What should we teach about Islam?

What a roller coaster of a year 2015 was – especially if you teach about religion.

The frenzied debate about free speech post-Charlie Hebdo, spate of ISIS terror attacks and, yes, Donald Trump, propelled classroom practitioners like me into relentless action.

But these things and more also made us rethink how we discuss faith in the classroom.

While every RE specialist believes that there isn’t a more fascinating subject to teach, it has also become one of the most challenging. Facilitating pupils’ exploration of beliefs and truth claims comes with both pleasure and pressure. Educators are in positions of great privilege and influence; we are tasked with preparing students for a world that is ever changing, and where religion will have an impact on them as global citizens. And we need to do it right.

Events this year brought the RE community much closer, to try to come to terms with so much that has happened, and to consider the implications these developments have for our curriculum and practice.

Social media was abuzz with RE teachers sharing ideas and resources of how to counter sensationalist headlines that often colour pupils’ perception of religion – and Islam in particular.

Front page of The Sun on 23rd November 2015


The ‘ISIS crisis’ has made many practitioners feel that they must defend the Muslim faith. From using the #NotInMyName campaign on Twitter to a beautiful verse from the Qur’an recited in Eastenders, teachers have been keen to show that Islam is a religion of peace.

However, questions have been raised about whether this is really the job of RE teachers. Are we expected to promote religions as torchbearers of tolerance and love, or do we have an obligation to show that faiths have both positive and negative facets, and allow pupils to form their own judgements?

The ‘Report of the Commission of Religion and Belief in British Public Life’ published earlier this month stated that “the content of many [RE] syllabuses is inadequate” focusing on “a rather sanitised or idealised form of religion”. Religions, it said, are portrayed “only in a good light” and schools “tend to omit the role of religions in reinforcing stereotypes and prejudice around issues such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity and race, and the attempts to use religion as a justification for terrorism.”

We know that there can be an ugly side to religious commitment. We cannot pretend that all Muslims are peaceful, any more than all Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs are. Nor can we ignore the fact that there are passages in holy texts that are used to spread hate and promote violence.

As devoted as I am to my Muslim faith, I cannot (and do not) allow that to prejudice my delivery of the subject. As I have said before, when I’m in the classroom, I’m a teacher, not preacher.

Being both an RE teacher and Muslim requires me to encourage critical thinking – about Islam too. The Qur’an itself invites readers to find faults with, or match, the word of Allah:

“And if you are in doubt as to what We have sent down to Our servant, then produce a Chapter like it, and call upon your helpers beside Allah” (Chapter 2 Verse 24)

The Prophet Muhammad was mocked throughout his ministry, but was commanded to speak to people “with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in a way that is best” (Chapter 16 Verse 126).

Therefore, I continue to support balanced, objective teaching that both appreciates and appraises the tenets and traditions of all religions, including my own.

One of the complexities of RE remains its status in education. Though not a national curriculum subject, schools still have a statutory requirement to teach it. Standing Advisory Councils for RE (SACREs) in each local authority devise a syllabus that is considered appropriate to their area. What this means is a lack of uniformity: syllabi in one part of the UK will not be the same as another.

There are certain benefits to this, but also means that ‘religious literacy’ would, and does, look different around the country. Many students would have learned something about Islam in primary or secondary schools, but a large number also go through these years without having studied anything at all.

In November, the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) hosted an online chat on the question ‘What does it mean to be religiously literate about Islam?’ Many interesting contributions were made about current practice and how this perhaps needs to change.


Teachers felt that RE lessons were too frequently influenced by media headlines, and that we must ensure that Islam is taught as a belief system, rather than as a news item. The following were identified as some important features of learning:

  • the nature, history and importance of the main sources of Islam – the Qur’an, Sunnah and Hadith
  • the person and prophethood of Muhammad, key events in his life, and also that of his caliphs
  • core beliefs, such as the five pillars and six articles of faith, in greater depth
  • Islam’s intellectual tradition, and how Muslim contributions in science, mathematics and philosophy historically have influenced much of Christian and Western thought



Additionally, teachers agreed there was an increasing need to recognise the huge diversity in the ummah. The two main branches in Islam, Sunni and Shi’a, are well known, but there are numerous denominations both within and outside each of these groups – Sufi, Barelwi, Ahmadiyya, Ithna Ashariyya and Ismaili to name but a few – that are rarely (if ever) taught.

Whilst the Qur’an, Sunnah and Hadith have authority for all of them, the theological differences are many. These relate to beliefs about a host of things, from the theory of the abrogation of the Qur’an and prophecies about the Mahdi, to the permissibility of celebrating Muhammad’s birthday and praying to the dead.

Literacy about this diversity is particularly important to differentiate between what Islamic sources say, and what a lot of Muslims believe and do. Muslim-majority countries are usually a bad example of Islam, especially when it comes to the hot-button issues like blasphemy and apostasy. These are cited as punishable by death under ‘shari’ah’, though ‘shari’ah’ itself is a term for religious laws based upon a certain reading or interpretation of the sources that can differ from one school of thought to another.

