Islam: the Untold story

Brief Review

The film by historian Tom Holland gave rise to controversy when it was screened on Channel 4. This was due to the Islamic view that dislikes any questioning of the origin of Islam. In fact, the arguments were presented quite cautiously, and generously balanced with an Islamic viewpoint. The problem, is that facts are inherently damaging to religious belief, in this case particularly so, since the beliefs are held so rigidly.

In the film Holland proposes the following.

1. Rather than Islam giving birth to the early Arab/Muslim empire, he argues it was the other way round i.e. the early Arab empire gave birth to Islam – most probably under the rule of the Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan who ruled between 685 – 705 CE.

2. Islam and Muslims did not exist for at least thirty years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE.

3. Mecca we know it today was not the birthplace of Islam, but rather that the true birthplace was most likely near Avdat a region bordering Palestine.

It is highly likely that the doctrines of Islam took some time to consolidate, and were (obviously) not delivered on a plate by the angel Gabriel in a cave. Therefore his first proposition is quite plausible, supported by the historical record, although no doubt offensive to devout Muslims. The second proposition is also eminently plausible and supported by non-Islamic sources. The third proposition is speculative, regarding that specific location. However the Quran describes people cultivating wheat, grapes and olives, which is not possible any where near Mecca, and being near the remains of Lot, which is by the Dead Sea.

The film is good however, merely for the fact that there is now a film that discusses the origins of Islam from a historical perspective. I would add that Holland, in seeking to investigate Islam objectively, should have made more effort to overcome his Christian ethnocentricity: he mentions the biblical Abraham quite often, but does not appear to realise, and does not mention, that Abrahamis not an historical figure. (See The Bible Unearthed, by Finkelstein and Silberman)

Despite minor flaws it is a good contribution. It fairly debunks Islamic orthodoxy, while in doing so treads carefully on what can and can’t be said, given the fear of giving offense, or fear of intimidation and reprisal. The more the barriers are pushed back, the better.

I have put footnotes through the transcript giving more comments, and have identified speakers, not done in the downloadable transcript.

John Perkins
7 December 2012

Transcript of video

0:00 Holland:

1,400 years ago, armies of nomads swept out of the Arabian desert and conquered half the world. Today, their descendants tell an extraordinary story. They say that God sent them a prophet - Mohammed - and that God then gave them an empire.

But is it really true? Not everyone is so sure.

The Muslim conquests were one of the most decisive events in history. But were the Arabs in the 7th century even Muslims at all?

My name's Tom Holland. I'm a historian. I write about ancient empires so, Persian, Greek, Roman empires.

Now I want to write about the most influential of all these empires - the empire founded by the Arabs in the 7th century - the empire that gave us Islam.

I thought that it would be a relatively simple matter. It's been said that Islam was born in the full light of history. But when I began on the project, I discovered that wasn't actually the case at all.

When it comes to Islam's beginnings, there is no full light of history. Only a kind of darkness. And when you start looking, everything seems up for grabs.

From the beginning, I felt like I was being sucked into a black hole.

2:10 Patricia Crone

The problem of authorising the history of the rise of Islam is that we have absence of evidence. We have nothing on which to tell a story.


I had expected Muslim testimony from the 7th century. But there's nothing there. I can't find anything. There's a problem here. You're delving into the origins of Muslims' deepest beliefs but where is the historical evidence?

Professor Nasr:

Sometimes the belief of the believer, and the understanding of the scholar, cannot be squared.

Patricia Crone:

It's a choice between doing history and not doing history. So I do the history, even though it may hurt people.

Professor Nasr:

You have to say things that believers don't say. Things that sometimes shock believers. Things that sometimes make them very angry.


There's a sense of the detective story about it. Why do most of the clues seem to be missing?

When the Romans conquered the Middle East, they left behind all kinds of evidence - histories, inscriptions, coins. But with the Muslim conquest, silence. What can we actually say about Mohammed?

What do we really know about the origins of Islam? Where to begin? Well, maybe we should start at the beginning of the 7th century.

It is five minutes to midnight and the ancient world is about to change for ever.


Location: Istanbul

This is Istanbul. In 632, it was Constantinople. For 300 years, the capital city of the Roman Empire.

A Christian city at the heart of a Christian world. A universal religion for a universal empire. That was the Roman recipe for power.

An idea fully appreciated by the Muslims when almost 1,000 years later, they conquered the city and turned the largest cathedral in Christendom into a mosque.

