Channel 4 documentary - Islam: the untold story

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Mark.
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Aug 31 2012 10:42
Channel 4 documentary - Islam: the untold story

Has anyone else watched this? It seems to be creating a stir. See this thread on the CEMB forum for example. It's a spin off from Tom Holland's book In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World which I've just started reading - I'd say he's better as a writer than a documentary presenter.

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Arbeiten
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Aug 31 2012 11:10

I started watching this last night and fell asleep. I will probably watch it tonight. I only got ten minutes in but it annoyed me a bit when he asked 'can a non-muslim understand the the beginnings of Islam' and that prof. says no, goes to say something else, but is cut off. I would have liked to have seen/heard what he had to say next. In any case, more thoughts after I have seen it!

whdih
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Aug 31 2012 22:26

this is very clearly not saying the truth about islam.

whdih
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Aug 31 2012 22:28

but some of the things are not true

whdih
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Aug 31 2012 22:29

better not to see it because it says wrong things about islam

Mark.
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Sep 1 2012 12:32

The documentary, and Tom Holland's book, are taking some fairly obscure academic debates and presenting them as popular history which, I suspect, could have far reaching consequences. In case anyone is interested here are some links for those debates:

Patricia Crone: What do we actually know about Mohammed?

Toby Lester: What is the Koran?

Gabrial Said Reynolds: The Qur'an in its historical context (pdf)

Peter von Sivers: The Islamic origins debate goes public (pdf)

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History Today podcast: Tom Holland on the origins of Islam

Mark.
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Sep 1 2012 11:52
revol68 wrote:
Fucked me off the fact that bullshit cultural relativist crap was just kind of accepted, with the underlying notion that both the historical and the faith based narratives were somehow equivalents.

The Guardian reviewer had a similar reaction:

Quote:

For decades – centuries even – scholars have felt free to contest the accuracy of other religious texts. Not least the Bible; what's true, what's parable and what's just wishful thinking has all been up for grabs without any serious damage being done to Christian beliefs. Not so with Islam, around which non-Islamic scholars tread with extreme caution. I'm all for cultural and religious sensitivity, but the degree to which Holland tiptoed around the subject and apologised for his findings went way beyond what was required. Or would have been on offer for any other religion. It was almost as if he was looking over his shoulder, half expecting a fatwa at any minute.

Tom Holland wrote:

Do you have any idea how much it stings to be condemned for being overly PC & liberal by the GUARDIAN?

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Tom Holland responds to the programme's critics

nastyned
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Sep 1 2012 14:45

I enjoyed it and it was interesting to see that islam, like christianity was really shaped after its founder had kicked the bucket. Is the book worth getting?

borzoj
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Sep 1 2012 14:48

I watched maybe 20 minutes and after that couldn't be bothered anymore. I don't know much about history of islam or christianity either and this thing didn't really help. If some considered it overly PC, I would say the argument lacked substance, so it had to be toned down because otherwise it would be entirely justified to take it as offensive.

The whole 'no evidence for this or that' was delivered almost entirely by a single western white academic. As far as I am concerned she repeatedly said 'there is no evidence' and stared into the camera with a smirk. If you say that all evidence comes from a century later, that doesn't automatically invalidate it.

It may be true that non-Islam academics tread with caution around that subject, and probably rightfully so, but I found it difficult to believe that there are no voices of doubt or serious critical enquiries within Islam. None of that to be seen.

Finally, every time historical events were described, we were presented with an re-enactment processed to look like grainy and scratched black-and-white film. They attempted a serious historical debate, while at the same time on the visual level implying they had archival footage of events from 7th century AD. I am a visual person, and I found this really stupid, you can laugh at me if you want.

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xslavearcx
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Sep 1 2012 16:24

the first half was god awful. kept going on about how any findings that would challenge the traditional birth of islam story as being challenging to believers. what a revelation that insight was...

it only started getting into the substance of what its claims where in the second half which were that.

a)Chances are mecca isnt where islam originated from. advanced parts of syria instead a possible place due to some descriptions of landscapes in the quran of agrarian settings instead of desert settings.

b) that islam was not the Idea that unified the arab tribes to conquer parts of byzantine and sassanid empires.

c) that the quran contains extra biblical stories which presuppose an engagment with an audience that are familiar with biblical stories.

I was very interested in this programme because alternative accounts of the origins of islam is something thats been on my to do list and i knew that holland was writing a popular history of these accounts so i thought this programme would give a good delineation of them.

But instead it just advanced those claims, overegged the level of controversy of them without explaining to the auidence why they may be so and didnt spend much time explaining the evidence to back up these claims vis a vis the evidence of the traditional narrative of the birth of islam.

