Interview with ‘The Lifting the Veil Project’ on issues relevant to Muslim women

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‘Lifting the Veil’ were kind enough to interview me at the end of 2013. I have re-published the interview here. It first appeared on the blog for The Lifting the Veil Project on 19th January 2014.

An interview with Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj

In the past few months there have been numerous articles, from across the political spectrum, on the issue of implementing a ‘niqab ban’ in public places in the UK. Recently, there has been increased attention on gender-segregated seating in UK universities.

Here the founder of ‘The Lifting the Veil Project’ interviews the writer Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj about her view on this ongoing debate. Afroze recently wrote an open letter to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in response to her controversial article on the niqab.AfrozeZJ (1)

You have written for the Huffington Post about issues which affect Muslim women. Recently, you wrote an open letter to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown about her comments and articles on the niqab ban. What led you to do this?

My reason for writing the response to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was the same as it is for writing any article; to express my own views on the subject at hand. The article I responded to particularly caused me concern because it was written by a Muslim woman and yet was so entirely unsympathetic of the viewpoint of other Muslim women. Alibhai-Brown reinforced in her article the tropes of veiled women being “objectified” or made invisible, and took away the agency of Muslim women by refusing to consider the possibility that they may choose, of their own free will and as an expression of faith to which they are rightfully entitled, to wear the niqab.

In your article you mentioned that you felt that progressive adaptation of Islam was synonymous with ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Western idealist hegemony’. Could you please explain why?

It isn’t possible to fully answer this question without launching into a lengthy academic diatribe about the features of Orientalism as a frame of reference. The majority of European colonial literature makes it abundantly clear that the West regarded itself as ideologically (and otherwise) superior to the East and to the “New World” in general. It is a myth to think that these attitudes are in the past; the fact remains that Western ideological hegemony carries on to this day, mostly on a subconscious level in the minds of the inhabitants of the West, and this is due in part to a highly sanitised version of colonial history being taught at school level.With regards to Islam, I am presently studying the views on Islam as a faith expressed by British non-Muslims, and too often I see objections such as “Islam needs modernisation” and “Islam needs an Enlightenment” thrown around, suggesting Islam is, in its essence, a backward ideology which must be modernised by the efforts of its progressive adherents. The difficulty I have with this view is that, like much of the discourse on anything non-Western, it takes a highly “West-centric” approach; the lens of the critic making these objections is almost always, if not always, one that observes Islam from a Western vantage point. Islam is seen as the ‘Other’, the outsider, the archaic ideology of the East which must be helped along in order to make it catch up to the progress of the West. Whether the people expressing such views are Muslim or not is inevitably immaterial; what really matters is that those saying Islam needs modernisation do not seem to realise that modernity and progress are relative concepts, that they are not defined solely by the normative values of those in the West, and that just because something seems “less than” to us, it does not necessarily mean that this is always the case.

Is there a danger of framing the debate as a black and white issue; do you feel that the full spectrum of Muslims’ views on this issue are being represented?

It seems these days that whenever Muslims are involved, and other minorities by extension, debates are framed in black and white whether we like it or not. I think there are plenty of Muslims out there expressing a diverse range of views; the key is to ensure that those diverse views are given fair and equal coverage, and not that the views of some are highlighted or heard more than others because they are more widely supported.

Is there an important issue to be had about forcing the veil on women who do not wish to wear it?

