1400 years ago, armies of nomads swept out of the desert and conquered the Arab world. Today their descendants tell an extraordinary story. They said that God sent them a prophet Muhammad and then God gave them an empire. But is it really true? Note everyone is so sure. The conquests were one of the most decisive events in history, but were the Arabs in the 7th century even Muslims at all?
My name is Tom Holland. I am an historian and I write about ancient civilisations - Persian, Greek, Roman empires - and now I want to write about the most influential ancient empires - the empire founded by the Arabs in the 7th century. The empire that gave us Islam. I thought it would be a relatively simple matter. It has been said that Islam was born in the full light of history but when I began on the project I discovered that it was not actually the case at all. When it comes to Islam's beginnings, there is no full light of history, only a kind of darkness, and when you start looking, everything seems up for grabs. From the beginning, I felt I was being sucked into a black hole.
The problem of the writing of the history of the rise of Islam is that we have absence of evidence. We have nothing on which to tell a story.
I had expected Muslim testimony from the 7th century, but there is nothing there. I can't find anything. There is a problem here. You are delving into the origins of Muslims' deepest beliefs, but where is the historical evidence?
Unidentified white middle aged man with a foreign accent:
Sometimes, the belief of the believer and the understanding of the scholar cannot be squared.
There is a choice between doing history and not doing history, so I do the history even though it may hurt people.
Guy Stroumsa, Professor of Abrahamic Religions, University of Oxford:
You have to say things that believers don't say - things that sometimes shock believers. Things that sometimes make them very angry.
There is a sense of a detective story about this. Why do most of the clues appear to be missing? When the Romans conquered most of the Middle East, they left all kinds of evidence: histories, inscriptions, coins. But with the Muslim conquest: silence.
What can we actually say about Muhammad? What do we really know about the origins of Islam? Where to begin? Well, maybe we should start at the beginning of the 7th century.
It is five minutes to midnight and the ancient world is about to change forever.
This is Istanbul. In 632 it was Constantinople, for 300 years the capital city of the Roman Empire:a Christian city at the heart of a Christian world - a universal religion for a universal empire - that was the Roman recipe of power - an idea appreciated by the Muslims when 1000 years later they conquered the city and turned the largest cathedral in Christendom into a mosque.
We know how and when the Romans became Christian because contemporaries tell us all about it, but what we don't know is how the Arabs became Muslim.
Take a journey into the past and you can't be certain where it is going to end. History is like a labyrinth. Once you are inside who knows where it may lead.
So here we are: the great palace of the great emperors of Christian Constantinople. Odd to think that at the start of the 7th century when Mohammad was still alive, this was pretty much the centre of the world.
There is one awful poetry about that all you have got here is splint and firewood and because what this is, is something that has been smashed to smithereens and what it now has the faintest trace of is what was at the time the hub of the greatest power on the face of the earth. So this is the White House, this is where the Emperor lives, it is the Pentagon, it is the hub of the defence establishment, it is the Supreme Court, is where the laws are drawn up, made and issued, all in this one place that dominates Constantinople, the City of Constantine, the first Christian Empire, the greatest city in the world, and now it is all gone and now it is in some bloke's garden. You got a road on one side, you got a train on another, and the only thing to be seen is a cat.
By 630 the Roman Empire had overcome its worst crisis in its history. Its old enemies, the Persians had overrun its fairest provinces. Persian troops had reached the very walls of Constantinople itself. Then after 25 years of war, the Persians were defeated. The Roman Emperor again was Master of the Universe. At such a moment, how could he have any conceivable idea of the ruin that the heavens had in store for him?
TH asks Seyeed Hossain Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies, George Washington University:
Professor, can someone like myself who is not a Muslim and does not believe that God spoke to Muhammad ever hope to fathom the origins of Islam?
WADI RUM, Jordan
"The Prophet Muhammad was an Arab like us."
Bedouin: the face of the Arab Conquest, the shock troops who in the 7th century swept out of Arabia and forged a colossal empire spanning half the world. And here in the desert no one doubts that the conquerors were indeed Muslim.
"The Prophet and his friends abandoned everything. They didn't care about worldly things, trade or even their children. It didn't matter that they might be killed. Or starve or lose their way. It was for the success of Islam."
Everything was for Islam. That was what they said today: the victories, the conquests, the empire. But how do we even know Islam even existed back then?
The prophet started everything, that's what we live for now. We are their progeny. We are their descendants.
To the ancients, the Arabs were notorious savages. Of all the peoples of the earth, the most despised and insignificant. Yet, after ten years in the first half of the 7th century, they deprived the Roman Empire of her richest provinces, crushed the Persian empire and had taken possession of most of the Middle East - a staggering achievement; for most Muslims a miracle. Only God could have made this happen.