We know how and when the Romans became Christian because contemporaries tell us all about it. But what we don't know is how the Arabs became Muslim.

Take a journey into the past and you can't be certain where it's going to end. History is like a labyrinth. Once you're inside, who knows where it may lead?


So, here we are - the Great Palace of the Roman emperors of Christian Constantinople.
Odd to think that, at the start of the 7th century, when Mohammed was still alive, this was pretty much the centre of the world.

There's one awful poetry about the fact that all you've got here is splintered firewood. Because what this is, is something that's been smashed to smithereens.

What it preserves just the faintest trace of is, um, what was, at the time, the hub of the greatest power on the face of the earth.

This is the White House - it's where the Emperor lives. It's the Pentagon. It's the heart of the defence establishment. It's the Supreme Court - where laws are drawn up and made and issued.

All in this one place that dominates Constantinople, the city of Constantine, the first Christian Empire - the greatest city in the world.

And now it's all gone. And it's in some bloke's garden. You've got the road on one side, you've got the train on the other. And the only thing to be seen is a cat.

By 630, the Roman Empire had just overcome the worst crisis in its history. Its old enemies, the Persians, had overrun its fairest provinces. Persian troops had reached the very walls of Constantinople itself.

Then, after 25 years of war, the Persians were defeated. The Roman emperor was, once again, master of the universe. At such a moment, how could he have had any conceivable idea of the ruin that the heavens had in store for him?

End of part 1


Professor, can someone like myself, who is not a Muslim and who does not believe that God spoke to Mohammed, ever hope to fathom the truth of the origins of Islam?

Seyeed Hossain Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies, George Washington University


Location: Wadi Rum, Jordan

Arabic voice


Bedouin, the face of the Arab Conquest.

The shock troops, who in the 7th century swept out of Arabia and forged a colossal empire, spanning half the world. And here in the desert, no-one doubts that the conquerors were indeed Muslim.

Arabic, taking about the early days


Everything was for Islam, that's what they say today, the victories, the conquest, the empire. But how do we know Islam even existed back then?

Arabic, the Prophet started everything

To the ancients, the Arabs were notorious savages. Of all the peoples of the earth, the most despised and insignificant.

Yet after ten years in the first half of the 7th century, they'd deprived the Roman Empire of her richest provinces, crushed the Persian Empire, and taken possession of most of the Middle East.

A staggering achievement. For most Muslims, a miracle. Only God could have made it happen.


Bedouin Arabs, they were the margin of history during the Roman Empire, that through such a people the whole of North Africa and Spain should be transformed in just a few decades, and a whole new civilisation created within a century from China to France. This is historical fact.


And it all began, the story goes, when a merchant named Mohammed in a mountain cave, heard something as terrifying as it was awesome, the voice of an angel.

"Oh, Mohammed, thou art the apostle of God." God had spoken to the Arabs.

In Arabic :he prays, they pray.

The message was as clear as it was elemental. There is only one God. Mohammed is the prophet of God. Islam is submission to God. And it was this message that gave them an empire. Or was it?

No-one doubts the conquests really took place, but the question is, was it because of Islam?

Professor Nasr:

If you were a Christian or a Jew or a follower of another religion for whom a similar reality exists, it would be easier to make a jump. There is a very famous Arabic proverb which says,

"Not being able to know something is no proof that it doesn't exist."


But making that jump, taking a leap of faith, isn't as easy as it sounds. In Western universities, historical research is all about scepticism and doubt.

And just as earlier generations of scholars turned a penetrating spotlight on the life of Jesus, so now some are taking a radical new look at the life of Mohammed.

Patricia Crone is a professor at Princeton, she was one of a number of historians whose research into the roots of Islam has sharply divided the world of early Islamic studies.

"You cannot reject the Muslim story", she wrote, "but you cannot accept it, either.

"The only solution is to step outside of the Islamic tradition, and start again."

Patricia Crone:

There is a curtain, as regards Mohammed, that you can't get behind.


What do we know about him and his life?

Patricia Crone:

Ah, well, we know that he existed, we know that he was active somewhere in Arabia, we know that he is associated with the book the Koran, he was the one who uttered it, but it doesn't get us to what actually happened, which is what, of course, a historian would like to reconstruct.

We have absence of evidence. We have the Koran, and you can't tell the story of the basis of the Koran. We have various early non-Muslim sources. They don't add up to a story. We have nothing, we have this one book out of...and nothing. There is complete darkness.