Muslim scholars and jurists also pass different (even conflicting) judgements on such issues. These are known as ‘fatwas’, which again represent only a legal opinion, and therefore are not binding on every Muslim. It is often the case that while some sects will use the Qur’an or hadith to justify particular punishments for certain actions, others will use the same sources to make the case for permitting them. Not all Muslims believe that ridiculing or leaving Islam are capital crimes.

Therefore, while the Saudi authorities may be the custodians of the holiest sites for Muslims, they are certainly not custodians of Islam. Ironically, Islam and the West have more in common when it comes to notions of equality and freedom, than the Qur’an and some Muslim countries do. As the 19th century Islamic thinker Muhammad Abduh is attributed with saying: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” Much of that still rings true today.


I agree with RE blogger Alan Brine that the claim of some Muslims to have authority for their ‘version’ of Islam should not be taken as a baseline for our teaching about the religion. However, I’m not so sure that “different Islams, some pleasing, others distasteful, are all just versions of Islam.” This suggests that both pacifist and jihadi manifestations are equally ‘Islamic’, akin to saying that the Quakers and Ku Klux Klan are equally ‘Christian’.

There is, then, a need for greater rigour when it comes to the study of religions like Islam. The Department of Education’s guidance on the new GCSE Religious Studies courses appears to promote just that, including a focus on ‘origins of differences and implications for questions of authority’. This should allow scope for the examination of not just multiple approaches to understanding Muslim sources, but the authenticity of the Qur’an too.

It is important that students engage with scholarship and current debates about this. There has been some disagreement within the RE community about how this should happen, and which voices to pay attention to – and the ones that shout the loudest (or rather, given more airtime) are not necessarily the most helpful.

One is Tom Holland, a historian who has been appearing regularly on mainstream TV and radio as an expert on Islam, and recently claimed that the ancient Qur’an fragments discovered at the University of Birmingham may have even pre-dated Muhammad. He appears actually to have little credibility for his work, being widely criticised for commentating on Islam without any specialist knowledge of its texts or Arabic, and lacking historical acumen. Holland’s scholarship, if it can even be called that, has yet to be treated seriously by any reputable academic in the field of Islamic research.

Another is Ayan Hirsi Ali, author of Heretic who has frequently spoken out against Islam (she left the faith to become an atheist), and called for its reformation. Similarly, her poor understanding of the sources, not to mention her bigotry, have been frequently exposed. In any case, Holland and Ali’s call for a reinterpretation and revisionism of Islamic tradition offers nothing different to the continuous process of Qur’anic exegesis and ijtihad that mufassireen and every generation of Muslims have undertaken since the 7th century.

If anyone wants to study respected modern scholars, ranging from the popular to the sceptical, the likes of Karen Armstrong, Jonathan Brown, Hugh Kennedy and Chase Robinson are a good start. Another highly recommended read is the award winning Muhammad in History, Thought and Culture: An Encyclopaedia of the Prophet of God, edited by Coeli Fitzpatrick and Adam Hani Walker, featuring articles about Islamic history from specialist contributors across the world.

This sort of reading has become particularly important at a time when there is huge demand for more CPD on Islam in preparation for the teaching of the new GCSE and A level specifications in 2016.

Some online courses, such as The Introduction to the Qur’an: The Scripture of Islam and Dr Chris Hewer’s Understanding Islam course (both are free), have been found to be extremely useful.

There is also wealth of expertise in the RE community; NATRE has run some excellent sessions on Islam, and it is great to see local RE groups offer specialist training to help equip teachers with the knowledge, insight and confidence they need to deliver the new courses effectively.

I also hope that the new series of GCSE textbooks and resources on Islam that I am writing for Oxford University Press reflect quality content that helps facilitate the support and challenge needed to bring out the very best in our students.

As we enter the New Year, let the RE community continue to share practice and keep working together to achieve that.


27 thoughts on “What should we teach about Islam?

  1. A good poolside read, thanks Waqar! Good to see Armstrong & Brown in there, and the Quran course I recently took part in – all the materials are still available online if folks are interested in dipping in?
    Think you’re a little unfair on Holland, tho that may be a chat for the office rather than here. I’d recommend Ian D Morris too, a fantastic Twitter presence at @iandavidmorris he’s an historian of Early Islam and regularly tweets out the articles he’s researching.
    I’m interested in the comment on treating ISIS as Islamic as I thought you recently suggested we shouldn’t be taking part in takfir in regards to the group, again, perhaps a discussion for another time?
    See you Monday 🙂


    1. Hi Lisa,


      I presume you saw this article by Brown? I thought it was one of the best arguments concerning historical sources I have ever read! Truly remarkable scholar. I am still making my way through ‘Misquoting’ and loving it. On the subject of responses to Holland, did you hear the radio debate he did with Mona Siddiqui a couple of years back? Again, I’m not sure his ideas came out well!