Bedoiuin Arabs were on the margins of history during the Roman empire. That through such a people the whole of Northern Africa and Spain should be transformed in just a few decades and a whole new civilisation created within just a few decades and a whole new civilisation created within a century like China and France. This is historical fact.
And it all began, the story goes when a merchant with the name of Muhammad in a mountain cave heard something as terrifying as it was awesome: the voice of an angel. "O Mohammad, thou art the apostle of God." God had spoken to the Arabs. The message was as clear as it was elemental. There is only one God. Mohammad is the prophet of God. Islam is submission to God. And it was this message that gave them an empire. Or was it?
No one doubts the conquests really took place. But the question is: was it because of Islam?
If you were a Christian or a Jew or another religion for whom a similar reality exists, it is easier to make the jump. There is a very famous Arabic proverb which says "Not being able to know something is no proof that it doesn't exist."
But making that jump and taking that leap of faith isn't as easy as it sounds. In Western universities, historical research is all about scepticism and doubt. And just as earlier generations of scholars turned a penetrating spotlight on the life of Jesus, so some are taking a radical new look at the life of Muhammad.
Patricia Crone is as professor at Princeton. She is a number of historians whose research into the roots of Islam has sharply divided the world of early Islamic studies. "You cannot reject the Muslim story," she wrote, "but you cannot accept it either. The only solution is to step outside the Islamic tradition and start again. There is a curtain that you cannot go behind."
TH asks PC:
What do you know about his life?
We know that he existed, we know that he was active somewhere in Arabia, we know that he is associated with a book called the Koran. He was the one who uttered it, but it doesn't get us to what actually happened which is what a historian would like to reconstruct. We have the absence of evidence. We have the Koran. We can't tell the story on the basis of the Koran. We have various early non-Islamic sources. They don't add up to a story. We have nothing. We have this one book out of nothing that is complete.
But here [Bedouin tribes shown], that is not how they see things. The Bedouin think they know everything about Muhammad: his character, his wives, even his favourite food. This is a whole world founded on stories of Muhammad.
The prophet led a life that relied on camels. It is the only animal the Bedouin know. This is how we live. We endure with patience. Patience is a virtue. We endure without food and water. Just like the Prophet. That is how armies of Islam were able to cross the desert. And spread the word of Islam.
But the problem is: how do we know what it was like? How can we separate what really happened from the hearsay and the myths. Do we know if the Prophet came here? [TH asks a Bedouin].
When he was travelling from Mecca, the prophet rested under a tree in a place called Al-Safawi.
Was there a tree? Was Muhammad even a travelling merchant? The evidence is almost non-existent. The earliest biographies we have were written 200 years after Muhammad's lifetime.
For most religions, the traditions were handed down through oral history for millennia. This is put aside. Now it is called Positive History. The oral tradition is completely negated.
Well, oral tradition means that you remember what you want. Some of it must be history. A lot of it is clearly not history. It is just that they have been re-shaped, re-thought and taken out of their original context so that serve new functions. They have been cleaned up or messed up by all kind of interests that people have in that memory.
If supposing there is no written texts at the time of the prophet mentioning his name - the same is true of Christ and also of Moses - that doesn't mean anything because there is always the oral tradition.
Sometimes if you have other sources from other points of view you can certainly see what has been changed. If you can see that you can also why it has been changed, but because Islam arose in a relatively remote corner of the world we don't have these checks. We don't yet have the key that can unlock the tradition.
I came here to get close to the tradition, and when you are here you can feel its weight. It's in the air, it's palpable. It can't just be brushed aside. Millions of millions of people believe it. This is their history. An entire moral universe has been built around the stories told of Muhammad.
It was in the Age of Ignorance before Islam. When a man had a daughter he would slaughter her. They saw her as a dishonour. He would take her and bury her alive. One of the followers had a daughter. He went to bury her. And as he dug the hole, when the sand blew on his beard, she would gently brush it off him. But he buried her alive. But the prophet came and put an end to these terrible practices.
Listening to these stories, part of me was very moved. The other part of me was wondering: How did he know this? Where did these stories come from? Are they really true?
Gradually in the West, for the intellectual elite, the sense of the sacred was lost. A tribal person in Africa or the Amazon would have a natural sense of the sacred whereas a graduate student at Oxford probably does not have it.
In some places you have to be careful where you tread. Muslims believe that from the very beginning the great Arab conquests were all about Islam. But in the 7th century you could barely find a new religion called Islam anywhere in the historical record, and that is why I have come here.