That anyone should be forced to do something against their will is unconscionable. However, the question remains as to what extent legal penalty can be applied in these situations – what if a woman is forced by her partner to dress a certain way in front of his friends or work colleagues? What if a mother is forced by her partner to give up her career so that she can be the primary caregiver for her children? What if a wife is forced by her husband to only have a joint account between them, so that she has no financial independence? All of these situations are unjust. They are all everyday examples of women being forced to do things against their will. Yet it would be ludicrous to suggest that legislation should be put in place or a public debate should be had to prevent any of these situations from taking place in the future. But when it comes to the practices of Muslims, everyone hastens to cry oppression and come to the rescue of Muslim women. If women in the UK are being forced to wear the veil, or are experiencing any kind of domestic abuse or isolation, the solution is to provide them with support at the grassroots and, where necessary, to work with them on a case by case basis and find solutions that are acceptable to them as individuals. As for forced veiling in other countries, I have already objected to this practice in Saudi Arabia in my article, referring to it as nothing more than patriarchy in the guise of religion; what we must also consider, however, is that too often, the abuse of Eastern women by Eastern men is another Orientalist trope which is consistently used to provide justification for Western military intervention, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Afghanistan. Let’s not forget, we are not accountable for legislation or civil society in Afghanistan. We are accountable for these only within the UK. And in the UK, if we are trying to achieve a liberal society, we have to accept that a policy of forced de-veiling is exactly as oppressive as a policy of forced veiling.

Do you personally feel any pressure to wear a hijab or niqab?

In a word: no. I chose to wear hijab at 15, which is much later than the age that Muslim girls are required to start wearing hijab by most interpretations of Islamic law (fiqh). My parents never asked me to wear it, and they certainly never forced it upon me. On a personal level, I have found hijab to be an evolving concept that is extremely subjective and intimate; while others can lay out the rules of how hijab should or shouldn’t be, I have the free will to interpret and implement those rules as I wish. I do not wear the niqab, nor have I ever done – I feel that wearing the niqab in this day and age requires a lot of self-confidence and a thick skin, both of which I lack. I admire those women who, regardless of how unwelcome the niqab may be, possess the courage and devotion for such an open expression of their commitment to God, and I will always support their right to express their faith in this way.

What are your thoughts on the possibility of the UK imposing a nationwide ban on the niqab in public places?

As I mentioned earlier, a policy of forced de-veiling is exactly as oppressive as a policy of forced veiling. If we ban the niqab, we are violating the basic rights of Muslim women in this country: the right to free expression, to dress as they choose, and the right to freely practice their faith. It has also already been argued elsewhere that if women are indeed being forced to wear the niqab by their male relatives, a ban will only further their isolation; if they cannot leave home wearing the niqab, they will not be able to leave at all – so who would this ban benefit, really? While forcing women to veil in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan is oppressive, how is forcing women to unveil, against their will, any less oppressive? I thought we were trying to be more liberal than Afghanistan.

What did you make of the recent article by Laurie Penny about Islamophobia in feminist circles?

I enjoyed reading the article and agreed with it overall; Penny made some salient points which would otherwise seem blatantly obvious, but because the gender segregation issue is another one that involves Muslims, most people have taken a very blinkered approach to the debate. One general criticism that several people made of the article is that Penny failed to acknowledge the negative role white women have played in undermining Muslim women, for example by taking away the agency of Muslim women when assuming they are all forced to veil by Muslim men (á la Femen). Moreover, while I fully appreciate the sentiments expressed in Penny’s article, it does seem that the kind of views she expressed are generally more palatable to the British public when they originate from a white writer. Had similar views been expressed by a writer of colour, who is to say whether they would have been as well-received? Penny’s article was tweeted 782 times, as compared to only 204 tweets for Mehdi Hasan’s article on the New Statesman website saying Islamophobia had gone mainstream. Another example, in 2012 Assed Baig was slated for expressing his reservations about wearing a Remembrance Day poppy. In 2013, several white writers including Robert Fisk and WWII veteran Harry Leslie Smith, were applauded for doing the same thing. Last month following the trial of Lee Rigby’s killers, Seumas Milne wrote a piece for the Guardian website about the war on terror impacting home-grown terrorism; he said the two killers attacked a soldier as an act of military retaliation. I couldn’t help but think that these views being so well-received (shared over 4000 times on Facebook) cannot be unrelated to the fact that Milne spoke from within the safety of his white privilege. Now with the new counter-terrorism strategy in the UK, it appears that if a Muslim so much as attempts to link British foreign policy (and not “extremist ideology”) to the rise in home-grown terrorism, he or she risks being marked as a terror suspect.