But here, that's not the way they see things. The Bedouin think they know everything about Mohammed, his character, his wives, even his favourite food. This is a whole world founded on stories of Mohammed.

Arabic voices, Bedouin comparing their desert lifestyle with tat of the Prophet.

But the problem is, how do we know this was what it was like? How can we separate what really happened from hearsay and myths? Do we know, did the Prophet Mohammed come here?

Bedouins say yes and the Prophet rested under a tree. (No tree in sight.)

Was there a tree? Was Mohammed even a travelling merchant? The evidence is almost non-existent.

The earliest biographies we have were written nearly 200 years after Mohammed's lifetime.

Professor Nasr:

In most religions, the tradition was handed down through oral history, for millennia. This was put aside, now it's called positive history. The oral tradition is completely negated.


Well, oral tradition means that you remember what you want. Some of it must be history, but most of it is clearly not history.

It's just that they had been reshaped, rethought, they had been taken out of their original context, serving new functions, they'd been cleaned up by...Cleaned up, or messed up if you like, by all kinds of interests that people have in the memory.

Professor Nasr:

Supposing there is no written text of the time of the Prophet mentioning his name,  the same is true of Christ, the same is true of Moses, that doesn't mean anything because there is always the oral tradition.


Sometimes if you have other sources from other points of view, you can suddenly see what it is that's been changed, and then when you can see that, you can also see why it has changed, but because Islam arose in a relatively remote corner of the world, we don't have these checks, we don't yet have the key that can unlock the tradition.


I came here to get close to the tradition, and when you're here you can feel its weight. It's in the air. It's palpable. It can't just be brushed aside. Millions upon millions of people believe it - this is their history. An entire moral universe has been built around the stories told of Mohammed.

Arabic voices, Bedouin saying what a benefit women Islam was.

Listening to all these stories, part of me is very moved, the other part of me is wondering, "Well, how do you know this? "Where do these stories come from? "Are they really true?"


Professor Nasr:

Gradually in the West, for the intellectual elite, the sense of the sacred was lost. A tribal person in Africa or in the Amazon has a natural sense of the sacred, whereas a graduate student at Oxford probably doesn't.

Arabic voices they pray.


In some places, you have to be careful where to tread. Muslims believe that from the very beginning, the great Arab conquests were all about Islam. But in the 7th century, you can barely find a new religion called Islam anywhere in the historical records.

24:00 Location: Jerusalem

And that's why I've come here. This is Jerusalem. They've been building walls here for a long time. But they've never built a wall yet that could keep people safe for ever. Historically, the capital city of God has always been one of the world's most conquerable places. Here, if anywhere, in the one-time world of the Roman Empire, the 6th and 7th centuries live on. The same intensities, the same anxieties.

For thousands of years, Jerusalem had been shaped and mapped by the religions of its rulers. When the Jews ruled, they built a gigantic temple which dominated the city.

Later, when the Roman Empire became Christian, Jerusalem was transformed into the world centre of Christian pilgrimage. Look at the street plan now and you saw a map of a Christian world.

The Jews were gone, airbrushed out of the picture. The Romans constructed a new holy of holies.

The Holy Sepulcher, A vast cathedral, raised over the traditionally accepted site of Jesus' crucifixion. That was how God and Empire worked. The Roman Empire believed in God....and God believed in the Roman Empire.

But then, in the year 636, God changed his mind. Arab marauders appear outside the walls. Sophronius, the city's Bishop, writes that it is too dangerous to leave.

The Arabs were closing in. And there was nothing people of Christian Jerusalem could do about it, except to stay where they were look out from their walls and await the arrival of the Arabs. And out of the desert they came. And they had become irresistible.

In 636, they beat a Roman army at Yarmouk. Soon after, they beat a Persian army at Qadisiya. Both empires too weak after their own long wars to resist the Arabs.

They marched into the richest provinces of the defeated empires. And less than five years after the death of Mohammed, they set their eyes upon the Promised Land.

The land flowing with milk and honey. The land that God had promised to the Jews. Now the Arabs had come to claim that birthright for themselves.

The Children of Israel had made it a Jewish land. The Romans had made it a Christian holy land. If the Arabs did arrive with a new religion, then we should be able to find its imprint here.

