The Christopher Hitchens Lecture: Tom Holland on de-fanging Muhammad

June 20, 2015 • 1:00 pm

Here is British author Tom Holland giving the Hitchens Lecture (“Title: De-Radicalizing Muhammad”) at this year’s Hay Festival, a celebration of books and literature. (I was there five years ago, and got to meet Tom Stoppard as well as glimpse Stephen Fry, whose large figure loomed across the room like the Jungfrau.

Holland’s point is similar to that described by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her latest book (Heretic): that there is no “true” strain of Islam, that murderous extremists draw their ideology from the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet, and the only way to tame Islam is to “deradicalize Muhammad”. (One of Hirsi Ali’s main prescriptions is to get Muslims to stop taking the Qur’an literally, something that seems highly unlikely to work given the ubiquitous tendency of Muslims to be literalists.) Holland, for instance, claims that the story—drawn from the hadithof Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha when she was six, and his having deflowered her when she was nine, is metaphorical: an allegory showing the “potency of Aisha’s image.”

Holland claims that modern jihadis are actually reforming Islam in the wrong direction—that the religion had not been so literalistic in earlier years, and organizations like ISIS now claim to be pruning away the benign but false conceptions of Muhammad that accreted in past generations. (I have no idea whether Holland’s claim of an earlier and less malevolent era of Qur’anic interpretation is accurate.) His solution is to recapture the more mystical views of Muhammad that obtained earlier, and to accept the conclusions of modern scholars that “we know less about the historical Muhammad then we know about the historical Jesus.” (If that’s the case, and I do know the lack of any convincing evidence for a historical Jesus, then we have NO IDEA whether Muhammad even existed as a historical person!) Finally Holland thinks that Muslim views of Muhammad will eventually revert to the more benign view.

Nice idea, but I don’t share Holland’s optimism, especially given the Pew Research poll showing that, by and large, Muslims throughout the world take a hard-line view of the religion, favoring things like the impositions of sharia law and the killing of adulterers and apostates. That has little to do with Muhammad’s character itself.

The Q&A session begins at about 37 minutes. Notice how the moderator, in her questions, tries to de-emphasize the role of theology in Islamic terrorism.

And, for background information, here’s a nice discussion between Hitchens and Stephen Fry on Blasphemy in 2006.

h/t: Dom

34 thoughts on “The Christopher Hitchens Lecture: Tom Holland on de-fanging Muhammad

  1. The earliest bios of Mohammed are written far later after his life (2 centuries) than the Gospels (50 years or so). However the bios of Mohammed are much more detailed and not mutually conflicting on important details (unlike the Gospels which have conflicting birth narratives and conflicting trial & death narratives), so it’s hard to say.

    Ironically the first English language biography of Mohammed was by abolitionist/Bible scholar/Zionist George Bush (1796-1859) a cousin of the great-great grandfather of Prez George Bush Sr and ggg-grandfather of Bush Jr the first two American Presidents to invade Islamic countries.

    1. I can’t recall whose book it was I read, but the author argues, unlike the case of Jesus where we have four anons writing a bio, all the bios of Mo are taken from one book written a century plus after he is supposed to have lived.

        1. I think it must have been him. I also read a journal article, I think from a German university that raised doubts about the existence of Mo

    2. and to accept the conclusions of modern scholars that “we know less about the historical Muhammad then we know about the historical Jesus.” (If that’s the case, and I do know the lack of any convincing evidence for a historical Jesus, then we have NO IDEA whether Muhammad even existed as a historical person!)

      Holland seems to refer to the fact that the area was largely without records I think, and that there are no contemporary descriptions at the era of the mythical person.

      As I haven’t read much about the history I perused Wikipedia when I tried to see the historicity here. My own position is that since religion founders regularly have no historicity until the printing press was invented, it is a strong indication that they all are precisely myth. Indeed, Wikipedia claim what you describe, with one exception: there is an intermediate description from an attack on a town as the mohammedanist hordes went warring, referring to the troops “of Mohammad”. It is the first historical reference of any kind, but all it can say is that the religion existed at the time. (And that it was a religion made for war, if not the Quran terrorist attack descriptions on peaceful civilian caravans is enough to convince.)