What have been the general attitudes towards your articles highlighting issues which affect Muslim women?

By and large, I have received a lot of support and encouragement from Muslim readers, who may feel that I am in some part expressing their own views on the issues at hand which may not be expressed otherwise. While I have also received support and positive feedback from some non-Muslims, this has been overshadowed by racist vitriol that is sent my way via tweets or comments to the articles. And when I call it racism, I am silenced with the usual cop-out: “It’s impossible to be racist towards Muslims; Islam is not a race.”

As a Muslim woman living in the UK, you also wrote about ten gripes that you had in one week. If you could, how would you summarise the main problems which Muslim women face both within and outside of Muslim communities?

I would say one of the main problems is that of equality, and that is not just with men, but with other women as well. I gave the examples above to illustrate that Muslim women and their affairs come under a lot more scrutiny than those of non-Muslim women, and particularly women who are white middle- to upper-class. The right of Muslim women to express themselves and their faith, whether through niqab or anything else, should be recognised on par with all other women. Misogyny exists, of course, within Muslim communities as it still exists within wider British society; I have come across plenty of Muslim women who are challenging this every day within their individual roles and capacities to bring about a shift in popular attitudes. We certainly do not need a knight in shining armour to come to our rescue.

Finally, what would be your hope for the future regarding better community cohesion in the UK?

We firstly need to accept that difference is OK, and expecting minorities to assimilate into oblivion is both unreasonable and unjust. If everyone is truly free to live their lives as they choose in the UK within the limits of the law, there should be no shaming of those who struggle to learn English or adopt a “British way of life”.We also need to begin a frank and open discussion on Britain’s colonial history, accepting responsibility for the wrongs of past governments and finally realising that the West does not know all, nor is it better than everyone else. Moreover, we must recognise that patriotism as a concept has today been co-opted by far-right groups, and just because minorities are not wearing poppies or singing the Queen’s praises, this does not mean they are doing, or are willing to do, any less to serve British society and the British economy on a daily basis. Freedom of expression must be afforded equally to all, and this includes the freedom to be different; if we can all remember this principle, (particularly the MPs calling for public debates on the most trivial issues which will show minorities in a negative light) community cohesion may just begin to improve.

Ten Rants for the Week From a Muslim Woman

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Sometimes, pent up frustration over the week that was can only be let out in short bursts of plain-clothed obviousness. Here are ten rants intended to do just that.

1. There is no such thing as “Muslim terrorism”, “Islamic terrorism”, or “Islamic-only terrorism”, nor has there ever been. Also, Amazing how a terrorist attack on a white soldier gets memorialised, his family’s loss and mourning highlighted for weeks, his funeral attended by the prime minister — and a terrorist attack (let’s call it what it was) on a Muslim pensioner gets swept under the carpet like so much petty crime.

2. Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn the horrendous persecution of Muslims in Burmais just one more example of how utterly meaningless the Nobel Peace Prize really is. Another example of course being…

3. Barack Obama and the ethical black hole that is the United States’ drone program. Seriously, just give it up. Your whitewashing of the facts is no longer fooling anyone.

4. Russell Brand likes using big words that may lack substance, but at least he doesn’t get paid millions of taxpayers’ money to do it.

5. Mehdi Hasan should be prime minister (as long it’s not for a Labour government).

6. Muslim women in Britain will exercise their right to wear niqab in public places regardless of who does and doesn’t like it, “feel comfortable” with it, “feel threatened” by it, or just plain hate it. The sooner we all accept this and move on, the better.

7. For the sanity of the nation, Katie Hopkins needs to crawl back into the hole from whence she came, recognising once and for all that her one and only birthright is obscurity.

8. Saudi Arabia needs to enter the 21st century, namely by ceasing to abuse the rights of women and minorities in the name of Islam.

9. Muslim schools should stop enforcing Islamic rules on their pupils and staff, just as soon as all other schools stop making children of all faiths sing carols every year which refer to Jesus as Lord. Last time I checked, covering of the head wasn’t against anyone’s beliefs; the same cannot, however, be said for referring to Jesus as God, or the son of God.

