British classicist and historian Tom Holland, an eclectic and quietly charismatic speaker on subjects ranging from dinosaurs to the Crusades, was one of the stellar draws of this year’s Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. The author of four acclaimed works of non-fiction— including Persian Fire, on the Greco-Persian wars, and In the Shadow of the Sword, on the emergence of Islam in the Near East—has adapted Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and Virgil for the BBC, and a new book about the great Roman emperors, Dynasty, is out this year.
The recipient of death threats in 2012 as a result of his Channel 4 film, Islam: The Untold Story (which challenged the idea that there was one official account of Islam), Holland has been a firm voice for the freedom of speech. He was among the public figures who tweeted the cartoon of Prophet Muhammad which offended the orchestrators of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, earlier this year, in response to the killings. ‘While under normal circumstances I am perfectly happy not to mock beliefs that other people hold dear, these are far from normal circumstances,’ he wrote subsequently, in an opinion piece defending unequivocal freedom of speech (BBC News Magazine, 8 January). Speaking at Jaipur about the rise of historians, he explained that monotheism was inevitable, offering people something they had not had.
In an exclusive interview to Open, speaking with his trademark lisp, Holland talked about the dogmas of monotheism and the current crisis within a divided Islam. Excerpts:
You spoke at your session about how some people are not comfortable with the idea of Islam having evolved.
The idea of subjecting each text to historical analysis, as though they are the products of human hand rather than divine inspiration, is something that emerged out of Christian culture. Christian thinkers have this body of text, they had four lives of Jesus. They had an Old Testament and a New Testament. So, they had to look and compare these texts right from the very beginnings of the Christian period. What happened in the 18th and into the 19th century is that that process got drained of any religious intent. So they carried on doing that, but without the presumption that the Bible was the word of God. The result of that is that both the Bible and the world the Bible talks about is being historicised, and people now look at the Bible the way as they would write about the Illiad or the Aeneid or any other ancient text. And Christians have had two centuries to adjust to that.
In Islam, there isn’t really anything within the Qur’an that would encourage Muslims to ask, ‘Might this not be from God?’ Therefore, when people study the Qur’an as though it were just another text, it can seem to many Muslims very insulting and upsetting. I think that that is what makes it such a sensitive and difficult area to [address]. The fact is, it seems to me that when you look at the emergence of Islam, the fact that we have no commentaries on the Qur’an, no compilations of Hadiths, we have no biographies of Muhammad, we have no histories of the early Arab conquests, till about two centuries after the lifetime of Muhammad; [this] renders it very problematic to assume that what we have in the biographies and histories are historically accurate. Because that’s not what the writers were interested in; they weren’t interested like a journalist and historian in getting at what actually happened. They were interested in revealing the wishes of God, and those are different projects, so that makes it difficult.
Do you feel that people are able to see the narratives in the Qur’an?
There aren’t many stories in Islam. It’s almost as if the prohibition against images, against figurative art, applies to the narrative as well, as though to have a narrative is to impose too much of a form on the voice or the utterances of the divine. And so, as a result, the difficulty with the Qur’an is that when you read it, it’s quite hard to make sense of what is going on unless you have the context to explain it. So, traditionally it is assumed that the biography of Muhammad explains how the Qur’an came into being. But there’s another possibility; which is that the life of Muhammad was constructed to explain things in the Qur’an that people didn’t understand. The parallel that I might give, being English, is with the life of Shakespeare; that we have the work, we have the plays and poems, they are hugely influential. People want to know more about the person who wrote them, but we don’t really have very much information, so people turn to the plays and sonnets and they come up with all kinds of details; he wrote Hamlet, so he must have hated his uncle, or he’s written poems about the dark lady, therefore he must have fallen in love with a dark lady.
Of course, you have the same thing with the Qur’an; one of the things that the Qur’an is very anxious about is that orphans should be looked after and protected properly. Therefore, in the tradition, Muhammad is an orphan. There’s a description of someone hiding in a cave, so Muhammad hides in a cave. What’s very difficult as a historian, trying to get back to where the Qur’an came from and understand the context from which it emerged, is that you almost have to strip away the cladding of these later traditions. You have to try and see it through eyes that don’t have the sort of tinted lenses you are provided with by the later tradition.
Do you feel Christians are comfortable with this idea?
I do, partly because they are used to comparing and contrasting different versions. The other thing is that although many Christians describe the Bible as the word of God, no one thinks it is unmediated by human hand. It has been taken down by the Gospel writers, or Paul, or whoever. Therefore, it is mediated by a human, whereas in the Qur’an, Muhammad has nothing to do with it. It’s the divine, and therefore it has a kind of heft and power that even the Bible doesn’t have. In a sense, if Christianity is about God being made flesh in the form of Jesus, Islam is about God being word in the form of the Qur’an. I think it is in a way more upsetting for Muslims to have the Qur’an treated as any old text, than it is for Christians to have that done to the Bible.
With Hinduism, is it entirely different?
To a degree, Hinduism is an invention of 19th century British scholars, coming here, bringing their Protestant Christian presumptions and imposing them on the sort of vast mass of traditions and customs they discovered in India. Because they were Christian, they thought, ‘What are the holy scriptures?’ And they started enshrining the Sanskrit texts as the equivalent of the Bible, and so on. I think the very notion of there being a religion called Hinduism is testimony to the kind of power and influence that the model of religion established by Hinduism and Christianity has had.
We have such an echo of voices; scriptures that we don’t consider scriptures, and so on. Is this enriching?
I don’t think there are any rules. Obviously, there are centres of gravity. It’s like in the early solar system, where fragments of dust and rock are floating around and they slowly cohere and form planets, and these are the great traditions whether they be Christianity or Islam or what we can call Hinduism. But there are other bits that continue to whiz around, they never quite get absorbed into it, and that’s perfectly legitimate as well. This is particularly true of Indian spirituality. There are many roads. That is something that is more problematic for the monotheistic faiths.
How do we address the crisis in Islam between radical Islam and moderate believers and start a dialogue on it?
I think, with great difficulty. I think that any solution to what is obviously very wrong with a lot of Islam at the moment, the only solution can come out of Islam ultimately. In a way, there are two models of the Prophet in Islam. There is the Prophet in Mecca who responds to mockery good- naturedly, who preaches compassion, who, when he has a cat sit on his cloak, cuts the cloak rather than disturb the cat. Then there’s the other model of the war leader, who executes Jews and has people who criticise him killed. The challenge is, I suppose, if you’re not a Muslim who thinks that God wants you to go around killing the enemies of Muhammad. I personally hope it will be the more pacific, cat-loving Muhammad who serves as the model.
There are Muslims who are coming out and saying, ‘We don’t consider these terrorists Muslims’.
That in a way is what is tearing Islam apart, this notion of takfir; that as a Muslim you can tell other Muslims they are not Muslim. That happened in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries; we just tore ourselves to pieces, and we went through so much bloodshed and carnage that we kind of learnt our lesson. If somebody says they are something, they are that. That really is the crisis in Islam at the moment: there are too many Muslims who think that they alone have understood what it is to be Muslim, what divine law is. Ultimately, religions are dialogues between people in the present and their choice of scriptures and traditions; what they choose to emphasise. I don’t think it’s the business of anyone else to tell them. But of course the problem is that there are lots of people who disagree with that.
There is a lot of pressure on moderate Muslims to speak up for their faith, and denounce radical elements.
I don’t think it’s the responsibility of non-Muslims to pressure Muslims. But, were I a Muslim who wanted to believe in a god of compassion, I would be so appalled by what Boko Haram or ISIS is doing, that I would really want to try and demonstrate that what they were doing was wrong.