Islam is a mishmash of earlier religions. Muhammad was an Arab version of the Greek poet Homer. Islam didn’t arise in Mecca but in the Jordanian city of Petra. The Arab conquests came first, and only then the Muslims. In his new book The Fourth Beast, British historian Tom Holland makes some shocking claims. The Dutch version is out now, even before the English version has been published.
“Islam wasn’t a fresh start but an accumulation of elements from Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism,” says Tom Holland, who is in Amsterdam for the launch of his book this week.
Conquest came first
Another remarkable statement: Holland doesn’t believe that Arabs first converted to Islam before setting off to conquer other countries. “Horsemen with a Qur’an in one hand and a sword in the other – that’s not even possible,” he jokes. “Do you know how much weight you’d have to carry?”
No, only when the Arabs had gained power across a wide area did Islam gradually develop over a time span of around two centuries, Holland believes. His book describes not only the rise of Islam, but also the decay of the Roman and Persian empires in the Middle East.
Holland doesn’t dispute the fact that Muhammad did exist as a prophet, but he doesn’t see Islamic writings as the most reliable source to find out the truth about Muhammad.
“We supposedly know a lot about Muhammad, a lot more than about Jesus,” Holland says. “What he ate, whom he fell in love with, even that Muhammad liked cats – I find that the nicest characteristic, that Muhammad cut up his clothes so the cat could sit down. But the odd thing is that the further away from Muhammad’s birth date you get, the more extensive the biographies become.”
There is hardly any material from the time of Muhammad. “Everything dates from at least two centuries later,” Holland says. He likes to compare Muhammad with the Greek epic poet Homer.
Speakers like Tom Holland attract a lot of attention in the Western media. After all, they make controversial claims: that Islam didn’t come about in a flash of divine inspiration, for example, and that more than one version of the Qur’an exists.
Holland’s friends and family were anxious when he told them the topic of his new book, after having written previous books about the Romans and Christianity. The first word they could think of was fatwa, he says. But Holland is less concerned. “It would be a sort of Islamophobia if I was scared to enter into the discussion, as if that would immediately provoke violence.” The reality is quite the contrary, he says. “The Muslims I meet understand perfectly well that as a non-Muslim I should want to investigate certain assumptions in the Islamic tradition.”
For Islam researchers, Holland’s claims will come as no surprise. “It says in the Qur’an itself that it’s a continuation of Judaism and Christianity,” says Petra Sijpesteijn, professor of Arabic language and culture at Leiden University. “Western researchers generally assume that the Qur’an wasn’t written all at once, and Muslim scholars also recognise that Islam developed over the course of the centuries.”
It’s obvious that during the Arab conquests local customs and rituals were adopted, says Sijpesteijn. “The new world view had to connect with the world of the people living in a region, or it wouldn’t have been accepted.”
Sijpesteijn also points out that there are sources from the time of Muhammad or shortly afterwards, both Islamic and non-Islamic. She studies Arabic writings on ancient papyrus scrolls. “In the writings of 12 years after the death of Muhammad, Muslims are referred to as a separate religious group, first using the term muhajiroun, migrants who had left hearth and home with a purpose, or Saracens, descendents of Sarah and Abraham,” she says. “And from around 730AD, terms like Islam, Muslims and specific religious customs such as zakat (charity) were already being practiced and described.”
Sijpesteijn also disagrees with Holland about the place in which Islam arose. “Mecca is already described as a holy place in pre-Islamic manuscripts. So why wouldn’t it exist?” She does think that Arab Christians from more northerly regions played a major role in the further development and distribution of Islam.
In short, there is nothing particularly new in Holland’s book, though it’s “nice that he makes it accessible to ordinary people,” says Sijpesteijn. “But as soon as you talk about the origins of Islam, the discussion among both Muslims and non-Muslims becomes extremely sensitive.”