10. If Merkel’s phone was bugged, there’s no hope for the rest of us. Hey NSA, I’m a conservative Muslim woman who has grown up in the Middle East and visited Syria and Iraq – call me maybe?

– This article first appeared on the Huffington Post website on 27 Oct 2013.

An Open Letter to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Like It or Not, Niqab Ban Is Racist

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Dear Yasmin Alibhai-Brown,

I feel compelled to write this letter in response to your recent article in the Independent addressing the topic of veiled Muslim women. The fact that such views were given space in the Independent is disappointing enough, but that they were made out as some sort of defence of Islam (the right kind of course, “progressive Islam”) is even worse.

Allow me to first position myself in this debate by saying that I do not wear a face-veil, but living in a liberal society, I support the right of women (and anyone else) to wear what they choose, for whatever reason. As a Muslim, I support this right even more if a woman’s decision to cover her face is a personal expression of her devotion to God (it’s not unheard of – see here for just one example). However, I take offence at the suggestion that because I should support the niqab or burka, I am part of some mindless “aggressive guerrilla army of salafists and their misguided allies.” The truth is that as a Shia Muslim, I couldn’t be further away from being an aggressive salafist or an ally of one – for decades my people have been the target of niqab-enforcing nutjobs, and we continue to be slaughtered with impunity to this day. The Saudi government, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, all detest the Shia for having “deviant” beliefs, and make their feelings known mostly through extreme persecution, often ending in murder (see cases in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia for evidence), and so before coming to this country I often found myself loathing the niqab as a symbol of Wahabi fanaticism. The insistence of these fanatics that women cover their faces, claiming it to be a religious requirement when it is nothing more than patriarchy in disguise, is something I still find reprehensible.

Yet today I stand in support of the right of women to choose niqab. Again, this is because I support the right of anyone to choose what they wear, full stop. Any nation that claims to be built on “liberal” values cannot possibly deem it acceptable to infringe upon a woman’s freedom of expression by banning the niqab, at least not without becoming a paragon of double standards and institutionalised xenophobia (yes, I mean France). Despite this simple fact, if the niqab debate has currently spiraled out of control this suggests only the continued lack of tolerance for otherness, for culturally alien practices, in British society.

Of course, on the surface the arguments are dressed in politically correct terms: ‘safeguarding’, ‘communication’, ‘harm’, ‘oppression’. Beneath the surface, though, is the common element of forcing out otherness, “banning” a practice that is unfamiliar, alien. If the identity of a veiled witness needs to be verified, can it not be done in a separate room, by a female clerk or officer? Would a veiled woman really object to that? And surely campus security should have to consider more than a person’s clothing to establish whether or not they are a security risk? Where do we draw the line? Now that reckless comments have been made about banning veils in schools, should we also have a national debate on banning Sikh head coverings for boys, because they might be “forced” to wear them? Couched beneath the rhetoric, these commentators and politicians are employing the age-old tactic of using legitimate concerns to disguise racist discomforts and paranoia. In spite of being from among the Muslims you are attempting to speak for, your description of the veil as a “shroud” is derogatory to the point of being racist. Worse still is the insinuation that women who veil are a provocation similar to the Ku Klux Klan? Let’s take a moment to reflect on that – these are women who veil for their religion, whether forced or otherwise. Is it really reasonable to compare them to a handful of violent bigots who are right up there with the Nazis?