Thought b) claim was pretty weak insofar as it talked about how the arabs that took over jerusalem were referred to as believers(mumin) rather than as muslims. Fair enough thats interesting but i dont think that alone would shake muslims belief in islam to its foundations given the fact that the term believer muminun is used far more in the Quran to describe a 'muhammadan' subject than muslim. and its fairly well documented in scholarship both confessional and otherwise that the notion of islam being the term to describe this religion came pretty late on ie the abbasid period. So the obvious counterclaim to b would be well ok maybe not referred to as islam but iman so what pedant?

a and be were pretty weak as they were advanced too, but i think this was more about the way this show was presented that appeared to want to be lke a crap indiana jones pieced rather than gettign to the substance.

i hope his book is better

Mark.
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Sep 1 2012 19:15
xslavearcx wrote:
i hope his book is better

nastyned wrote:
I enjoyed it and it was interesting to see that islam, like christianity was really shaped after its founder had kicked the bucket. Is the book worth getting?

The book seems worth getting to me, and better than the documentary. That said I'm only on chapter 2 which I'm finding heavier going than the first chapter, probably because it's about the Persian empire, an area where I've got very little previous knowledge. Actually a large part of the book is about the Middle East in late antiquity, before the arrival of Islam, rather than directly about Islam itself.

Here's a radio interview about it:

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Mr. Jolly
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Sep 2 2012 12:08

My personal fave fromt the twitter storm surrounding this program,

http://twitpic.com/aoydds

Mark.
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Sep 4 2012 11:31
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Entdinglichung
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Sep 4 2012 14:33

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/sep/03/c4-islam-untold-story-compla...

a book which was only published under a pseudonym: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Syro-Aramaic_Reading_of_the_Koran

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Sep 4 2012 15:04
revol68 wrote:
The whole show seemed shot through with an underlying assumption that critical thought and skepticism is a western thing, just another culturally anchored "truth" no more or less valid than other "truths", just different. It is white supremacy dressed up as tolerance and deeply patronising to those within muslim countries and cultures who don't subscribe to such "truths".

And kinda ironic, given the debt of the Western enlightenment to medieval Islamic scholars, who were busy translating Aristotle and pioneering maths/science while 'the West' was a muddy field on the edge of civilisation being fought over with pointy sticks. That said, I didn't see the show so nothing else to add.

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Entdinglichung
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Sep 4 2012 15:17
Joseph Kay wrote:
revol68 wrote:
The whole show seemed shot through with an underlying assumption that critical thought and skepticism is a western thing, just another culturally anchored "truth" no more or less valid than other "truths", just different. It is white supremacy dressed up as tolerance and deeply patronising to those within muslim countries and cultures who don't subscribe to such "truths".

And kinda ironic, given the debt of the Western enlightenment to medieval Islamic scholars, who were busy translating Aristotle and pioneering maths/science while 'the West' was a muddy field on the edge of civilisation being fought over with pointy sticks. That said, I didn't see the show so nothing else to add.

and Islam developed with the Mu'tazila during the Abbasid period its own Higher Criticism long before Christianity, but this tradition of critical thinking unfortunately mostly got lost after the 10th century

NannerNannerNan...
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Sep 11 2012 12:36

The Guardian can fuck right off with that nonsense about howt "teh political correctness" is somehow preventing this documentary from asking boring, dry, theological questions no one could give a crap about. The Gaurdian is just engaging in racebaiting under the veneer of inquisitiveness, plain and simple.

And revol68, why is cultural relativism "bullshit"? Yeah, Tom Holand is engaging in orientalist bullshit by going on about how reason and skepticism are "western" :smug: but I don't see any problem with cultural relativism.

This documentary is just going to get wrapped up in the political machinations of far right politiking it seems.

snipfool
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Sep 11 2012 13:09
revol68 wrote:
cultural relativism ... holds that reason and universalism are just another relative truth no better or worse than any other and that saying they are is just a means of imposing western cultural values on others.

Hey revol, would you mind expanding on how cultural relativism is a means of imposing western cultural values? Not saying I agree with Nanner here, just that on first glance there seems to be something missing from your argument.

snipfool
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Sep 11 2012 13:33

OH, sorry, I misread what you were saying. Cheers for clarifying- agreed.

NannerNannerNan...
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Sep 11 2012 23:59

Revol, I respectfully disagree.

Cultural relativism is just the idea that different cultures have different values, and each culture seems to think their values as superior. Who can say that our belief in positivism and rationalism are necessarily superior? We certainly can't be an objective determiner of that, nor can any other culture.