Contemporary Christian sources confirmed that, late in the 630s, the Arabs took over Jerusalem by peaceful negotiation. What they don't say is what the conquerors' religion was.

Guy Stroumsa, Professor of Abrahamic Religions, University of Oxford.

The truth of the matter is we don't know what was the true religion of the first Arab conquerors.

Fred Donner, Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago.

We have a problem because this group of people from Arabia is tiny. They are ruling over much larger populations, who are very well versed theologically, of Christians and Jews and Zoroastrians, very sophisticated religious ideas.

Why would these populations not have risen up in rebellion against their Muslim rulers if these Muslim rulers are trying to impose something totally different that was hostile to their own beliefs?


What were the Arabs up to? What were their motives? We know they called themselves believers, but believers in what?

Certain Christian contemporaries tell us that the Arabs believed in a single god and that they followed a guide or instructor.

But, in general, their understanding of what the Arabs believed was deeply confused. Was it a form of Judaism or some kind of Christianity? Did they have a whole new religion of their own?


For the Jews, as well as for the Christians, these are people coming from the desert. They don't know who these people are. They don't really know what they believe. They hear things.


But perhaps there was a clue. At first, the new Arab rulers seemed closer to the Jews. They weren't interested in the Christian holy places. Instead, they began praying on the ruins of the old Jewish Temple.

All this only added to the Christian sense of paranoia. Behind the invasion of the Arabs, they began to suspect a Jewish conspiracy.

The moment the Arabs took over Jerusalem, they headed straight up here to what then, as now, is a broad, open, man-made esplanade. The holiest place for Jews anywhere in the world.

The fact the Arab conquerors came up here and started building a prayer hall on such a sensitive spot, inevitably served to raise quite a few eyebrows.


The Jews hope that these Arabs from the desert come as liberators. They permitted the Jews to come back to the Temple Mount and pray there.

And the Jews started believing that, maybe, there is something Messianic in these people, and maybe their leader is the Messiah, who will permit them to rebuild the temple.

Christian theologians, who speak about the Arab conquerors find it very hard to understand that they are dealing with a new religion. Who are they?


One thing is absolutely clear. Nobody had any notion that the Arabs were doing what they were doing in the name of a freshly minted and coherent new religion. Still less that what they were doing was in the name of something called Islam.

So, did Islam even exist in those early years after Mohammed? In Jerusalem, 30 years after the conquest, it was business as usual.

There were Christian pilgrims in the streets. The churches were full. Ancient religions were practising their ancient rites. But where was the prophet in all this?

30 years after the death of Mohammed, here in Jerusalem, an Arab warlord called Muawiyah was hailed as leader of the new Arab empire. But if Muawiyah was a Muslim, he showed precious little sign of it.

The astonishing thing is that nowhere, not on his inscriptions, not on his coins, not on any of his documents, is there so much as a single mention of Mohammed.

End of part 2.



I've been trying to trace the origins of Islam. 'But it's a bigger mystery than I'd every imagined. 'This is the holy book of Islam. And it's the earliest source for Islam that we have. Find out where the Qur'an was composed and you find out where Mohammed was operating and then you get a picture of where Islam might have begun.

'In the Qur'an, it tells Mohammed to follow the path trod by Abraham. Maybe that's the place to start looking.

I’m in Hebron which is a town on the West Bank and I'm currently in a Jewish settlement. But Hebron is also very much a Palestinian city, and so the atmosphere here is probably as tense as it is anywhere between Israelis and Palestinians.

There are Israeli soldiers here with very large guns. And what they're guarding is this, the burial place of Abraham.

Hebrew voices sing prayer.

'Abraham, through the line of his son Isaac was the father of the Jews. When everyone else was still pagan, Abraham worshipped the one true God. 'And, for this, God rewarded him and his descendants with the Promised Land, 'part of which, today, goes by the name of Israel.

'This is the tomb of Abraham. 'And the reason that the soldiers are here 'is that these are not the only people 'who regard him as their ancestor. 'And they're not the only people who believe that God gave them 'the Promised Land. On the other side of the grill are Muslims. And they tell a different story.

This is the Muslim side and the reason they revere Abraham is because, as well as Isaac, he had another son. Ishmael, the father of the Arabs.

This is the tomb of Abraham that we saw earlier from the Jewish side. But we're now looking at it from the Muslim side. The significance of Abraham and this association that was made between Arabs and Ishmaelites, the children of Ishmael, is actually much older than Islam itself.