This is Jerusalem. They have been building walls her for a long time, but they have not built a wall yet that could keep people safe forever. Historically, the capital city of God has always been one of the world's most conquerable places. Here, if anywhere, in the one-time world of the Roman Empire, the 6th and 7th centuries live on. The same intensities, the same anxieties. For thousands of years, Jerusalem had been shaped and mapped by the religion of its rulers. When the Jews ruled, they built a gigantic temple, which dominated the city. Later when the Roman Empire became Christian, Jerusalem was transformed into a world centre for Christian pilgrimage. Look at the street plan now, and you saw the map of a Christian world. The Jews were gone, airbrushed out of the picture. The Romans constructed a new holy of holies - the Holy Sepulchre - a vast cathedral raised over the traditionally accepted site of Jesus' crucifixion. That was how God and Empire worked. The Roman Empire believed in God, and God believed in the Roman Empire.
But then, in the year 636, God changed his mind. Arab marauders appear outside the walls. Cephonious [?] the city's bishop, writes that it is too dangerous to leave. The Arabs were closing in and there was nothing people of Christian Jerusalem could do about it except to stay where they were, look out from their walls and await the arrival of the Arabs. And out of the desert they came, and they had become irresistible.
In 636 they beat a Roman army at Yarmuk. Soon after they beat a Persian army at Qadisiya, both empires too weak after their long wars to resist the Arabs. They marched into the richest provinces of the defeated empires, and less than five years after the death of Muhammad, they set their eyes on the Promised Land - the land flowing with milk and honey, the land God promised to the Jews. Now the Arabs have come to claim that birth-right for themselves. The children of Israel had made it a Jewish land. The Romans had made it a Christian Holy Land. If the Arabs did arrive with a new religion then it should be able to find its imprint here.
Contemporary Christian sources confirm that late in the 630s the Arabs took over Jerusalem after peaceful negotiation. But what they don't say is what the conquerors' religion was.
The truth of the matter was that we don't know what was the true religion of the first Arab cultures.
Fred Donner, Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago:
We have a problem, because this group of people from Arabia is tiny ruling over much larger populations who are very well-versed theologically over Christians and Zoroastrians and who are very sophisticated with these ideas. Why would these populations not have risen up in rebellion against their "Muslim" rulers if these Muslim rulers were trying to impose something totally different that was hostile to their own beliefs.
What were the Arabs up to? What were their motives? We know they called themselves "believers" but believer in what? Certain Christian contemporaries tell us that the Arabs believed in a single god and that they followed a guide or an instructor. But in general their understanding of what the Arabs believed was deeply confused. Was it a kind of Judaism or some kind of Christianity? Or did they have a whole new religion of their own?
For the Jews as well as for the Christians these are people coming from the desert. They don't know who these people are, they don't really know what they believe, they hear things.
But perhaps there was a clue. At first, the new Arab rulers seemed closer to the Jews. They weren't interested in the Christian holy places. Instead they began praying on the ruins of the old Jewish temple. This only added to the Christian sense of paranoia. Behind the invasion of the Arabs, they began to suspect a Jewish conspiracy.
When the Arabs took over Jerusalem, they headed straight up here, which then as now is a broad open man-made esplanade - the holiest place for Jews anywhere in the world. So the fact that the Arabs conquerors came straight up here to build a prayer hall in such a sensitive spot inevitably served to raise quite a few eyebrows.
The Jews hoped that these Arabs from the desert came as liberators. They permitted the Jews to come back to the Temple Mount and pray there and the Jews started believing that maybe there is something messianic in these people and maybe their leader is the messiah who will permit them to rebuild the temple.
Christian theologians who speak about the Arab conquerors find it very hard to understand that they are dealing with a new religion. Who are they?
One thing is absolutely clear: nobody had any notion that the Arabs were doing what they were doing in a freshly minted and coherent new religion still less that what they were doing is in the name of what was called Islam.
So did Islam even exist in those early years after Muhammad? In Jerusalem 30 years after the conquest it was business as usual. There were Christian pilgrims in the streets, the churches were full, major religions were practising their ancient rites. But where was the prophet in all this?
30 years after the death of Muhammad, here in Jerusalem, an Arab warlord called Muabia was hailed as leader of the new Arab empire. But if Muabia was a Muslim then he showed precious little sign of it. The astonishing thing is that nowhere - not on his inscriptions, not on his coins, not on any of his documents - is there so much of a single mention of Muhammad.
I have been tracing the origins of Islam but this is a bigger mystery than I ever imagined. This is the holy book of Islam. It is the earliest source of Islam that we have.
To find out where the Koran was composed and you find out where Mohammad was operating, and you get a picture of how Islam begun. In the Koran it tells you Mohammad was told to follow the path trod by Abraham. Maybe that is the place to start looking.
I am in Hebron which is a town on the West Bank, currently a Jewish settlement. Hebron is also very much a Palestinian city so it is as tense as it is anywhere between Israelis and Palestinians. There are Israeli soldiers here with very large guns and what they are guarding is this - the burial place of Abraham.