To address your “legitimate” criticisms: firstly, choosing to cover the face is by no means choosing to be objectified – it is the opposite. The niqab makes superficial features irrelevant, and brings into focus the features by which a niqab-wearing woman chooses to be judged: her mind, her speech, her values. You would know this simple fact had you ever met a decent number of niqab-wearing women in your life; in this country, they are working, going to university, leading truly liberated lives because they are free from expectations of the male gaze. We wouldn’t even be having this debate if niqab-wearing women weren’t pursuing higher education. Secondly, If you think women will never become judges or barristers or will “deny themselves jobs” because of choosing not to conform to Western expectations of physical presentation, and that this is the fault of the women themselves, not of those denying them said opportunities, then you are in effect defending such blatantly discriminatory, Islamophobic, racist attitudes. You mention Malala’s courage, yet it’s ironic that by promoting a policy of forced ‘de-veiling’, you are closer to Malala’s oppressors than you seem to realise.

Zealotry is hard to defend in most cases, and I will not make any attempts to defend it here. To say that Islam today needs to be formed and shaped by Muslims into some modern, “progressive” adaptation is, however, an idea that I detest, simply because it smacks of so much Orientalist, Western ideological hegemony. Islam must be “modernised” for Muslims in the West, because its essence is “unmodern”; Islam must be made “progressive” for Muslims in the West, because it would otherwise remain “backward.” Well, as a modern, progressive, free-thinking Muslim in the West, I say: no thank you. The religion I follow is not in need of modernisation by Muslims in the West. Islam is, and always has been, a progressive religion – those who do not recognise it need to understand the faith at its core, rather than imposing upon it Western standards of modernity and progress. The Qur’an mentions that men and women will be judged as equals, and the choices of women are theirs alone to make. The right to choose niqab is inalienable, and it is not yours, Sarah Wollaston’s, Jeremy Browne’s, David Cameron’s or anyone else’s – it belongs only to Muslim women.

– This article first appeared on the Huffington Post UK website on 16 Sep 2013.

The Real Reason British Women Are Turning to Islam (And It’s Not Because They Aren’t Modern)

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‘Make Me a Muslim’, a documentary on British women who have converted to Islam which aired on BBC3, addresses an issue that continues to be mulled over following on from the 2011 census results. The documentary looked at women from varied racial, ethnic and social backgrounds, and gave anecdotal accounts of the unique situation and struggles faced by each woman in the wake of her decision to accept Islam, as a faith as well as a way of life. The producer of the programme, Emily Hughes, in a post on BBC’s TV Blog, made it a point to mention that she hoped to “to challenge stereotypes about Islam,” a lofty but commendable aim. The question remains, was this aim achieved, and what does the documentary tell us about the perception of Muslims in Britain overall?

For a documentary on BBC3, the standard of ‘Make Me a Muslim’ was about as high as can be expected. Critiques of style and form aside, one of the most obvious shortcomings of the documentary was the choice of presenter, British model and ‘born-Muslim’ Shanna Bukhari. Whether or not Shanna was chosen purely for added entertainment value, given the contrast between her approach to Islam and that of most Muslim converts as well asthe controversy she faced after wanting to represent Britain in the Miss Universe pageant in 2011, is for the viewer to decide. While watching the programme, however, it was hard not to keep asking the question: why choose someone who does not prioritise Islam as a way of life to learn more about Muslim women for whom Islam is everything? Shanna Bukhari’s inability to relate to the most basic of Islamic customs was cringe-worthy, but as some commenters on the blog pointed out, even more disappointing was this extended focus on the presenter’s own internal conflicts instead of the wider issues faced in Britain by converts and Muslims in general. In that sense, despite the best intentions of its makers, ‘Make Me a Muslim’ unfortunately did not to do what it said on the tin.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the documentary stemmed from the attitude of its presenter. Shanna lamented the judgment that Scottish traveller Alana placed upon her clothing, yet refused to leave behind her own prejudices and preconceptions in the making of this programme (perhaps unsurprising, considering she is a model by profession and not a journalist). One of the most telling signs of Shanna’s West-centric attitude was her description of herself as ‘not pretty’ when wearing the Muslim headscarf, and no thought was given, nor any comment made afterwards, to explore further what “pretty” actually means, or that it can mean different things to different people, individually as well as within cultures and faiths, or especially that the Western attitude of “hair + make-up + revealing clothing = pretty” is something to be questioned in itself. More than looking pretty for one’s own expression of femininity (something which many Muslims, scholars or otherwise, will confirm that Islam is not in conflict with), this disproportionate, nigh on exploitative emphasis on a woman’s appearance within Western society does in fact happen to be one of the causes for British women converting to Islam, a point confirmed by Lauren Booth after she adopted Islam in 2010. Not only is this key point largely overlooked by the documentary, it is undermined further by the attitude of the presenter.