It remains central to Islam to this day. According to Muslims, Abraham is their prophet and the religion he founded was not the religion of the Jews, but Islam. And in the Qur'an, we read that Ishmael helped Abraham to build a house of God at a place called Bakkah.


Neither the Qur'an nor any contemporary source actually specifies where Bakkah was, but Muslims, now, would have absolutely no doubt that Bakkah is another name for a place deep in the Arabian deserts: Mecca.

'The holiest city in Islam. The birthplace of Mohammed .'This is the largest mosque in the world. At its centre, the Kaaba, the House of God.

First built by Abraham and his son Ishmael on foundations laid by the first man, Adam. It is older and holier than anywhere else in the world. It was in the hills above the city that Mohammed received the first of his revelations from God.

These revelations would form the holy book of Islam, the Qur'an, 'the very word of God. where Muslims believe everything began. The crossroads of faith and history. Surely here then, you would think, we could find solid evidence for Islam's beginnings.

But there is a problem. Aside from a single, ambiguous mention in the Qur'an itself, there is no mention of Mecca, not one, in any datable text for over 100 years after Mohammed's death.'

How can we know that Mohammed does come from Mecca?


We can't. But, on the other hand, if he doesn't come from there, you'd have to come up with a plausible alternative for where he might have come from and why would you want to take that on?


Why do they go on? Well, you know, it's what historians do. If things don't fit, you try something else that might fit.

Location: Early mosque in desert


Here we go. So this is it?

Dr Tali Erikson-Gini. Israeli Antiquities Authority

Yeah, here we are.


In the Qur'an, the faithful are instructed to prayer in the direction of a holy sanctuary. But what it doesn't ever say is that this sanctuary stood at Mecca. And, to some archaeologists, a few early mosques suggest something different.


We're talking about one of the earliest examples of a mosque.


And you date it 100 years after Mohammed ?


Somewhere within 100 years or so.

Because here, as we go into it, you can see.


This is it?


This is it, yeah.


This is the mosque?


This is the mosque. And what you can.. What you can see here .. (Laughs)

We have an apse which is not facing Mecca, it's not facing the south. It's actually facing towards the east. Towards the sun rising. This is an example of the time before the direction had actually been preferred towards Mecca.


So the implication of that is that, at this early stage of Islam, the focus of prayer has not yet been absolutely fixed?


The direction of prayer had not been well-established yet.


So it's bit like the concrete hasn't yet set.




You can still play with it, you can still fiddle around with it, you can experiment with it.


Very much so.


Yeah. Wow.

Not a decisive clue perhaps. But it is suggestive that, 'even though there are no Muslim sources, there are reports from Christian writers of the time that the Arab conquerors bowed their heads in prayer not in the direction of Mecca, but in a quite different direction, somewhere further north.


In the Qur' never actually states that Mohammed lived in Mecca. Nor that Mecca was where the first revelations took place. Does the material in the Qur'an point to Mecca being the setting for God's revelations to Mohammed ?


No, it doesn't. I mean, there is mention of a sanctuary, there is a sanctuary, for sure. Where is that sanctuary, that's, of course, we can't tell.


It's devilishly difficult to, sort of, extract what the context might have been from the text itself.


In Muslim tradition, the people of Mecca are pagans, worshippers of idols. But, in fact.the people the Qur'an describes have a deep and sophisticated knowledge of the biblical tradition.


The Qur'an retells biblical stories and alludes to biblical stories, not just biblical, but also post-biblical developments. All this is clearly known to the audience.'


It suggests that what we have is a kind of response, on a part of, let us say, Mohammed to the debates that were going on in Christian and Jewish communities. Where they were debating theological issues and questions that come out of the Hebrew Bible and come out of the New Testament. And the Qur'an seems to be an effort to engage in the discussion and so there's a strong connection with Late Antiquity religious discourses that were alive throughout the Near East.


So it's obviously not a pagan world we're looking for. The people in the Qur'an worship a single god. But it then accuses them of praying to beings other than God. And there's something else.

The people the Prophet addresses in the Qur'an are farmers, agriculturists, but there was no agriculture in Mecca.


Mecca does not have an agrarian base.In Mecca, it seems to have been quite an arid valley.


If Mecca is this barren, infertile place, how is it that, in the Qur'an, the opponents of the Prophet are described as keeping cattle and growing olives and vines?


