Last night's documentary on the birth of Islam illustrates how powerful religion made Arabic culture

Last night’s programme on Channel Four fronted by the historian Tom Holland, entitled Islam: the Untold Story, which was presumably designed to tie in with his recent book on the subject, was, to my mind, a model of what historical programmes should be, particularly when they deal with religion. Mr Holland struck me as objective, a genuine searcher after meaning and truth, someone who was not looking for evidence to support his preconceptions, but evaluating the evidence he found, and then drawing conclusions.

It was perhaps because it was good history, though, that it made less than stellar television, as Christopher Howse finds in his review of it for the Daily Telegraph. Indeed, television is not the perfect medium for subtleties of thought and nuances of meaning, so the programme certainly had its dull moments.

What are we as Christians to make of the rise of Islam, seemingly from complete obscurity, in the seventh century?

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One thing the programme mentioned was the spectacular nature of the birth of the Arab empire in the decades after the death of Mohammed. However, for every effect, there are causes, and the birth of the Arab empire is not so very suprising. The Arabs were not the first nomadic people to conquer huge swathes of territory very quickly: the Huns had done the same, the Turks were to do something similar, as were the Mongols of Genghis Khan and of Tamerlane. In fact the concept of great Empires being overrun by hordes from the steppes is something we should be fairly used to. And what did the Huns, the Mongols, the Turks and the Arabs all have in common? They had horses, and the ability to move fast and live off the land. Given that the Persian and Roman Empires were exhausted by war with each other in the seventh century, and given the problems sedentary peoples usually have with nomadic incursions, the Arab conquests are what you would expect.

But what is suprising is what came afterwards. Unlike the Huns, and the Goths, the Avars and the Mongols, the Arabs are still with us. They succeeded in impressing their language and culture on the region we now consider the Arab world, subsuming the indigenous cultures and languages, even though they were a tiny minority compared to the peoples they conquered. And this is where religion comes in, I think. They brought with them a new religion, and because religion is the bearer of culture, they made their lasting mark.

You see something very similar at work in the Ottoman Empire. Most of the great men of that Empire were non-Turkish, or the children of non-Turkish mothers: all the Sultans were children of formerly Christian women; the Janissaries were all formerly Christians; many of the Grand Viziers were born Greek or Albanian. The greatest architect, Sinan, was an ethnic Greek or Armenian. But the point was, as soon as they converted to Islam, they became culturally Ottoman. Today’s Turks are their descendants. The modern Turkish state has replaced (perhaps not with complete success) a religious identity with a nationalist one.

So, the fact that the Arab Empire survived as long as it did, and survives to this day as a cultural bloc, is largely because of its religion. And that is why I am not really convinced by Tom Holland’s thesis that the rise of Islam post-dated the rise of the Arab Empire. It is perfectly true that the evidence for a fully formed Islam in the early years of conquest is practically non-existent, but as one of the experts on the programme pointed out, that lack of evidence does not mean that it was not there. (It could have been there in embryo too.)

But the programme was right about one thing, which I have written about before now: 

There was a history before Islam, and despite Muslim belief in the pre-Islamic period being “The Age of Ignorance” there is surely a question here, namely, what are the sources of the Koran? Muslims believe that the source of the Koran is God, and that it is his uncreated word, but those of us outside the circle of that faith may surely ask whether the Koran, like other books, shows the influence of the time and place of its composition. I have no difficulty believing that the Koran originates in seventh century Arabia, a place that seems to be outside the mainstream of history, but what I would really like to know is what cultural influences were present in that milieu.

Tom Holland sees the Koran emerging in places closer to the fringes of the Fertile Crescent, which is persuasive, and accords with some hints in the text, but the same question remains: what was going on there at the time that led to the rise of this new religion?

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