Unsurprisingly, some comments on Emily Hughes’ blog post were unsympathetic towards the women whose stories were discussed; others were simply nasty. Despite being ideally placed to do so, ‘Make Me a Muslim’ failed to explore in greater detail the real status of women in Islam, and the fact that this, and not romantic love, brainwashing, or delusion, is what continues to attract non-Muslim British women to the faith. The programme stopped short of discussing how this paradigm shift is a rejection of the superficial, objectifying attitude towards women so prevalent in Western society, of the page-3 culture which permeates into a programme like Countdown (where a maths genius feels the need to force-feed her physical attractiveness to the public through an endless selection of short, tight dresses), in exchange for an attitude which emphasises that one’s self-worth is based on the internal and not the superficial, on intellect and character and not on bra-size and make-up. It’s the kind of nuance which a ‘Modern Muslim’ like Shanna Bukhari has great difficulty recognising, in spite of being born into Islam.

And within these labels is hidden another elephant in the room which continues to be overlooked, this polarisation of ‘Modern Muslim’ versus ‘Conservative Muslim’ within British discourse, as though a Conservative British Muslim were necessarily something “un-modern”, backward, continually in need of (or in opposition to) intellectual and societal progress. Nowhere in the programme is this more obvious than when Shanna meets Ayesha, a revert who is a model and ‘Modern Muslim’ just like herself. As a Modern Muslim, Ayesha is described as being cool and fun, seemingly all the things that a Conservative Muslim isn’t or cannot be. Yet today millions of Muslims in Britain, and millions more around the world, know and practise Islam as a faith which emphasises steadfastness in values but also, far from being opposed to modernity, a faith which adapts and moves with the times. An entire generation of fun, cool, intelligent practising Muslims who have been raised and educated in Britain see no conflict between Islam and modernity. Yet through Muslims such as Shanna Bukhari (ill-informed of their faith, conflicted within themselves, and portraying this confused self-identity as a representation of other British Muslims), these labels and their negative influences will regrettably continue for a long time yet.

 

– This article first appeared on the Huffington Post UK website on 31 Jan 2013.

A Critical Examination of C4’s ‘Islam: The Untold Story’

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It seems of late that every change of seasons brings with it another documentary on Islam; this time it was one by Tom Holland, an academic in the field of religious history. Perhaps it was Holland’s academic background that made me look forward to watching this- an academic, I thought, would surely apply all the rigour to this documentary that he otherwise would to any serious work which is to bear his name. And as an academic, surely Holland is aware of the importance of scrutinising his research methods, examining his sources, and treating all significant evidence fairly. The ‘Untold Story’, unfortunately, tells another story altogether, and its impact on British society is one that cannot be overlooked.

On the surface, Holland’s ‘Untold Story’ has all the elements of a great documentary. He appears to challenge the status quo by questioning commonly accepted beliefs about the origins of Islam, he travels to all the exotic places that one would associate with an in-depth study of Islamic history, and he interviews Western academics that appear to be specialists within the field. All of this combined with Holland’s romantically ruffled hair, an accent which tells of a privileged upbringing, and poetic phrases which convey a sense that he is uncovering an enigma wrapped within a mystery (“History is like a labyrinth…who knows where it may lead?”) added to the several palpable, strategically-placed pauses, could be enough to convince the average viewer of the credibility of his work. Upon scratching the surface, however, I am left wondering what about Islam, if anything, Holland’s story tells us at all.