Hm, good question. 'This is one of the reasons why some scholars feel 'that the text of the Qur'an is really plugged in to, say, Syria.' Because that's where vines and olives grow.




Much further north. Geographical, Syria. You don't find olive trees in Mecca.


So if Mecca wasn't the starting point of Islam, what was?

If you're following the clues in the Qur'an itself then you're looking for a landscape inhabited by olive-growing Arabs, who have a deep knowledge of the biblical tradition, but whose worship of a single god might seem, to some, a little shop-soiled.

This is the city of Avdat, in the Negev Desert.

Back in the early 7th century, it was an Arab city on the very fringes of the Roman Empire. Nominally Christian, but with hints of a recently pagan past.

Location: in a cave.

There can be no doubt that this is a Christian place of worship. There are two crosses on the ceiling. But there's also something very interesting in the corner, which is a bull complete with horns. And the bull is an image that, very probably, is drawn from much older, native Arab pagan traditions.

That doesn't mean that the Christians who built this were, themselves, pagan, but it does mean, I think, that they are giving their monotheism, their belief in a single god, a little bit of pagan colour.

And that, essentially, is the crime that Mohammed, in the Qur'an, seems to be accusing his opponents of.

But Avdat had more than the right religious complexion. It also had agriculture and olives. In the lifetime of Mohammed, all this would have been green. It would have been agricultural fields as far as the eye can see.

Archaeology leaves no doubt that there was a sophisticated irrigation system here that really did make the desert bloom. And so, while that doesn't mean that this Avdat is the actual spot where the Qur'an was composed, it does imply, I think, that the region, as a whole, seems to fit the wider context of the Qur'an better than somewhere much further south, in the arid region of Mecca.


When you read through and through the Qur'an, what's really striking, as compared, say, to the Bible, which is full of allusions to recognisable landscapes that we know. In the Qur'an, it's an effort to find an allusion to any landscape or natural setting that we could actually pin down.

In fact, in the whole of the Qur'an, there's really only the one exception. Not far from Avdat, a strange hint about where the Qur'an might actually have come from.'

We are on the southernmost shores of the Dead Sea. Between, what is now, Israel and Jordan. Lot was the nephew of Abraham and he went to settle down in a city called Sodom. And the people of Sodom were notoriously racy.

Unsurprisingly, this provoked the wrath of God. He destroyed his city and this is said to be the remains of Sodom, where the anger of God was poured down upon it.

And the Qur'an,

"So also was Lot among those sent by us. Behold, we delivered him and his adherents,
all except an old woman who was among those who lagged behind.
"Then we destroyed the rest. Truly, you pass by their sites by day and by night."
But if the people being addressed by the Prophet are passing this place by day and by night, then what's it doing here? 1,000 kilometres from Mecca. In terms of someone who is looking for are very much in the situation of someone who is panning for gold. And I think that this passage is just one little fleck.

I mean, there is one possibility, of course, which is that this one fragment originated in this neighbourhood. Perhaps the rest came from elsewhere. But that then begs the question of where all the various component parts of the Qur'an are coming from. Are they necessarily to be attributed to one person living at one time?

Again, when you start asking that question, it's very hard to know how far to push it.


It's from the West that this kind of history came up. That its reason is our ultimate decider and judge of the truth. But what I'm saying is that those are not really going to give you the reason that is logically satisfying.


Where do you think the likeliest place of its origin is?


Ah. Well. That, I don't know. (laughs) That, I don't know. Er, I don't think I should speculate on that.


OK. All right. (laughs)




My greatest fear is that I'm completely wrong. I do sometimes wake up in the middle of the night 'and think I've got it completely wrong.


Once the world is reduced to a mechanical world, then all other levels of reality lose their status as being real. And they're relegated to the realm of so-called superstition. And what is not seen... is considered not to exist.


End of part 3.


Trying to track the origins of Islam has been like chasing a mirage. The Arabs conquer half the world, but they don't talk about Muhammad. There's no mention of Mecca. So what do they do in detective stories? They follow the money.

Location: showroom of ancient coins

Are any of these, what's the first coin that actually mentions the name of the Prophet Muhammad on the coins? Do any of these coins mention Muhammad by name?


Yeah, but is the name of the Prophet Muhammad mentioned?


No, no.


Every coin tells a story. Every inscription conveys an idea of power. But sometimes, what's not on the coin can be just as significant as what is. It would be nice to see the earliest coin that mentions Muhammad.