      Happy New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Richard
        I think Brown makes a compelling case against revisionism as an approach, both in terms of aims and outcomes. I have a lot of time for him as his book on Hadith was really useful in getting my head around different historical approaches to Early Islam. I haven’t read Misquoting yet, though received it as a birthday present so will be cracking on soon. Maybe we can discuss as we go?
        Nonetheless revisionist approaches exist and have some heavyweight, if contested, thinkers. Holland is very much a populariser; at the same time he knows his classical history very well. In the Shadow of the Sword was in some senses only peripherally about the birth of Islam and more about the religious, political and social milieu into which it was born. The vast majority of the book is very clearly referenced and evidenced. Holland is very open (both in the book and in later press) about where he turns to speculation. I’ll look out for the Siddiqui interview. Waqar has shared a range of criticisms too. I’m not claiming that he is a must-read for RE teachers, more that to describe him as Waqar does above is only a partial picture and a little unfair, particularly in context of a very useful article that is likely to be shared wide, and rightly so.
        Happy New Year!


    2. Lisa,

      Glad you found the piece useful.

      Still to be convinced that Holland is worth the time of day considering he is, as you say, merely a populariser. Even his expertise in classical history has no relevance in the context of early Islam and the origins of its texts. You suggest on Twitter that he has credibility in this field yet have not backed this up.

      Indeed the evidence is overwhelmingly against him.

      Dr Hugh Kennedy, one of the foremost academics on early Islam mentioned in my blog, has his say here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMX1GpL9ahQ

      On BBC R4’s Beyond Belief, Holland committed a schoolboy error when suggesting Hadith texts had followed Talmudic tradition, and thankfully put right:
      https://t.co/mkUhZTC49g (7 minutes in)

      Glen Bowerstock’s review of ITSOTS also hurt him pretty bad. He did of course try to save face with a response but even that was unimpressive. For e.g. “Qur’anic studies are currently in a state of the utmost disarray” – evidence? His comments about radiocarbon dating in that piece, and later using the University of Birmingham story to claim that the Qur’an could have pre-dated Muhammad.. are we ever the wiser with Holland?

      Pretty much everything he says and writes are, essentially, conjectures – always talking in terms of ‘maybes’, ‘could-bes’ and ‘possiblies’. Scholarship? The fact that he used Brown’s faith as a reason for not trusting his conclusions, such as on the Birmingham Qur’an discovery – again, scholarship? Look at his horrendous tweets on 5th September 2015 if you have time.

      Interesting that Ian D Morris, who you brought into the discussion, also drew attention to Brown being a Muslim. Does that undermine Brown’s status as an authority on early Islam? Can’t really make the same accusation about Armstrong, Kennedy and so many others though.

      As I say in the piece, Qur’anic exegesis and reinterpretation is nothing new, and has been around for 13-14 centuries. No harm in looking at new perspectives of course, but let’s at least consider credible ones. There must be a reason why Holland isn’t treated seriously by the leading scholars in the field. So why continue to support him?

      Thanks for the recommendation of Morris – but with his outrageous and childish response to @aboosalik on 31st Dec, it might take me some time to warm to him.

      And not sure I understood your question about ISIS and takfir?

      Happy New Year!


      1. Hi Waqar

        Apologies for any delay in getting back to your question on Twitter – partly due to my wanting to avoid a social media tit-for-tat and partly because I thought it important to look into your questions properly which has necessitated a string of emails between my old friends and colleagues in Oxford theology faculty and perhaps more significantly the school of Arab and Islamic studies.

        So, one thing I’ve learnt is that many currently active scholars in Early Islam are fairly taciturn when it comes to ‘public’ expression of their positions – the threatening response of some to Holland’s text has meant several have popped their heads under the parapet for now. Nevertheless, there was a scholarly colloquium hosted at Oxford in Dec 2012 (details here https://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/iais/research/centres/csi/events/pastevents/title_243025_en.html) which strongly suggests his claims are seen as credible enough to be discussed by real scholars. Apparently Holland was warmly received and whilst not everyone agreed with his conclusions, his methodology was not subject to criticism as you seem to expect it would be.

        I also take issue with you decrying him as ‘just a populariser’; 1) my words have consistently been ‘a populariser of a particular school’ (never with the qualifying ‘just’) and 2) this seems remarkably inconsistent with your recommendation of Armstrong who is undoubtedly just a populariser of religious thought. I enjoy her work immensely, and would recommend to others – interesting that you will promote a populariser who agrees with your view but condemn one who doesn’t.

        As you have seen Ian D Morris is a current researcher in the field and supports Holland’s credibility. I’m guessing you added ‘qualified’ to your requirements for scholarship on the grounds that Ian hasn’t yet completed his PhD, nonetheless I will continue to recommend him as an expert on the area, not least because of his generosity in sharing the scholarship he is undertaking. Whilst I can’t speak for him, I find your description of a ‘childish’ response telling given the childish provocation he was responding to from aboosalik. He consistently ignored and misrepresented what Morris was saying before the passive-aggresive, sneering comment that triggered Morris’ response. You are of course free to choose whether to take him seriously, I’m pleased however to see him engaging positively with RE colleagues after my initial recommendation and will continue to follow and engage with him. Its fairly rare for PhD researchers to be so open and responsive to classroom teachers in the way Morris consistently is. Also worth noting that he is considerably more qualified in this area than either you or I.

        On the final question regarding ISIS – you had previously posted in another forum that the question of whether ISIS is Islamic is not a fruitful one and that it risks indulging in the same kind of takfir behaviour that they themselves are guilty of. I believe your words were, let’s not challenge them on whether they are Islamic, but on whether they are a legitimate State. This is a peripheral issue though, and you may well have changed your position since then.

