The same spotlight of historical enquiry that scholars have long been shedding on the biblical past is now starting to illumine the origins of Islam, as Tom Holland explains.
Midway through the eighth century a monk living in the monastery of Beth Hale in Iraq recorded the arrival there of an eminent visitor. A ‘Son of Ishmael’ – one of the Arab dignitaries who served at the court of the caliph – had fallen ill. Naturally enough, since Christian holy men were renowned for effecting miracle cures, he had turned to the monks to help him with his convalescence. The Arab stayed ten days in the monastery and in that time he and his hosts argued freely about their respective religions. The monk, of course, portrayed himself as emphatically the winner. Nevertheless it is clear that the Arab had managed to land the odd blow. ‘Is not our faith better than any faith that is on the earth?’ he had demanded to know. ‘And is this not the sign that God loves us and is pleased with our faith – namely, that he has given us dominion over all religions and all peoples?’