Film review: Islam: The Untold Story

I managed to find online the controversial British documentary Islam: The Untold Story in two parts part 1 (40 minutes) and part 2 (32 minutes) and watched it yesterday.

The documentary tells a very personal story of historian Tom Holland, who sets out to determine the origins of Islam. We see a lot of him walking around with a backpack in the Middle East and in university settings, talking to Bedouin tribesmen and academics, trying to match the beliefs of the former that derive from the Koran and oral traditions with what the latter can determine from actual records.

The traditional story of the origins of Islam is that after Mohammed got the word from god in Mecca, he converted Arabs to Islam and they then began their rapid conquest of the region, sweeping through the Middle East, northern Africa, west towards Europe, and East towards China.

But Holland find very little evidence for this story. For example, the first Arab conquerors in Jerusalem did not leave any traces of a new religion. In fact, the origins of Islam are pretty obscure and it seems more likely that the wide Arab conquest of the region preceded the origin of Islam, and that the story of Mohammed and Mecca was created much later, originating in the areas around Jerusalem as a result of the influence of Christian and Jewish theologians there.

He speculates that the new religion was concocted by one of the Arab leaders of that region during a civil war for the usual reason, because it gives a ruler greater power if he can claim that god is on his side. The remote site of Mecca in the desert was selected as the place of origin to try and make it look as if it was a completely new religion, uninfluenced by Christianity and Judaism.

The hostile reaction to this documentary reveals the hollowness of the claim of religious people that all they want is their religion to be treated with respect. Holland tells this story in an extremely respectful way, on many occasions even sounding apologetic that his uncovering of the origins of Islam does not correspond to the official version. There is no ridicule or derision. There are no salacious stories about Mohammed’s personal life. There are no portrayals of Mohammed or god. Nothing is said about Mohammed other than the bare biographical details about the years and location where he lived, though there seems to be remarkably little evidence corroborating even these basic facts. Innocence of Muslims this is not. And yet, he received death threats and British TV decided not to rebroadcast the documentary as scheduled because of fears for his safety.

This shows that the claims of the Muslims who were enraged by Innocence of Muslims that they merely seek ‘respect’ for their religion is disingenuous. What they seek is nothing other than complete agreement with them. Question their origins myths in any way, however respectfully, and they blow a fuse. Any attempt to arrive at a modus vivendi with such people based on rational principles is doomed to failure.


  1. raven says

    We do have to thank the Mormons, Scientologists, and Moonies for one thing.

    These are recent religions made up in the light of modern history. Reverend Moon himself just died a few weeks ago.

    We know where and how these religions came about.

    People like Joseph Smith, Elron Hubbard, and Reverend Moon and their followers just made them up as they went along.

    Which is quite likely where xianity, Islam, and all the others came from as well.

  2. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    You’ll find a similar thread in Judaism with the convenient discovery of the “fifth book” of Moses (which focuses on how a secular king might rule in Jerusalem) in the Temple at the time when the first kings emerged.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Have Coffee Will Write

  3. kraut says

    “This shows that the claims of the Muslims who were enraged by Innocence of Muslims that they merely seek ‘respect’ for their religion is disingenuous. What they seek is nothing other than complete agreement with them.”

    Exactly my argument with apologists and shills for islam on other sites within FTB, who screamed for the prosecution and the persecution of the makers of the utterly moronic “innocence.. clip.
    Criticism of islam, ridiculing of islam is not the problem. The followers of islam are the problem.

  4. HP says

    Thanks for finding this, Mano. Although I was ready to smack that Imam he interviewed by the end.

    To give the Arabs some credit, I’ve always thought that Islam was a particularly well-designed religion from the standpoint of social control. No bothersome episcopacy to compete with civil authorities, plus built-in legal, financial, and social welfare institutions. And compared to Christianity, there’s relatively little in the way of complex orthodoxy (compare “there is no god but allah” to the holy trinity or transubstantiation), and a simple set of rules to follow.

    I think our 7th century Arab king did a lot better job than Smith, Hubbard, or Moon. Islam is right up with algebra and hydraulics as a marvel of medieval Arab technology.

  5. ah58 says

    I’m blown away that anyone would find this documentary cause to call for someone’s death. As you said, it just goes to show that the radicals aren’t really interested in any discussion of Islam unless it supports their beliefs in all ways.

    Religious hypocrites in Islam? Who would believe that was possible?

  6. jamessweet says

    Playing Devil’s Advocate here, I wonder if the reaction against Untold Story would have been so extreme if it had not coincidentally followed right on the heels of Innocence. It was definitely bad timing (at no fault of the filmmaker or BBC, of course).

    The lesson here might not be so much that any slight, however minor, will piss off Muslims; but rather, that humans in general (Muslims being no exception) are just really shitty at nuance. “Grrr, super angry at bad film that mocks my religion! Hey look, another film — grrr, super angry at other film too!” Of course, that doesn’t justify the response to Innocence in any way… I’m just not sure how much we can glean from the reaction to Untold Story, seeing as how it’s air date landed smack dab in the middle of the same news cycle that was covering a movie that, whatever we might say about the barbaric response to it, really was a poorly made hatchet job with racist overtones.

  7. md says

    Any attempt to arrive at a modus vivendi with such people based on rational principles is doomed to failure.

    Mano, if we cannot arrive at a modus vivendi, how shall we deal with such people? Perhaps ‘deal’ is not the right verb, you tell me. If rationality is ruled out, as you say, what shall our irrational policy be?

  8. Mano Singham says

    What I meant was that there is no limit to free speech that will satisfy them. I we agree (say) to ban the depiction of god or Mohammed, they will then get upset about something else. We just have to assert and defend the right of free speech as something that cannot be restricted by religious sensibilities.

  9. md says

    Mano, I appreciate your reply. I think it was I who was unclear. You, correctly in my view, highlight the irrational nature of the debate with those who do not value the right to free speech. As you say, they want complete agreement. They want the universal right not to be offended.

    My question is: How should this acknowledgment of their irrationality effect our Foreign policies towards them? You give an answer of sorts: a firm defense of the right of free speech.

    But we arent quite doing that. In fact, we are beginning to let it affect our domestic policy. John Conyers is considered somewhat of a hero in some Democratic corners.

    Please read:

    I hope I am not overstating the case when I say we are not mounting a firm defense of the First Amendment– not just the right to be profane, but the idea that truth can be discovered through unrestricted dialogue. Seems to me we are on our heels in our own country, even beginning to appease (or cynically acquire votes)in the Conyers example above.

    What do you think?

  10. Mano Singham says


    Thanks for the link. The US government has been at best a shaky defender of the right of free speech. It definitely should protect the Muslim community from harassment and threats and intimidation, while at the same time not giving it the right to veto any speech merely because it offends them. There should be no difficulty walking that line but the government does seem to sometimes nod its head in the direction of arguing for protecting religious sensibilities. This is why we have to be vigilant.

  11. Sajid says

    The Jinn And Tonic Show tomorrow will have Tom Holland as a guest – the producer of the Channel 4 documentary “Islam – The untold story” and author of “In the shadow of the sword.” It is possible to watch the show live on BlogTV (link on the video) and if you wish you may also call in to the show with Skype.

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