We can't just point at European/North American technological superiority and say "it's our culture that's responsible for that" as Jared Diamond and James M Blaut - who, rationally I suppose, despised the former- have clearly disproven. Capitalism has probably been a way, way bigger contributer to scientific development in the West than any belief in this or that.

Hell, it was devout muslims who originally invented both a strangely modern post - Aristotlean scientific method and a strikingly "advanced" precursor to Darwinian evolution. Another devout muslim around the same time just plainly said religion existed on a higher plane of existence and can never ever be argued against but that the "material world" could be discoveed rationally and scientificaly.

I highly doubt that certain cultural values will lead to better or worse cultures - and, historically, a belief in that has been used to justify vile inequality. Extreme-right commentators in the US say black people are poor because we listen to rap or something equally racist and dumb. Elitist intellectuals (like Burke) in the past have always talked about how culturally inferior the poor are to justify rank exploitation - a tradition Ayn Rand types have continued to today. Go outsode the Anglosphere in europe and hear disgusting slander against the mediteranean people and how supposedly "lazy" they are.

That, and cultures around the world really aren't all that different.
Go to India, Pakistan and Rural China - three cultures with radically different religions, ethnicities, nations, etc. and you'll find a very similar worldview colored in by superficial idiosyncracies and the like. Likewise, go to Spain, Germany and maybe even the US (maybe but probably not, we're goddam nuts) and most differences will probably be superficial.

There's a reason why anthropologists collectively can attribute certain, fundamental characteristics among tribal societies (from the Kalihari Bushmen to the Iroquious of a bygone age). I think any given culture is more determined by a Marxian base/political economy than anything else. And why go the extra mile and assume there is such a thing as a "national" culture? Who says proletarians, peasants, middle-class types and the bourgeoisie don't have radically different cultural values? How do we know what we perceive as "western" or "eastern" values are really just values held by social elites?

Considering all that, I think Bookchin got it wrong on cultural relativism. You can posit a well reasoned defense of reason and another can posit a well reasoned defense of romanticism or piety or irrationalism. I don't think one value is necessarily more sacred than another.

I'm not an idiot, obviously, I'm not the type who thinks FGM is a-Ok because we can't judge anything no matter what, but I am the type to explain the history of FGM and why some cultures do it rather than scream about dirty savages and suggest we SECURE ARE BORDERS AGAINST TEH HORDES OF BROWNS. (and most mainatream criticism of cultural relativism usually nosedives into silly crap like that and sometimes just glorifies the west)

And likewise, I'm an anarchist. I'm not going to defend extreme patriarchial values in India or Saudi Arabia and will support radical movements in both places. I'm not going to defend the gender imbalance in China because parents abort girls disproportionately. There's an article on here about how a quasi-fascist movement in Bolivia gained power in the 1920s by dismissing radical ideologies as "eurocentric" and how the crap they were selling was "idiginous" and that pisses me off.

I don't think this is just a two-sided debate, with Niall Ferguson on one side and a mentally broken, third worldist Focault on the other. I think all cultures have something to offer, and to say one cultural value is better than another will always come from a biased vantage point. But I'm not a bloody kook who thinks Iran is awesome.

Sorry for the ahitty grammar and spelling, I'm a lazy, tired bastard. That and I'm typing this all on my nook.

P.S I'm not a goddam lifestylist moron. My belief in cultural relativism hints towards that but I swear to Makhno I'm not. Hierarchy sucks, capitalism sucks, organized religion is a bunch of elites trying to convince the poor to not to get any ideas, etc. Etc.

Mark.
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Sep 12 2012 10:34
NannerNannerNannerNannerNanner wrote:
This documentary is just going to get wrapped up in the political machinations of far right politiking it seems.

Well it has been picked up by some far right blogs - I'm not going to post links but a quick google search will bring them up. Still I can't see that this invalidates any of the arguments in the documentary. And surely whatever impact it might have on debates between secularists and the faithful in the muslim world matters a lot more than the reactions of the right here.

Edit: This video, a talk by a Moroccan secularist on Islam, secularism and the Arab Spring, is incidental to the thread but I found it interesting, despite some liberal politics. Skip to 01:05 for the start.

Mark.
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Sep 17 2012 10:47

A review of the book with a good summary of Tom Holland's line of argument:

WSJ: A startling thesis on Islam's origins

Mark.
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Nov 24 2012 23:46

The Jinn and Tonic Show: Ex-Muslims talking to Tom Holland on Skype. This is the most interesting discussion of the book and documentary that I've found, though it assumes some previous knowledge of the history of late antiquity and early Islam and can be hard to follow.