        The comments from David and Richard have raised several other interesting points, but this is probably enough for now. As I said both on FB and Twitter, it may be preferable to discuss these issues face to face, look forward to doing so once you’re feeling well again.

        Best wishes


      2. Thanks for taking the effort to delve deeper to try to establish the facts. I was about to post some further points myself but I think Adam’s thoughts are pretty comprehensive and conclusive, I hope you’ll agree?

        You’re absolutely right that I advised teachers not to enter into takfir (i.e. declare kafir) against any groups claiming to be Muslims, as many clerics and now Western politicians have been doing, as though they have authority to decide who is and isn’t a Muslim. The legitimacy of ISIS’s claims to represent Islam is one thing, anyone’s right to call them non-Muslims is quite another. As much as I loathe everything they stand for, and the antithesis of what I consider to be pure Islam, I don’t believe I or anyone else is in a position to label them non-Muslims, if Muslim is what they say there are. Not sure where the original confusion was, but hope that’s clarified it in any case?

        Certain that we will talk more about this at work! Thought that as you had posted your comments and questions online, and made these public, it was only fair to discuss these issues openly as well so that others could also join the conversation if they wished.


  2. >’Not all Muslims believe that ridiculing or leaving Islam are capital crimes’

    Great to know. Any idea what proportion?

    >’she left the faith to become an atheist’

    I think you’ve misunderstood the ontological position of atheism. Not collecting stamps isn’t a hobby. She didn’t leave the faith ‘to *become* an atheist’. She realised that Islam was nonsense and in her case massively oppressive, physically mutilating – and of course, later, life-threatening. I’d so have preferred you to have said something about that than take yet another swipe at her. Strange priorities…

    >’ This suggests that both pacifist and jihadi manifestations are equally ‘Islamic’

    As you say, obviously untrue. As Streusand, Bernard Lewis and David Cook have all pointed out, and as al-Bukhari, makes clear, the primary notion of jihad is and always has been physical and violent.


  3. Thanks for your comments David. In response…

    1) Regarding the proportion of those who don’t believe in capital punishment for apostasy, it’s not a mainstream position but it is a perspective, based on a rigorous study of the sources, that more Muslims are beginning to accept. Worth looking at the book I hyperlinked and would be interested in your thoughts.

    2) I was referring to modern scholarship in Islam and questioned the expertise of both Holland and Ali in this respect. Some teachers have been quite keen to promote their work and it was important to challenge this for the reasons given. I agree Ali had a traumatic experience being raised as a Muslim, which should be condemned, but her views have been prejudiced by her upbringing and she clearly has an axe to grind against a religion that she blames for her treatment. Her ordeal has informed most of what she’s said and written – which whilst it is important, lacks objectivity.

    3) I will have to disagree with you on your point regarding jihad. Would be interested in primary evidence for your claim though.


    1. Holland is an excellent writer and a good populariser. Your objection to him may be coloured by your faith, I think.

      Interested to note ( have I understood you correctly?) the view that apostasy is *not* a capital offence is a minority position. I trust that you as a disinterested teacher make it plain to your pupils that most subscribers to the religion favour killing people who leaver the faith…

      Not sure about the book you linked to – is that the one by the guy who’s a homoeopath? That one?

      Primary source: al-Bukhari do for you? I did mention. Perhaps you missed it,


      1. Literary skills and merely popularising do not in themselves make anyone a credible authority in any field, would you agree?

        Yes, I do make it plain to my pupils what the majority and minority positions are. No different to what you would do if you were in my shoes?

        The book on apostasy I linked to, would strongly recommend you study it. Might give you a new perspective too.

        Didn’t miss your reference to Al-Bukhari, but there were no specifics.


      2. ‘Literary skills and merely popularising do not in themselves make anyone a credible authority in any field, would you agree?’

        Absolutely. And it wasn’t for either of those that I recommended his work as a historian. Though they do make his books immensely enjoyable. Thoroughly recommend ‘Rubicon’ as a starting point if you haven’t read him.

        ‘No different to what you would do if you were in my shoes’

        Somewhat different, I’m very sure of that…

        Re. sources:

        Muhammad ibn Isma’il Bukhari, The Translation of the Meaning of Sahih al-Bukhari, trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, 8 vols. (Medina: Dar al-Fikr: 1981), 4:34-204.

        Streusand, Douglas E. (September 1997). “What Does Jihad Mean?”. Middle East Quarterly 4 (3): 9–17.

        All 199 references to jihad in al-Bukhari assume jihad means physical warfare.


  4. Also, I’d just like to point out that your estimation of Holland and his book is – again – extremely partial

    * Barnaby Rogerson (author of a biography of Muhammed) called it ‘ spellbinding and brilliant’

    * Richard Miles if the FT called it ‘exhilarating’

    * Christopher Hart in the Sunday Times called it ‘profoundly important’

    * Simon Sebag Montefiore in The Times said it was ‘ unputdownable..based on respected scholarship’

    * Anthony Sattin in the Observer said it was ‘ ambitious and important’

    * Dan Jones in the Telegraph called it , ‘ a work of impressive sensitivity and scholarship’

    * Robert Fisk called it ‘stunning’

    If you’d like to soberly and fairly assess Holland and his book, then fine, do that. Linking to one hatchet job as if it represented all considered opinion is just dishonest.