      That there is only one narrative means there were only one near time myth to write down and elaborate on, with no use for abridging different myths. The different ideas for what the religion was good for seem to be handled like the Jews did, with separate texts (here Hadith) for “interpretations”. I don’t think it has any bearing on historicity, cf the problems with Alexander the Great’s burial, the death of Hypatia et cetera.

  2. ‘Holland, for instance, claims that the story—drawn from the hadith—of Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha when she was six, and his having deflowered her when she was nine, is metaphorical: an allegory showing the “potency of Aisha’s image.”’

    I can understand how one might press the metaphorical perspective, considering how vile the literal marrying of a six-year-old, and the deflowering of a nine-year-old, are.

    Couldn’t the writer(s) have found another bloody metaphor?

    I shall now listen to him to hear how he possibly substantiates this claim.

    1. I get the feeling that Holland got that backwards. It is a vile practice, and recognized as such today, but it could have been common and even idealized at the time. That myth complex _has_ an obsession with virgins.

    2. By the way, and I think I have been asking this before, but what connotations does native English speakers draw on when they use the term “deflowering”? It looks horrendous to me, whether or not it is supposed to support the victim.

      I guess I am asking for a neutral medical term.

      1. The connotations of “deflower” are, as you say, pretty horrendous. Since the term basically connotes that the woman either does not consent or does not, simply by virtue of being a female virgin, possess sufficient agency to consent, it isn’t surprising that gives no neutral synonyms:

    3. I don’t know about Muhammad, but Jewish records from the middle ages describe marriage of young girls (the youngest I remember is of a 9 years old girl).
      I don’t know about “defolowering”, but I think it’s safe to say that they didn’t marry them and then waited years before doing what marriage was for.

      1. “defolowering” – isn’t that something that happens on twitter when you make a faux pas?

  3. Everything I have read so far makes me disagree very strongly with Holland’s assertions about a benign earlier Muhammad. The thing is, if we don’t know much about the real guy, why does Holland know that he was so kind? Whether real or not, you have to work with the ‘canonical’ person, as portrayed in the first sort-of ‘official’ books. And, boy, what a piece of work that Mo was!

  4. Peter Townsend’s ‘Questioning Islam’ is good on this topic.

    FOr example, outside the Qur’an, there is no evidence Mecca existed until more than 100 years after Muhammad supposedly died. The first extant map on which Mecca appears comes from 900CE. I.e. 300 years after the death of Muhammad. It is not at a good strategic location to be a crossroads for trade as is claimed. It is claimed that Muhammad’s grandfather travelled to Rome and made trade deals, but there is absolutely no mention of him or his tribe in the very detailed Roman trade records.

    There are many things within Islam that are assumed to be true because no one is allowed to question them. Townsend also talks about there being less evidence for Muhammad than Jesus. It’s an interesting book.

    1. Huh. I would have assumed that the kaaba (with imbedded ?meteorite fragment) actually did antedate Islam as claimed, since it’s the literal centre of the religion (pray five times daily to where? make pilgrimage to where?) but doesn’t relate to specific events either of Mo’s biography or related in the Quran. But there are no reliable facts in the matter, so I don’t actually give a shit.

  5. There is no way to “deradicalize” a religion that assumes political power as its proper position. Roman Popes took that power, but since Jesus abjured it they could not maintain it (try as they and others might). Mohammed did meld ruling power and religion and I don’t believe anyone is going to separate them as long as Islam is Islam.

    People don’t seem to appreciate that difference.

  6. Mohammed literally means ‘he who is to be praised’. There’s a theory that Mohammed was actually Jesus, and that Islam started out as a Christian sect in Syria – one that didn’t recognise the Trinity (unlike the Nicene creed). ‘There is but one God (not 3) and Mohammed (he who is to be praised – Jesus) is his messenger’ is a slogan distinguishing it from orthodox Christianity.