The earliest coin that has Muhammad's name, they don't have it. It's just, it's odd that we're 60 years on from the death of Muhammad, and no mention of Muhammad.

For nearly 60 years, the rulers of the Arab empire didn't put Muhammad on their coins. And then they did. Maybe, 60 years was what they needed to work out what the story really was. Maybe the issue isn't why Muhammad was not on the coinage at the beginning, but how he got there in the end.

What if I've been asking the wrong question? What if it wasn't Islam that gave birth to the Arab empire? But the Arab empire that gave birth to Islam?

The Empire was rich beyond imagining. By the mid-680s, it stretched from northern Persia to Egypt and North Africa. But who had the right to rule it? A vital question on which the Arabs could not agree. And with so much to play for, they began to turn upon themselves.

It's 680. 50 years on from the death of Muhammad. A deadly spiral of rebellion and civil war is threatening the Arab empire with implosion. And from deep within the Arabian Desert, a new claimant to the empire emerges.

His name? Abdullah Ibn Al-Zubair. And Ibn Al-Zubair is going to change the game.

What I've got here is the coin that I was looking for in the Coin Museum. And it's stamped, quite literally, with the genius of Ibn Al-Zubair.

It was struck in 685, 686, so that's more than half a century after the death of Muhammad.

And it bears a novel and fateful slogan, "In the name of God, Muhammad is the prophet of God."

And so here, at last, emerging from out of the black hole, e get a mention of a Muhammad who is a prophet. And this is the first time we have it on any inscription, any surviving document.

Ibn Al-Zubair had essentially realised what Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, had realised long before him, that it was no good the Lord of an earthly empire laying claim to the favour of God, unless he could absolutely demonstrate the cast-iron basis on which he was making that claim.

And Constantine, in his attempt to obtain that sanction, had turned to the Christian church. But Ibn Al-Zubair turns to the figure of Muhammad.

Now, as it happens, Ibn Al-Zubair loses the civil war, he is defeated by a rival warlord who lays claim to the empire of the Arabs. But the discovery that the name of Muhammad can be used to buttress earthly power, that is not forgotten.

The civil war had been a very close-run thing. And the victorious warlord, Abd al-Malik, had no intention of ever again allowing Muhammad's legacy to fall into the hands of a dangerous rival.

The Romans had known all about religion and power. When they had become Christian, they had redrawn the map of Jerusalem. Now, Abd al-Malik set about fashioning a holy city of his own.

Location: Jerusalem

God, it's beautiful. The dome of the rock. It's the oldest Islamic building in existence.

In design, it was Roman, and Abd al-Malik was doing something else that was Roman. Plugging his dominion into the power of God. On the walls, there is an unequivocal mission statement.

"Religion, in the eyes of God, is Islam." There are mentions of Muhammad, quotations from the Koran.

At last, something that we can recognise unmistakably as a new religion. There is a sense here of something new coming into being. There is the sense of the old, the Roman-style pillars and the mosaics.

And yet, this is clearly not Roman, this is clearly not Christian, this is the beginning of something very, very potent. A harbinger of a spectacular future. It was built on the very site of the old Jewish Temple.

Down here, the foundation stone of the world. The very junction of heaven and earth. This is quite possibly one of the most awesome places on the entire planet. It is deeply, deeply holy, not to one, but to two great religions.

It's the place where Jews believe God inhabits the Earth, the holy of holies, the Shekhinah. And to Muslims, it is the cave that Muhammad prayed in after being brought here from Mecca before he ascended to heaven to be confirmed as the seal of the prophets. So in religious terms, this is like a sort of nuclear reactor, firing out isotopes and power.


It's certainly a very grand statement, that we Muslims have superseded you Jews. And we have superseded you Christians by being filled with inscriptions directed against Christian Trinitarian beliefs. So it's Muslims saying, we are here, we've come to stay, and we are the winners.


Abd al-Malik now rules his empire as the deputy of God, just as the Christian Roman emperors had done. And like the Roman emperors, he has built a house of God in Jerusalem. But Abd al-Malik, Lord of Jerusalem though he is, is also an Arab.

Perhaps for Arabs, Jerusalem, for all its ancient and unrivalled potency, owed too much to the Jews and Christians to stand alone as the holy city of the new Arab empire.

A poet at Abd al-Malik's court describes him as the Lord of two houses, sacred to God. One in Jerusalem, and one, well, he doesn't say where it is. And for 100 years after the death of Muhammad, no-one says where it is.


