The warm glow of faith

Sometimes the imagery can get in the way of a good television documentary. It's just there to provide a visual backdrop for the spoken narrative, and the pictures distract, rather than illuminate.

But I thought Tom Holland's Islam: The Untold Story, which screened on Channel 4 earlier this week - and is still available on the 4od website - was a fine example of filmmaking, word and image working together to create something very powerful.

The programme introduced Holland's controversial account of the origins of the Islamic faith, detailed in his recent book In the Shadow of the Sword.

The normative Islamic narrative of course is that the verses of the Quran were literally God-inspired, given to and recited word-for-word by the Prophet Muhammad. Under Muhammad's charismatic leadership the first Muslims united the warring tribes of the Arab peninsula, then, within a few years of his death, established a vast empire ranging from India to the Pyrenees. To this day Muslims say that a such a remarkable revolution in the fortunes of the Arabs, who had always existed in the shadow of the Greco-Roman world, could only have been achieved through the divine guidance of God and His Prophet.

Holland's documentary held this traditional account up to the unforgiving light of secular, sceptical historical criticism, and found problems. According to Holland's interpretation of the surviving written and architectural record of the Arab conquests there are few details that might substantiate the received tradition, and much of it is flatly contradictory.

For example, there isn't any hard evidence that the Arab conquerors of seventh century Jerusalem were Muslims at all. There is no record of Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab, who took the city in 636, ever mentioning Muhammad. The Prophet wasn't referenced on the new empire's coinage till decades after the conquests.

Holland's boldest suggestion is that Islam might never have originated in Arabia at all. Although as Holland notes The Koran mentions Mecca only once, and the geographical landscape that serves as the backdrop to the events narrated in the scriptures suggests an agrarian location well to the north of the deserts of Arabia, perhaps Syria or Israel, where the early Muslims were settled when the Koran was first written down. Indeed there is one intriguing, unambiguous reference to the ancient site of Sodom, indicating a possible location in the region of the Dead Sea.

Essentially, Holland's tentative thesis inverts the traditional narrative: Islam didn't inspire the Arab empire; rather, the Arab empire gave rise to Islam. Islam emerged in recognisable form after the establishment of the empire to sacrilise the conquests, to cast the new order as the concluding chapter of a holy narrative. The Koran conferred divine legitimacy on the Arabian empire, much as The Aeneid did for the Roman Empire, or the Arthurian epics for the kings of England.

That, ostensibly, is what Islam: The Untold Story was about: a searching look at the origins of a great faith and civilisation through the lens of contemporary scholarship. I'm not qualified to judge the credibility or otherwise of Holland's ideas: you'll have to watch the programme or read the book.

Faith and doubt

But the documentary had a subtext that I thought just as fascinating: the jarring clash between sacred story and the role of the contemporary historian. Religious tradition zealously safeguards the ancient narratives that record God's revelation, venerating the saints who have passed it down over the centuries. But it is the unsentimental duty of the academy to read the religious storybook with an unsentimental eye, to set the credibility of the claims of the faithful within the context of the wider historical record.

The full force of that clash of worldviews doesn't really register that much when the two other revealed religions, Christianity and Judaism, come under the spotlight. We're used to TV programmes and books that seek to undermine the traditional claims of those faiths: it's been going on for more than 200 years, since the dawn of modern methods of Biblical criticism.

But this documentary was different: Islam was under scrutiny. Libraries have been written about the origins of Christianity and Judaism, but probing study of the foundations of Islam is just getting started. Holland's speculations seem shocking and strange, even to Western ears. To faithful Muslims they must seem well nigh blasphemous. Muslim culture hasn't been agonising over the credibility of its founding narrative for hundreds of years, hasn't wrestled with issues of faith and doubt like the Christian west with its Romantic poets, Dostoyevskian novelists, and existentialist philosophers. There's been no demythologisation of Koranic stories, no significant equivalent of Reform Judaism or woolly Anglicanism.

There was a strong sense throughout the film that its making was rather uncomfortable for Holland too. He was at pains to stress he could be completely wrong. He knew his analysis would trouble many viewers, and he seemed somewhat troubled himself. The film expressed the dilemma of the scholar, caught between desire for the truth, the real story, but aware of the cost of his findings to others, and to himself: the sceptic must stand outside the warm, glowing house of faith, and risks unsettling those within it.

I thought this was illuminated rather beautifully by the visual metaphors and imagery that ran through the film. There was a striking sequence near the start of the documentary in which Holland was pictured travelling through a middle eastern desert in the company of a group of Bedouin. Their harsh life tested their faith, but it was strong: Holland, the image of a Western scholar all at sea in alien culture, was typically pictured hovering on the edge of the group, and at one point, joining in rather awkwardly with their prayers.

There were several more shots later in the film of Holland wandering the desert, alone, or in the labyrinthine streets of various ancient cities, puzzling over a map, an uncertain presence stumbling into a sacred landscape.

But for me the most striking and poignant visual device was the grainy, worn, monochrome, desaturated library footage of the old citadels of faith: the Ka'aba in Mecca, Jerusalem's Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount for Jews), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, the waters of the Dead Sea, the ancient silk route frequented by Arabian merchants (like Muhammad). They conveyed a sense of an old, receding world of faith, no longer open to us. Like faded rather sentimental illustrations from the pages of an Edwardian Bible.

Needless to say I highly recommend the documentary if you're intested in religion, history or just good filmmaking.