    1. David,

      Interesting discussion, but too much to pick up on! As far as Tom Holland’s skill as a historian of Islam goes I am afraid he isn’t in the same league as scholars such as Jonathan Brown. My basis for this claim is the following short article –


      The reviews you mentioned are for newspapers not academic journals. Again, this is fine for popular literature to get people into the debate, but that is very different from academic research. Do many of those reviewers have peer reviewed journal articles in any area of Islamic history?

      PS. 199 references in al Bukhari is actually not a large number of hadith in the collections as a whole at all. Also, I’m not really sure what this on its own shows about jihad? No one claims that Islam advocates pacifism. If you think that jihad means nothing in Islamic tradition beyond the ‘lesser jihad’ of warfare then you are wrong. It would depend on your meaning of ‘primary notion’ I guess? The idea of jihad as a spiritual struggle isn’t a 20th Century invention to cover up violence in the name of Islam! (You probably don’t think that, but some do!)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Richard,

    I wasn’t claiming Holland is an academic Historian. He has a double first in the subject but obviously didn’t go down the academic route. It’s not a huge surprise you won’t find early drafts of ‘Rubicon’ in an academic journal. And so I expect to see reviews of Holland in the press. The press in this case being the FT, and The Times, etc.

    I thought that was a fair response to Waqar’s linking to an article in The Guardian. Presumably you don’t. I’m not sure why that is and I’ve searched fruitlessly to your objection to Waqar quoting The Graun…

    The references in al-Bukhari are *all* the references to jihad. I don’t really see the point of comparing that number to the total number of Hadith…what do you think you could validly conclude from comparing two numbers that measure completely different things?

    ‘f you think that jihad means nothing in Islamic tradition beyond the ‘lesser jihad’ of warfare then you are wrong’

    I would be if I thought that. Or wrote that. Perhaps you find it easier to argue with yourself?


    1. David,
      Using references to newspaper reviews was an adequate response to Waqarah’s article which also used them. My point was just that measuring the credibility criteria of historians’ work isn’t best done by newspaper reviewers it really needs to be done by academics within the field or at least people writing from an academic perspective rather than for the interested newspaper reader.

      I didn’t express myself very clearly over the issue over the number of Hadith. What I meant was that the Hadith collections are numerous and most if not all? Hadith collectors refer to statements made about jihad. When compared with just the Bukhari collection this is a vast number. Hadith criticism is deeply complicated within (the various) Islamic traditions of scholarship. Making conclusions from Hadith requires more than just counting how many in one collection make a surface reference to an issue.

      My apologies that I offered a hypothetical position on jihad that you don’t share. I don’t profess to know what you think at all or indeed the position which you seek to defend. Arguing with myself is a frequent pursuit! If only I could have clarity one day.

      The view of Brown as a lesser scholar because he is a Muslim is dealt with superbly by Adam in this comments section. I was very interested in what he has to say and would defer to him on this topic, so will say no more here.



      Liked by 1 person

  6. Incidentally, Richard, here’s Holland response to Jonathan Brown,

    Hope you don’t mind Holland’s blog as a source rather than an academic journal, even though Brown’s original piece was … not a blog. I know how impartial yo ulike to be about these things.


    I think this point is telling:

    ‘Dr Brown is a Muslim, and as such – and please do forgive me if I am assuming too much here – believes that the instruction to pray 5 times a day comes ultimately from God…As a non-Muslim, I do not believe that the origins of the 5 prayers are to be explained with reference to a supernatural entity’

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, when your rigorous Historian starts with a dependency on the supernatural?


  7. Dear Lisa,

    I read your comments with great interest. And I think Waqar has done a great service by opening up this important conversation. I disagree with some of your assessment on the value of Tom Holland’s contribution to our understanding of the early Islamic period. I have listed my main concerns below and numbered them for ease of reference.


    1. In my experience academics do not shy away from publicly expressing their opinions. Rather, the lifeblood of being a successful scholar is to offer an opinion, and preferably one that is unique or offers new perspective. Working and writing on early Islam, we have available to us an array of contemporary scholars and texts that discuss the problems and potential opportunities found in early Islamic sources.

    Academics specialising in the history or thought of the early and medieval Islamic worlds are, however, often reluctant to discuss their specialisms on popular media platforms, both print and broadcast. And this is for a range of reasons. Some do not feel that it is the place of an academic to enter such an arena, others struggle with the writing/speaking style required by the media, but most are cautious about the damage that can be done to their reputation should their attempts to explain complex issues in short popular articles be lost in translation.

    2. With the aforementioned reluctance in mind, it is very surprising and rare that a popular writer should attract, as Holland has, negative reviews/comment on his work from not one, but four prominent academics, and also a respected early career academic, who all research the early Islamic period from different perspectives; Bowersock (Near Eastern world), Kennedy (Early-medieval Arab and Eastern Mediterranean worlds), Brown (Hadith), Dakake (Early Islam and Shi’i history/thought), and Webb (Pre and early Islamic history).