All sources go on calling it "A place in the desert." It's a sanctuary in the desert, without giving it a name.


And at some point, this sanctuary must have been fixed at Mecca, in the middle of the desert. But why?


The truth of the matter is, we don't know what was the true religion of the first Arab cultures.


It's an Arab story. Arabs come from the desert. God is speaking to the Arabs. They don't want Jews or Christians having any influence on Muhammad.

Arabic voices, Bedouin saying they are the descendants of Muhammad.

The Koran is in Arabic, the Koran is full of characters from the Bible. But if the book came out of the desert, how did these characters get there?


We have nothing. We have this one book, out of nothing. We don't have the key that can unlock the tradition.


But maybe that's the point. We're not supposed to unlock the tradition. God's message comes to a prophet, the prophet lives in a desert. There is no room for anyone else.


It's remote. It's remote, it's uncontaminated, it's pure. It's a place where we can rule out that Muhammad got his ideas from others than God.


It's interesting that the history is very weak in being able to provide causes for certain effects. Not being able to know something is no proof that it doesn't exist.



You begin by looking in the record and all you find is emptiness. And you end up in the desert and all you see is emptiness. But perhaps the emptiness is the answer.

Maybe Mecca gave Islam what it most needed, a blank sheet.....where Muslims could put their prophet, beyond the reach of history.

Bell rings in a church


Professor, do you think that what I am doing is complicit with the brute fact of Western imperialism, Western hegemony?


No. Not necessarily. As long as you're a man aware of what you're doing. If you come as a Western scholar or historian, and in all honesty present what your world-view is, and this says, "When I look at the Islamic world from this paradigm, this is what I see", and bring out why this is different from how Muslims see themselves, that, I think, is a very honest effort, and is a good effort.

But if you try to act as a doctor to a child, "Take this medicine, it's good for you. You don't what you're eating, the wrong thing. This is how it should be."

That's where the problem begins. And the Muslim world is not going to accept that. The days when the British would bring scholars from England to teach Indians how to be Hindus and Muslims are finished. It's finished.

Bell rings

It's true, before I began, I did have preconceptions. I was brought up a Christian, but I was also brought up in an environment that questions everything. Studying ancient history is a process of paint-stripping, tearing away stories that you want to believe the literal truth of.

This is supposed to be Mount Sinai, where Moses saw the burning bush, where God gave him the Ten Commandments, but there's no historical evidence for any of this.

Christian monastery, Roman fortifications, the old partnership, God and Empire, between them, they turned this place into Sinai. In my heart, I want to believe it, but my head won't let me.

Father Justin, St Catherine’s Monastery.

We believe that there is a living tradition kept by the people here, that this is where God had revealed himself in an extraordinary way.


How much would it matter if it turned out that this wasn't the place where Moses had received the Ten Commandments?

Father Justin, St Catherine’s Monastery.

The spiritual encounter with God is more important. The reality is there, even if your eyes aren't open to see things in actuality. God is always present, but you're not aware of his presence.


Ultimately, the City of God matters more than the City of Man.



But as a historian, I have to presume that the City of God was built by man as well. I wanted to map the human past in human terms, to make a map that fits the facts. But I travelled to places where the maps revealed a heavenly plan, sacred lands, sacred places, a world where you don't have to believe in God to feel the power of God.

This is the Promised Land. Some call it Israel, some call it Palestine, a land where Muslims, Christians and Jews still fight over the story of a promise made by God to Abraham thousands of years ago.

Was there really a promise? It's not for the historian to say. But the world believers make in the name of God, that is what history is about.

Even today, more people die for visions of heaven than they ever do for historical facts. Stories that never happened can be infinitely more powerful than stories that did.

I set out to write the story of the beginnings of Islam. If you're a Muslim, then there's no problem, everything is explained by God. But I'm not a Muslim, and I don't think that civilisations appear like lightning from a clear blue sky.

What I think now is that Islam emerged from a whole range of circumstances, from the religions and the empires and the convulsions of the world that witnessed its birth.

And yes, of course, it is still the case, the black hole that surrounds Islam's beginnings doesn't give up its secrets easily.

But maybe we are getting somewhere. The search for the historical Mohammed, for the origins of the Koran, for the whereabouts of the first sanctuary, for the way Islam evolved out of the Arab Empire, these are pieces of a whole new story.

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