In reality, any scholar of Islamic history will point out forthwith the fatal flaw in Holland’s methodology. While he makes references, albeit limited and self-serving, to the Qur’an in trying to uncover the origins of Islam, he also chooses to simultaneously overlook an entire corpus of scholarly material on Islamic history from Islamic sources. As Holland is shown rifling through books in what is presumably a British library, it begs the question- does he not know of the vast body of work that has been put together by Islamic historians in Arabic and Persian, which is housed in seminaries in Cairo, Riyadh and Qom, among others? Does he not realise that scholars of Islamic history dedicate their lives to studying these original texts? Is he really expecting to find evidence of a man who lived and died in Arabia, almost fourteen centuries ago, conveniently tucked away in a library in Britain?

While his conversation with the Danish Professor Patricia Crone alludes to “oral tradition” and its unreliability in trying to create an accurate account of history, Holland never stops to fully justify his outright and wholesale rejection of Islamic scholarly material. Crone scoffs at the inferiority of the oral tradition due to it being tainted by the perception of the reporter, yet to assume as unreliable the entire oral tradition in Islamic records, the examination of which has been brought down to a science in which specialist scholars work tirelessly to sift out strong traditions from weak ones, makes about as much academic sense as assuming that written history has never been tainted by the perception and motives of the person who wrote it.

So convinced is Holland of the worthlessness of Islamic historic records that not only does he make no reference to them, he does not even interview a single seminary-educated scholar as part of his research. Of course he interviews Western and even Israeli academics, along with Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr who provides a Muslim academic perspective, but consulting Islamic scholars and historians is neglected in favour of a much more exotic, oriental experience: speaking to bedouins in the Saudi desert. Even Nasr, except for being a token Muslim voice, provides little which can be considered of academic substance; this is not surprising when one considers that Nasr is not a historian, his specialist subject being Islamic philosophy.

Less than a day after the documentary was aired, the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA) issued a press release with details of several documents in Western history that mentioned either ‘a prophet’ among the Arabs or ‘Muhammad’ by name. Proselytising claims aside, the historic evidence presented in IERA’s statement proves at least that the existence of Muhammad in (Western) history is not the ‘black hole’ that Holland purports it to be. Even if it is argued that this is evidence which had not come to Holland’s attention, there is still one decisive document that we know he was aware of yet neglected to mention in the documentary.

This is the ‘treaty of Medina’ and has been mentioned in Holland’s book, ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’ which was published in April of this year. The treaty is a peace agreement between Muhammad and the Muslim and Jewish tribes native to the area at the time, and is described by Holland in his book as “a single lump of magma sufficiently calcified to have stood proof against all erosion.” This treaty would have provided answers to some of Holland’s questions and rendered others null and void; it is textual and archaeological evidence of Muhammad’s existence and his life in Medina (and not the Negev desert). So why didn’t Holland, instead of fretting over coinage and post-Muhammad Arab imperialists, include this key piece of evidence? Was it because he was seeking only to promote his own version of events?

In the aftermath of Holland’s controversial research being aired and watched reportedly by over a million viewers, many people took to social media and reacted in obvious ways. Recognising the shortcomings in Holland’s methodology, Muslim viewers objected to what they perceived as a biased portrayal of Islam. Some who knew little about Islamic scholarship praised Holland’s work. Others went a step further and accused Muslims of reacting disproportionately and being incapable of accepting criticism of their faith- these are the folks who live with the dichotomy of upholding liberal values and yet marginalising those who disagree with their secular viewpoint. Still others resorted to inflammatory, hate-filled comments, cursing Muslims and portraying Islam as an ideology that is about little more than hate, violence and oppression. Yes, the Islamophobes had a field day.

It’s all well and good for Tom Holland though, as he casually Tweeted, “you win some, you lose some.” I wonder if he realises at all that with his research into the origins of Islam, one in which he assumes the superiority of secular Western historic traditions over all others and appears to make his evidence conveniently fit his desired conclusion, he has only served to worsen the understanding of an already poorly-understood faith and its much-maligned adherents.

-This article first appeared on the Huffington Post UK website on 30 Aug 2012.