August 29th, 2012

Islam: The Untold Story

What do we know about the origins of Islam? Almost nothing. The historical record is a blank. We have the Koran and that's it. No-one, including the Arabs, had anything to say about Mohammed until sixty years after his death, by which time the Arabs had acquired a huge empire at the expense of the Romans and the Persians. Subjects of the new Empire weren't clear about the religion of their rulers, but thought it was a kind of Judaism. 

This absence of evidence has led some historians to speculate that the Arab armies weren't Muslim at all- that they were on a conquering mission, not a religious one- and it was only later, once they'd got their feet under the table, that they saw the need for an new, distinctive ideology to validate their empire and prop it up. That's when they discovered they'd once had a prophet of their own.  As for Mohammed himself, internal evidence suggests he composed the Koran in a fertile area close to the Dead Sea, a long way away from Mecca. His mythos got itself relocated there because (for chauvinistic reasons) the Arabs needed to associate him with their heartland. 

If you'd like to experience this material cut with a lot of entertaining ancient history read Tom Holland's book In The Shadow of the Sword; some critics have compared it to Gibbon. If you have 95 minutes to spare you might want to watch the TV film in which the same material is cut with a lot of footage of Holland wandering round the Middle East looking haunted. 

Boneland: Alan Garner

Boneland arrives 50 years after The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Colin- a child in the earlier book and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath- is now an elderly astrophysicist with mental problems. The dipytych has become a triptych, but the third book is not so much a continuation of the story as a rethinking of it, a deepening and a resolution. Boneland may be the easiest thing Garner has written for years but it's still an example of his late style- gnomic, poetic, uncompromising- with a structure recalling the structure of Thursbitch, his trickiest book. Miss a word and you may miss a whole level of meaning. Echoes of Garner's earlier fictions abound. Here are the maddening "blue-silvers" of Red Shift, the rural locutions of The Stone Book Quartet, the starcraft of Thursbitch, the shamanism of Strandloper. Think of it as a capstone. The crowning of a lifetime's work. Everything Garner has written is affected by its revelations- and the first two books most of all. Who is the Morrigan? Who is Cadellin? Once Garner was guessing- groping about in the dark. Now he knows.  As the old Russian proverb has it, "What were the fairy tales, they will come true".