    And then 150 years later, the ruling dynasty changed, moved to Arabia and the rulers did as rulers tend to do – codify a new version of religion to justify their rule. Including having a biography of their founder and establishing their scripture in a permanent form.

    Jesus actually means ‘he saves’ (it’s a variant of Joshua). It’s rather convenient – although the author who wrote Luke thought about this coincidence and had an angel tell the pregnant Mary to name the child Jesus.

    Personally, I think Jesus was mythical. And Mohammed, being Jesus, was also mythical.

    1. Two cases of myth taken identity, then?

      Sorry to distract from your thoughts. No free will, so couldn’t help myself.

    2. The problem with is theory is that Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet.

      On a side note, Yeshua [ישוע] does not mean “he saves” in Hebrew (and neither does Yehoshua [יהושע]).

  7. Right at the end. The last question from someone in the audience. That certainly struck a chord with me. When asked, so what do we do about ISIS? Boots on the ground? Stand back and let the Middle East sort itself out?
    Holland answered…during the 30 years war in Europe, a parallel to what’s happening within Islam today, all attempts by outsiders to quell the conflict ended up exacerbating it.

    1. 30 years war. 100 years war. The Troubles. The Crusades. If the cure exists it will come from. Within. The sanest explanation I’ve seen is that ISIS is a revolt against corruption. Religion being the only unifying idea.

  8. On a slightly related topic, can anyone explain to me why some Muslims are prepared to kill and be killed to uphold the tenet that Muhammed should never be depicted in any way (see Danish cartoons, Charlie Hebdo, etc.), except in movie posters? My jaw dropped to the floor when, flying on Qatar Airways (on the first day of Ramadan!), I saw the poster for one of the on-flight movies, the utterly riveting 200-minute bio-epic Al-Risalah (1976), which shows a close-up of the face of Muhammed! You can see the poster at

      1. Maybe 1/24th of a second isn’t considered blasphemy. It’s those drawings on the page that linger too long for comfort.

  9. I wonder if these white guys from christian/western societies really think telling moslems how they should see their own religion and holy book will achieve anything beyond pissing off the moslems even further. The ones these men are trying to change already hate western civilisation’s mores and ideals, seeing these infidels trying to tell them what to do will just be justifying the moslems’ impressions and could push them further to the extremes.

    1. One just has to speak the truth clearly and hope it clicks for some muslim readers. Not all muslims are religious and cultural bigots and so some will understand what you’re saying. I think what’s pushed muslims to extremes is more likely the western use of military methods rather than attempts at persuasion.

      1. I agree to a point, but it’s not the moderate moslems (the nonreligious and not cultural bigots) that the talk was aimed at. They are not the ones literally interpreting the Koran and seeking to kill all those who don’t see the world as they do.

  10. as glimpse Stephen Fry, whose large figure loomed across the room like the Jungfrau.

    What? Not particularly craggy, and white on the top?

  11. I recently finished Richard Carrier’s “On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt” and he makes a very convincing case for mythicism. I’d say an overwhelming argument, if you understand Bayes probabilities, that Jesus never existed.

    In the process, he makes excellent arguments to demonstrate how and why myths grow so rapidly, which could be applied to the historicity of Islam’s founding. Are there any Bayesian experts who are also scholars of that era?

  12. I know that there are many incompatible traditions that have changed within our (or at least my) lifetime. For example, I have it on reasonable authority that the teetotling rule in Islam currently was understood in pre-revolutionary Iran to mean instead “don’t get drunk”.

    Which was the original intention? Well, I am no reader of Arabic, but I have again heard it said that (like the “women should dress modestly” thing) it really is very unclear.

  13. As according to the Islamic Calendar we are in 1436 and considering how Christianity was behaving in the actual 1436 ,I don’t believe we should have to hang around until Islam evolves to where Christianity is today, it was the advent of an Imam early in the History of Islam who railed against Education that caused the Scientific Flowering of Islam to die, and now that they believe the only knowledge needed is that in the Q’uran is the reason we are where we are today.

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