Islam: The Untold Story (2012) Movie Script

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.
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?
Sometimes the belief of the
and the understanding of the
scholar, cannot be squared.
It's a choice between doing history
and not doing history.
So I do the history,
even though it may hurt people.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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."
There is a curtain, as regards
Mohammed, that you can't get behind.
What do we know about him
and his life?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
The truth of the matter
is we don't know
what was the true religion
of the first Arab conquerors.
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
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.
'I've been trying to trace
the origins of Islam.
'But it's a bigger mystery
than I'd ever 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.
'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.
'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.
'is 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.
Here we go.
So this is it?
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.
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'an...
'it 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 Antique
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,
'agriculturalists, 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.'
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.
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 clues...
' 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?
Well. That, I don't know.
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.'
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.
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,
we 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,
have 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
for the origins of the Koran,
for the whereabouts of the first
for the way Islam evolved
out of the Arab Empire,
these are pieces of a whole
new story.
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