    I think that Dakake’s conclusion was a fair one:

    ‘Holland does indeed succeed in telling an engaging and dramatic story about the origins of Islam that is accessible to most readers. While highly speculative and problematic in places, it may well generate further interest in some of the genuinely difficult problems in early Islamic history. As a historical study, however, his book lacks methodological rigor and care, and the reliability of his revisionist conclusions is significantly undermined by his uneven treatment of the historical sources, his lack of access to original sources in Arabic, and some clear biases and assumptions about Islam as a religion that seem to run deeper than any single academic dispute.’


    I did see somewhere that a positive statement was issued by Professor Sir Fergus Millar about Holland’s book. Professor Millar is, indeed, a renowned academic, however one would be clutching at straws to view him as a specialist on the early Islamic period. Anyone who has read and appreciated Professor Millar’s work will know that his focus is on the Graeco-Roman worlds largely during the centuries preceding the emergence of Islam.

    3. Holland has certainly provided a popular and readable history of early Islam. However, as someone who lives in these texts, I think that his service to the public understanding would have been far greater/valuable had he done a better job of balancing revisionist theories with the large body of respected scholarly research that has drawn different conclusions. We do not need nor want this to be a case of ‘either, or’, but should ultimately have both.

    Had he been able to deliver the three broad historical narratives of the early Islamic period, then his service to the world would have been great; and for perhaps the first time in history, the non-specialist reader would have been in a position to really debate the issues and opportunities found in the sometimes divergent narratives of early Islam. His insistence on the single revisionist narrative, which represents by far the most contested area of research in this area across the modern period, gives the impression that he holds a bias.

    Personally, that’s not the way to approach history or any subject. In this regard, Webb’s succinctly captures the problem in his review in the Evening Standard, where he writes:

    ‘Absent, however, is the case of opposing counsel. Over the past century, the Muslim tradition has been challenged by many academics and it has proven remarkably resilient in its own defence. It is an imperfect record, but the Muslim account of history, the textual integrity of the Koran and the mnemonic capacity of oral traditions are more robust than Holland gives them credit. The Muslim narrative is biased towards its particular version of history but few scholars today would claim it was entirely fabricated. Holland would have done better to adopt a cautious and sensitive approach to the Arabic sources, rather than abandoning them in favour of a sensational rewriting of history.

    Ultimately, Holland’s work is another selective recollection of the past, carefully constructed according to his own revisionist agenda. To demonstrate his thesis of Islam’s organic development, he deliberately crafts a vision of Late Antiquity into which Islam fits as the perfect jigsaw piece, smoothly caressing all the contours of the contemporary intellectual, spiritual, economic and political circumstances.

    Holland’s alternative explanation of the “real” origins of Islam falls short of its objective. A prodigiously lucid historical narrative, such as Holland’s, which boldly claims to recover the true past, constructs a bridge too far. Once elapsed, the events of history survive in memory only as kernels of recollection, relentlessly eroded by the ravages of time and endlessly reinterpreted as tastes and agendas of historians change.

    Holland’s book is entertaining reading and interesting food for thought, but does not cogently unearth a hitherto concealed cachet of truth. To paraphrase an old warning, “Beware of historians bearing the truth”! They are but forgetful storytellers, spinning yarns of bygone times.’


    Webb’s summary is echoed in the lengthy review (25-page) written by the Princeton PhD candidate, Nabil Husayn, in the ‘Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies’:

    ‘In summary, Tom Holland is an engaging storyteller and threefourths of In the Shadow of the Sword masterfully recounts the rise and fall of the Byzantines and Sassanids. However, his book is marred with some vulgar language and a reluctance to critically probe the Muslim literary tradition to uncover answers about Islamic history. Recent scholarship has greatly refined and redefined the ways in which various genres of eighth century Muslim literature can yield information about the seventh century. These advances are absent in both Holland’s film and book.’


    4. With regards to bias, one can easily find a plethora of examples in Holland’s book, documentary and articles over the past couple of years. Many have been highlighted in the aforementioned reviews, so I will not bore you with repetition. I can, however, offer you one simple example. On the one hand Holland criticised Bowersoock by highlighting the unreliability of carbon dating, yet later fashions carbon dating as the central pillar of his recent argument that the Birmingham Qur’an dates to before the popular birth-date of the Prophet Muhammad (not withstanding the fact that he appears oblivious to the fact that the carbon dating range announced by Birmingham/Oxford extended to after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, too.).

    5. Lastly, I find Holland’s attitude towards Professor Brown very difficult to stomach on both an academic level and a human level. He appears to hold the view that part of what makes Brown wrong is the fact that he is a Muslim! I find this highly unethical and incredibly poor form. Brown is a highly skilled academic and was trained by some of the best academics in the field. This does not mean that he is right about everything he writes, he clearly isn’t, but it does mean that he has earned the right to be criticised/praised on the basis of his scholarship and not his features or preferences. I have myself both benefited greatly from Brown’s scholarship and also criticised some of his conclusions that I disagree with.