Mark.
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Oct 5 2014 15:27

Tom Holland on Islamic State and the debate over the origins of Islam:

Quote:

Over the past few years, Western leaders whose knowledge of Muslim scripture is scanty in the extreme have repeatedly been obliged to pose as experts on Islam. The atrocities currently being committed by jihadis in the Middle East have prompted them to a particular slew of commentary. John Kerry, speaking recently in Iraq, was typical. The Islamic State, he declared, “claims to be fighting on behalf of Islam but the fact is that its hateful ideology has nothing to do with Islam.” A reassuring assertion, and one that almost everyone, including the vast majority of Muslims, would desperately like to believe – but wishful thinking, all the same.

The grim truth is that sanctions can be found in the Qur’an, in the biographies of Muhammad and in the histories of early Islam for much that strikes the outside world as most horrific about the Islamic state. “Kuffar are afraid we will slaughter yazidis,” a British jihadi tweeted recently from Syria, “our deen [religion/ law] is clear we will kill their men, take their women and children as slaves insha Allah.” That this reading of assorted qur’anic verses and episodes from the life of the Prophet is the most brutal one imaginable does not necessarily invalidate it. To be sure, there are other, richer, more nuanced interpretations possible – and yes, the bone-headed literalism of those who would interpret the Qur’an as a license to maim, enslave and kill represents a challenge to everyone who prizes it as a revelation from God, supremely compassionate and supremely wise. That is no reason, though, to play the jihadis’ own takfiri game, and deny them a status as Muslims. The very appeal of their sanguinary interpretation of Islamic scripture is far too lethal to permit such a tactic. It is not enough to engage with the jihadis solely on the battlefield. They must be defeated as well in mosques, and libraries, and seminar rooms. This is a battle that, in the long run, can only be won by theologians.

How best to establish, for instance, that the actions of jihadis in beheading their foes are indeed contrary to Islam? Fighters for the Islamic State might well point out that the Qur’an describes angels decapitating unbelievers with the aim of spreading terror; that the first Muslims are described as harvesting heads on the battlefield of Badr; that Muhammad himself is said to have owned a sword that can be translated as ‘Cleaver of Vertebrae’. It is not enough, within such a context, merely to insist that Islam is a religion of peace, and leave it at that. Muslim scholars have an urgent responsibility to demonstrate in the most painstaking detail exactly where and why the jihadis are wrong. Just as Christian intellectuals, in the wake of the Holocaust, were obliged to confront the evil purposes to which the New Testament had been put, and recalibrate their understanding of it on a theological level, so do their Muslim counterparts today need to redeem their own scriptures from the taint of savagery that is doing so much to blacken the image of their religion.

One possible methodology for helping to achieve this might derive from an unexpected source: the scholarly revolution which over the past forty years has revolutionised historians’ understanding of early Islam and the origins of the Qur’an. It is a piquant irony that the salafist impulse to strip away the cladding of tradition, and return to an understanding of Islam’s beginnings that does not depend upon subsequent accretions and distortions to the historical record, has had a close parallel in universities. Where Salafists locate the radiant light of certainty, though, Western scholars have tended to find the opposite.

“Qur’anic studies, as a field of academic research, appears today to be in a state of disarray.” Such is the frank admission of Fred Donner, Professor of Near Eastern History at Chicago. “Those of us who study Islam’s origins,” he has confessed, “have to admit collectively that we simply do not know some very basic things about the Qur’an – things so basic that the knowledge of them is usually taken for granted by scholars dealing with other texts.” Its place of origin, its original form, its initial audience – all are mysteries. That being so, it is certainly no longer possible to presume that there is anything remotely self-evident about the birth of Islam. Indeed, it is hard to think of any other field of history so currently riven by disagreement.

In time, this inexorable process of historicisation is bound to have an impact upon the literalism with which many Muslims today are tempted to interpret their scriptures. When the evidence for what the historical Muhammad said and did is so patchy, and when the traditional explanations of how the Qur’an emerged are so contested, it becomes increasingly difficult to insist that the inheritance of Islamic scripture is not thoroughly contingent. At the moment, the notion that Muslim beliefs are as historically conditioned as any other ideology inherited from the past is seen by most Muslims as highly threatening; but in the long run this will surely change. Recognising that the stories told about Muhammad are fictions bred of a particular context and period, and that the potential interpretations of the Qur’an need not necessarily be circumscribed by traditional exegesis, should facilitate the emergence, over the course of the next century, of a clearly Western form of Islam. It is one, I suspect and very much hope, in which there will no longer be a place for ritual beheading.