The British television broadcaster Channel 4 has cancelled the screening of a controversial documentary about the history of Islam after the presenter was threatened with physical violence.
The private screening was due to take place at the broadcaster's headquarters in London on September 13 before an audience of historians and opinion shapers, to be followed by a debate.
"Islam: The Untold Story" is a documentary by historian Tom Holland, a well-known British author, who examines the origins of Islam and argues that there is little written historical evidence to verify truth-claims about the Muslim prophet Mohammed and the origins of Islam.
In the documentary, the Cambridge-educated historian offers a critical examination of the traditional Islamic narrative that the Koran, the Muslim holy book, was transmitted directly and "fully formed" to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel in the seventh century.
Holland says that contrary to Muslim claims, it is far more probable that the Koran and Islamic theology developed gradually over many centuries in conjunction with the expansion of Arab empires. He also says there are many "black holes" in the historical record and suggests that Islam is essentially a "made-up" religion. Says Holland: "I had expected to find contemporaneous Muslim evidence, but there's nothing there."
In the film, Holland also questions the centrality of Mecca in the origins of Islam. He states: "Aside from a single ambiguous mention in the Koran itself, there is no mention of [the Muslim holy city of] Mecca, not one, in any datable text for over a hundred years after Muhammad's death."
The documentary, which was previously aired on Channel 4 on August 28, has generated more than 1,000 complaints by Muslims who accuse Holland of distorting the history of Islam.
The London-based Islamic Education and Research Academy has published two papers (here and here) denouncing the program. It accuses Holland of "recklessness," of making "baseless assumptions" and of engaging in "selective scholarship."
The British telecommunications regulator, Ofcom, says it may launch an investigation after it received more than 100 complaints that the documentary is biased and offensive to Muslims.
Holland insists that Islam is "a legitimate subject of historical inquiry." Indeed, the documentary follows on the heels of a growing number of scholarly and popular books (here, here, here, here, here, here and here) that challenge some of the most fundamental assumptions about the origin of Islam.
In an interview about the origins of Islam with the London-based The Spectator, Holland states: "I think there's a degree to which Muslims, far more than Christians, have felt that the foundation myths of their religion are somehow historical fact, and it seems to me that they're clearly not. There must be a bedrock of fact, but it is more sacred history than it is history...." He also says: "There's a sense in which I think as Islam evolves and as, let's say, Muslims start to realize that they are in competition with Jews and Christians, they need to have their Prophet have a revelation from an angel...."
In any case, Holland's documentary has earned him an online flood of abusive messages. According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, one message reads: "You might be a target in the streets. You may recruit some bodyguards, for your own safety."
A spokesperson for Channel 4 said: "Having taken security advice, we have reluctantly canceled a planned screening of the program Islam: The Untold Story."
The dust-up follows a similar controversy over a new BBC comedy series called Citizen Khan, which confronts issues faced by a modern Muslim family.
The six-part series, which aired for the first time on BBC1 in August, was created by British Muslim Adil Ray, who also plays the lead role.
Following its first episode, the BBC received more than 600 complaints from Muslims who claim the program is guilty of "stereotypes about Asians" and is "disrespectful to the Koran." Some of the angry reactions have been compiled here.
Muslims were particularly angered by a scene where an actress who plays Khan's glamorous daughter rushes to put on a hijab and pretends to be reading the Koran when her father comes home.
According to the Union of Muslim Organizations of UK and Ireland, a London-based Muslim umbrella organization, "a large proportion of Muslims will be un-amused by the negative stereotypes because it leads to misrepresentation."
British Muslims are not, apparently, allowed to laugh at themselves.