    Some examples of Holland’s unethical and ghastly statements regarding Brown include:

    ‘Brown claims that his perspective on the B’ham Qur’an is uninformed by his faith. I don’t believe him.’

    ‘He must know in his heart of hearts that the reason he and I disagree as to the likely origin of the 5 daily prayers owes less to my allegedly perfidious qualities of hypocrisy and arrogance, and more to the fact that we come to the question from radically opposed starting points. Dr Brown is a Muslim’

    Within this context, Holland also stated:

    ‘One’s take on evidence is obviously influenced by where one is viewing it from (& yes, mine too)’

    If we are to extend Holland’s logic in the last quote, then should we discount his views on anything related to Islam, purely on the basis of his Christian conviction? Should we also discount an atheists take on religion? Of course not. Faith is incidental, unless Holland can prove otherwise through definitive statements of Brown (there are none) or others.

    Ultimately, scholarship must speak for itself.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. @Adam

    It shouldn’t be particularly surprising that Holland has attracted some negative comments, given the subject matter and his conclusions. Others have received a great deal of criticism and more for venturing to comment on Islam and the Islamic world without displaying appropriate deference and…er…submission.

    >’the Muslim account of history, the textual integrity of the Koran…’

    I’m a bit bemused by this. Given that the Muslim account of history includes night flights on a winged horse and angels dictating to an illiterate we’re surely obliged to start with an extremely sceptical view of the Muslim account of history?

    On the matter of the textual integrity of the Koran, well, we know what happened to one famous writer who tried to question that, even if only in fiction.

    I think we should bear in mind what might happen people who stick their necks over the parapet .

    >’which boldly claims to recover the true past, constructs a bridge too far’

    I think that’s overstating Holland’s own claim.

    >’his book is marred with some vulgar language’

    Look, either Holland is allowed to be an excellent writer and storyteller or he’s not. Husayn ‘s objections are, I think, more an expression of his offended religious sensibilities than anything else.

    >’appears to hold the view that part of what makes Brown wrong is the fact that he is a Muslim! I find this highly unethical and incredibly poor form’

    ..and now your offended sensibilities. Holland makes clear that Brown, as a Muslim, is obliged to situate what is obviously *historical* and *natural* in the supernatural.

    >’should we discount his views on anything related to Islam, purely on the basis of his Christian conviction’

    No: Holland’s Christianity doesn’t extend to a commitment to the supernatural, which you’d understand if you read him on the subject. The presumption is that an avowed Muslim is committed to supernatural beliefs. There’s a difference.


    1. I must disagree. You completely miss the point. The majority of the reviews are in fact written by non-Muslims. Moreover, the reviews did not call for an apologetic reading of Islamic history, as you seem to suggest (Similarly, I stated that an honest popularisation would cover all substantial angles). They rightly bring into question the weak methodological approach that Holland adopts. Should you read the works of the reviewers, you will find that they apply a mixture of revisionist and alternative approaches developed over the past 30 years and still in a state of flux. I can only put your’s and Holland’s ignorance of the religion issue down to a lack of engagement with academics working in the field. I am yet to meet any serious academic, even those who are through and through revisionists, who point towards Brown’s religion as establishing a pro-Islam bias in his works. It seems to me that it is very easy to use the religion card as a means of deflecting from the fact that one cannot provide a serious intellectual counter-argument. To do so is clearly a sign of weakness. For if someone was wrong, then one could prove that through the evidence. Or are good old evidence-based arguments rather old fashioned? We do not apply the same level of sinister to historians of other beliefs or no belief at all. Therefore, how can it be justified here without a clear evidential basis.


  9. Waqar and Adam

    Thank you for your detailed replies, though I’m not sure you addressed the salient points of my second long comment. The initial dispute was over whether it was fair to say that Holland had no credibility and whether the term ‘so-called scholarship’ was justified. I intended to show above that there were those who saw him as credible, and that there was indeed heavyweight scholarship behind the book.

    I am well aware of some of the negative reviews at the time – you both quote several at length. However, as David points out there were many positive reviews too, and as I linked to, the book was credible enough to be the focus of an Oxford University hosted colloquium, part-organised by Exeter university. Two UK university Arab and Islamic departments happy to promote scholarly discussion of the work.

    Holland himself has tweeted you a list of heavyweight scholars happy to be associated with the work, some of whom contributed and others who praised publicly. I explained that several people had commented that they weren’t desperate to put their heads above the parapet on this particular issue; let’s not be disingenuous and pretend that this is uncharacteristic of many in academic circles. I know of many scholars who would prefer to keep their heads down on any issue, writing for a small circle of like-minded specialists. On this particular issue, given that Holland received threats of violent retribution I can imagine that there was even more reason. Nonetheless, you have been provided with concrete evidence that Holland is accepted as a credible historian, and that ITSOTS was both scholarly informed and supported by heavyweight scholars in the field of Early Islam, albeit within a particular school.

    In addition, while I’m happy to say that Holland is a successful populariser of a particular school it’s notable that this bars him from your list yet does not do so with Armstrong. Even if it’s not a double standard, can you see how it might appear as one?

