.

    To begin to understand your book better, I need to know a little about you. Are you looking at the world through agnostic lenses, atheist’s or a Christian’s and if Christian, what type of Christian? The more you share with us better we will know you and your thoughts or writings and that will facilitate mutual learning.

  13. Hmm … I find myself in partial agreement with you here. Various sects of Islam have in fact been formed and divided based on the Hadith much more than the Quran. In fact Hadith has influenced and changed Islam among the Muslims. Muslim scholars today often use Hadith to support their current view of Islam rather than the Quran. The Sunni and Shia split is, at its core, an issue of Hadith much more than an issue of Quran. And whether intentionally or unintentionally Hadith (a collection of Chinese Whispers (if you have played that game) over 200 year period) have distorted many truths.

    So yes, had Muslims stuck to the Quran they would have stuck to the original Islam. While there are many Hadith that support the Quran Muslims did not do enough to challenge Hadith that go against the Quranic verses (or did not bother looking at Quranic view on the topic). Some of these Hadith are fabricated and have shaped various views of Islam held today.

    So yes while there are some general agreements on the overall picture of how Islam came to be, how it spread, etc. between Quran and Hadith on the details the Quran may be found to contradict Hadith. In principle if such a situation arises the Quran is superior and Hadith is disregarded. Though Muslims believe this they (and specially orthodox scholars of Islam today) ignore this belief on many an occasion.

    However, it should be clear that the Quran is enough to support the Quran. Several examples may be used to prove this. It is unfortunate that Muslims scholars are blind and do not see the truths present in the Quran and quickly resort to Hadith.

    A simple example that I can elaborate should you please is that Muslims use Hadith to prove that apostasy is punishable by death while the Quran clearly contradicts this view.

    There are more comments on your comments but I should like to take a break here for your opinion.

  14. 1. I do not have time to reply with my comments right now, but will do so tomorrow. I would like to say, however, that I am delighted that Tom has taken the time to share his thoughts here. That in itself is a very positive sign.
    2. I do not personally consider Tom Holland to be an Orientalist and, furthermore, it is of worth to point out that Orientalism does not inherently infer ”anti-Islam.” Though, admittedly, the vast majority of Orientalists have not demonstrated objectivity in their study of the history of the Near East.
    3. Tom: I do not doubt your sincerity and, indeed, it would not be in line with my faith to question that which is contained within your heart. My comments are based solely on what I have observed in your intellectual discourse.

    Many thanks

  15. Dear Tom Holland

    Thank you for providing the link above.

    Where ever we will see eye to eye, you will find me friendly and even gracious, always willing to co-operate on common interests.

    I just put together a short article, in which I have quoted you in very positive light: Umar Farooq versus Heraclius: Who gave us our religious freedoms?

    Another similar short article will be published later today. My pen will be sharp and blunt only in pursuit of making a point, not to be unkind or hurtful. I hope you will be able to see this point, if not today, very soon.

  16. Tom Holland has become a witness for one of the Prophecies of the Holy Quran

    The 30th Sura of the Holy Quran, named Rome, opens with the declaration of a prophecy about the ultimate success of the Romans over the Persians. The prophecy was made at a time when the tide of the Persian conquest was sweeping away everything before its irresistible onrush and the degradation and humiliation of the Romans had sunk to its lowest depths. It was then beyond human knowledge and ingenuity to predict that within a period ranging from three to nine years, tables would be completely turned upon the Persians, and the vanquished would become the victors. The prophecy was literally fulfilled in most extraordinary and unforeseen circumstances. In today’s terms it would be like a Prophet making a clear prophecy, against high stakes that Russia has been humbled in the Cold War, but, would within nine years put USA to shame and come back with the fullest glory, as the sole super-power! How likely is such a prophecy to succeed?

    Let me, now, quote from the commentary of the Holy Quran edited by Malik Ghulam Farid, as it comments on verse 30:5, of the Holy Quran:

    In order fully to appreciate the significance of this and the preceding two verses it is necessary to cast a cursory glance over the political conditions that obtained the two great Empires that lay on the borders of Arabia-the Persian and the Roman Empires-shortly before the advent of the Holy Prophet of Islam. They were at war with ch other. The first round had gone in favour of the Persians whose tide of conquest began in 602 A.D., when in order to avenge the death of Maurice, his patron and benefactor, at the hands of Phocas, Chosroes II, started the war with Rome. For twenty years the Roman Empire was overrun by Persian armies as it had never been before. The Persians plundered Syria and Asia Minor and in 608 A.D. advanced to Chalcedon. Damascus was taken in 613. The surrounding country on which no Persian had ever set foot since the founding of the Empire was utterly and completely laid waste. In June 614 Jerusalem was also captured. The whole of Christendom was horrified by the news that together with the Patriarch the Persians had carried off the Cross of Christ. Christianity had been humbled in the dust. The flood of Persian conquest did not stop with the capture of Jerusalem. Egypt was next conquered, Asia Minor again overrun, and the Persian armies were knocking at the very gates of Constantinople. The Romans could offer but little resistance as they were torn by internal dissensions. The humiliation of Heraclius was so complete that “Chosroes wanted to see him brought in chains to the foot of his throne and was not prepared to give him peace till he had abjured his crucified god and embraced the worship of the sun.” (Historians’ History of the World, vol. 7, p. 159; vol. 8, pp. 94-95 & Enc. Brit. under “Chosroes” II & “Heraclius”). This state of affairs very much grieved the Muslims as they had much in common with the Romans who were the ‘People of the Book.’ But the Quraish of Mecca who, like the Persians, were idolaters, were glad to see this discomfiture of Christian armies a happy augury for the overthrow and destruction Islam. It was shortly after this complete debacle of Roman forces that in 616 A.D. came the revelation to the Holy Prophet, which forms the subject-matter of the verse under comment and the two preceding verses. These verses possessed a twofold significance. They foretold, in circumstances then quite inconceivable, that the whole position would be completely reversed within the short space of eight or nine years (Bid’ meaning from three to nine years-Lane) and the erstwhile victorious Persian armies would suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of the utterly defeated, prostrated and humbled Romans. The significance of the prophecy lay in the fact that, within this short period, the foundations of the ultimate triumph of Islam and that of the defeat and discomfiture of the forces of disbelief and darkness would also be firmly laid. The prophecy was fulfilled in circumstances beyond human calculation and comprehension. ‘In the midst of the Persian triumphs he (the Holy Prophet) ventured to foretell that before many years should elapse, victory would return to the banners of the Romans. At the time when this prediction is said to have been delivered, no prophecy could be more distant from its accomplishment, since the first twelve years of Heraclius announced the approaching dissolution of the Empire’ (Rise, Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon, vol. 5. p. 74).
    After licking his wounds for several years, Heraclius was at last able to take the field against the Persians in 622, the year of the Holy Prophet’s Hijrah to Medina. In 624 he advanced into northern Media, where he destroyed the great fire-temple of Goudzak (Gazaca) and thus avenged the destruction of Jerusalem. This happened exactly within nine years, the period foretold in the verse; and to add to its importance and significance it happened in the year when the power of the Quraish also suffered a very serious reverse in the Battle of Badr, which recalled a biblical prophecy foretelling the fading of the glory of Kedar (lsa. 21:16-17). In 627 Heraclius defeated the Persian army at Nineveh and advanced towards Ctesiphon. Chosroes fled from his favourite residence Dastgerd (near Baghdad) and, after dragging on an inglorious existence, was murdered by his own son, Siroes, on 19th February, 628, A.D.; and thus the Persian Empire, from the apparent greatness, which it had reached a few years earlier sank into hopeless anarchy (Enc. Brit.). The fulfilment of the prophecy was so remarkable and unforeseen that prejudiced Christian writers have been hard put to it to explain it away. Rodwell says that the vowel points of the Arabic expression used in the verse were left undecided so that it would read either way, i.e.; Sayaghlibun meaning, “they will be victorious,” or Sayughlabun meaning, “they will be defeated.” He even adds that the ambiguity was intentional. The Rev. gentleman pretends not to understand this simple fact that the vowels of an expression which had been recited hundreds of times in daily Prayers and otherwise could hardly be left undecided. Mr. Wherry goes a step further. He says: ‘Our daily newspapers constantly forecast political events of this kind.’ To this futile attempt of Mr. Wherry to explain away and belittle the importance of the prophecy Gibbon’s quotation given above provides a crushing reply.

    To clearly document that Christendom had indeed been revived from the claws of death and oblivion, let me quote Tom Holland, as he knowingly or unknowingly becomes a witness for one of the prophecies of the Holy Quran:

    The restoration of the True Cross to Jerusalem was the profoundest demonstration imaginable of the great victory that had been won in the cause of Christ. It also served as a ringing statement of Heraclius’ intent: never again would he permit the Christian empire to be pushed by its enemies to the edge of oblivion. On his approach to Jerusalem, he had made a point of stopping off in Tiberias, where he had been hosted by a wealthy Jew notorious, under the Persian occu­pation, for his persecution of the city’s churches. Asked by Heraclius why he had so mistreated the local Christians, the Jew had answered disingenuously, ‘Why, because they are the enemies of my faith.” Heraclius, grim-faced, had advised his host to accept baptism on the spot – which the Jew had prudently done. Two years later, this order was repeated on a far more universal scale. From Africa to distant Gaul, leaders across the Christian world received news of a startling imperial decision: all Jews and Samaritans were to be brought com­pulsorily to baptism. Heraclius, conscious of how close he had come to defeat, and of the debt he owed to Christ, was not prepared to take any second chances. From now on, the Roman Empire would be undilutedly, and therefore impregnably, Christian.

    Tom Holland. In the shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. Little Brown, 2012. Page 295-296.

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