    You have both drawn much attention to Holland’s comments on Brown being a Muslim. Given that you linked to the longer response rather than just his tweets you must be aware of the context of what he said. He pointed out that we each have our own perspective, and that to be intellectually honest it is worth recognising when and how that perspective might affect our evaluation of a particular situation. Holland openly declares his in the piece, and in his tweets to Adam (and usually when discussing ITSOTS) I don’t believe it’s a criticism of Brown’s faith , nor is it suggesting that he is not a rigorous scholar, nor should it undermine Browns contributions. It is suggesting that Brown’s position on prayer is likely, in part, to be influenced by his pre-existing belief in its origins. That’s not to say that it is wrong, but that the two of them are bound to disagree. Adam, I won’t entertain your strawman with a response beyond pointing out that no-one equates ‘we all have a perspective’ with ‘we cannot speak beyond our perspective’.

    Waqar certainly has opened up conversation here, I hope to have provided evidence that Holland is not the charlatan that is claimed in the original piece. I don’t think he’s essential reading for RE teachers, particularly given that as far as the curriculum is concerned these questions are rarely asked. I don’t think that he is on a par with Brown in terms of Islamic scholarship (but then no one has ever claimed that) I still think, despite the arguments given (which show only that he is far from enjoying universal scholarly support) that the original piece, in this particular section, was unfair.



  10. @Adam

    I don’t think I have ‘completely missed the point’. Waqar’s partial and unfair point – which I was replying to – was that Holland has ‘yet to be treated seriously by any reputable academic in the field of Islamic research’, which he illustrated with a Guardian hit piece.

    >’I can only put your’s and Holland’s ignorance of the religion issue down to a lack of engagement with academics working in the field. I am yet to meet any serious academic,’

    I’ll just refer you to Lisa’s response above that suggests I’m nevertheless more up to speed with serious academic opinion than you flatter yourself to be,

    >’Holland himself has tweeted you a list of heavyweight scholars happy to be associated with the work’

    And you go on to say:

    >’It seems to me that it is very easy to use the religion card as a means of deflecting from the fact that one cannot provide a serious intellectual counter-argument’

    Well here is a serious ‘intellectual’ counter-argument: Brown is committed to a supernatural explanation.

    I think that’s a sufficiently knock-down argument.


    1. The plaudits for Holland’s ITSOTS that David quotes are mainly newspaper journalists! I could very easily cite positive reviews, support and praise for my own blog post from professional colleagues in much the same manner, to build up a case for my own expertise in teaching Islam:

      “a very useful article that is likely to be shared wide, and rightly so” (L O’Connor)
      “wonderful” (A Bradley)
      “excellent” (Mrs Bouttell)
      “outstanding piece” (M Myatt)
      “great article” (Oxford University Press)
      “wholly agree with you” (R Sefton)

      (David, I left out all the Muslims/Arab-sounding names that I know you probably would have dismissed on the grounds of their natural bias as well as belief in the supernatural – just for you, OK?)

      Let me add that I claim no particular, exceptional expertise in Islam, but merely making the point that ultimately, how someone’s profile is elevated is largely determined by how selected bits of information about them and their work are presented and embellished, right? Holland is no exception.

      The article has been circulated and shared widely, including by the National Association of Teachers of RE, both within and outside the RE community. Any criticism of the author would logically be a criticism of every single teacher, individual, school and organisation that has praised and passed the piece on, correct? Why not paint all RE teachers and educators with the same brush that is frequently used with Muslims?

      What this thread and discussions elsewhere have demonstrated is how regardless of the weight of scholarly opinion and criticism of renowned, established experts in the history of Islam against Holland’s work (and his obvious lack of knowledge of Arabic to be able to directly access the very texts he poses as an authority of), there will – for reasons that still baffle me – continue to be support for him. If I was a talented historian and brilliant story teller, who decided to investigate the origins of Judaism, without speaking and understanding Hebrew, and decided to write books on early Jewish history and scripture, which were largely criticised by the most reputable academics in that area, I wonder if anyone would extend me the same adulation?

      Still, I will respect the position held by those who view Holland’s contributions as worthy of any attention. I wonder if they would be able to say the same about those who don’t.


  11. As you’ve blocked me, Waqar, and left your self-serving, dishonest response as the last remark here, I’d be grateful if you’d remove any personal information of mine from your website admin area, including my email address, in line with current data protection legislation.

    Good luck with the book. I trust the week you took off sick when the deadline was due won’t interfere with the publication date.


    1. Blocked you? I thought it was the other way round?..

      Any evidence that I’ve done the same? If not, probably very clear where the dishonesty lies.

      Regarding website admin, not much I can do at my end – you’ll need to get in touch with WordPress directly. In future, if ever unsure about making your views public, why not take a leaf out of a fellow teacher’s very apt recent resolution “to think longer before saying something” (https://dangerousgroundsre.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/my-goals-for-the-year-teach-more-know-more-think-more/).

      Might save you (and others) further embarrassment.

      Thanks for your good wishes with the books. Deadline for book 1 was already met before I was off sick (and it wasn’t a week); work on book 2 hasn’t even started yet. I can put you in touch with OUP to confirm that if you wish?

      Come on David, I should have expected you to at least have learned not to completely trust your ‘connections’ by now. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t.



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