Abraham through the line of his son Isaac is the father of the Jews. When everyone else was still pagan, Abraham worshipped the one true God. And for this, God rewarded him and his descendants with the Promised Land, part of which today goes by the name of Israel.
This is the tomb of Abraham. And the reason why the soldier is here is that these are not the only people who regard him as their ancestor. And they are not the only people who believe that God gave them the Promised Land.
On the other side of the grill are Muslims, and they tell a different story.
This is the Muslim side and the reason they revere Abraham is because, as well as Isaac, he had another son: Ishmael, the father of the Arabs.
This is the tomb of Abraham that we saw earlier from the Jewish side. We are now looking at it from the Muslim side. The significance of this and the association that this made between Arabs and Ishmaelites and the children of Ishmaelites was actually much older than Islam itself. It remains central to Islam to this day.
According to Muslims, Abrahm is their prophet, and the religion he founded was not the religion of the Jews but Islam. In the Koran we read that Ishmael helped Abraham to help build the House of God at a place called Bacca.
Neither the Koran nor any contemporary source testifies where Bacca was but Muslims now would have absolutely no doubt that Bacca is another name deep in the Arabian deserts, Mecca - the holiest city in Islam, the birth place of Mohammad.
This is the largest mosque in the world. At its centre the Kabbah, the House of God first built by Abraham and son Ishmael out of the foundations laid by the first man, Adam. It is older and holier than anywhere in the world.
It was in the hills of the city that Muhammad first received the first of his revelations from God. These revelations would form the holy book of Islam - the Koran - the very word of God.
Mecca is where Muslims believe everything began - the cross roads of faith and history.
Surely would think here then would be where you would find solid evidence for Islam's beginnings.
But there is a problem.
Aside for there being a single ambiguous mention in the Koran itself, there is no mention of Mecca, not one, in any datable text from 100 years after Muhammad's death.
How do we know that Muhammad really does come from Mecca?
We can't. But on the other hand, if you want to prove a plausible alternative, why would you want to take that on?
Why take that on? This is what historians do. If things don't fit you try something else that might fit.
In the Koran the faithful are instructed to pray in the direction of a holy sanctuary. But what it doesn't say is that this holy sanctuary stood at Mecca. And to some archaeologists a few early mosques suggest something different.
Dr Tali Erickson-Gini, Israel Antiques Authority:
We are talking about one of the earliest examples we have of a mosque.
And you date it 100 years after that?
Some point within 100 years or so because here as we go into it you see ...
So this is it? This is the mosque?
What we can see is an apse which is not facing Mecca, not facing the south, it is actually facing towards the east, towards the sun rising. This is an example of the time before the direction had been preferred towards Mecca.
So the implication is that at this early stage of Islam the focus of prayer had not been absolutely fixed.
The direction of prayer had not been well-established yet.
So it is bit like the concrete had not yet set and you can still play with it, you can still fiddle around with it and experiment with it. Wow.
Not a decisive clue perhaps, but it is suggestive that even when there are no Muslim sources there are no reports from Christians writers at the time that the Arab conquerors bowed their heads in prayer not in the direction of Mecca, but in a quite different direction - somewhere further north.
In the Koran it never actually states that Mohammad lived in Mecca nor that Mecca was where the first revelations took place.
Does the material in the Koran point to where the setting was for the first of God's revelation to Muhammad?
No, it doesn't. I mean, there is mention of a sanctuary. There is mention of a sanctuary for sure, but where is that sanctuary? That's of course we can't tell.
It is devilishly difficult to extract from what the context might have been from the text itself.
In the Muslim tradition the people Mecca were pagans, worshippers of idols. But in fact, the people the Koran describes have a deep and sophisticated knowledge of the Biblical tradition.
The Koran retells Biblical stories and alludes to Biblical stories. Not just Biblical but post Biblical developments.
Let us say what we have is the response let us say on the part of Muhammad to the debates that were going on in Christian and Jewish communities. They were debating theological issues and questions that came out of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and the Koran seems to be an effort to engage in the discussion and so there was a strong connection between late antique discourses that were alive throughout the Near East.
So it is obviously not a pagan world we are looking for. The people in the Koran worship a single god, but then it accuses them of praying to beings other than God.
And there is something else.
The people the prophet addresses in the Koran are farmers, agriculturalists, but there was no agriculture in Mecca.
Mecca does not have an agrarian base. Mecca seems to have been an arid valley.
If Mecca is this barren infertile place how is it that in the Koran the opponents of the prophet are described as keeping cattle, growing olives and vines?
Good question. This is one of the reasons why some scholars feel that the texts were plugged into Syria.
That is where vines and olives grow, further north.
Geographical Syria. You will not find olive trees in Mecca.
So if Mecca was not the starting point of Islam, what was?
If you are following the clues in the Koran itself then you are looking for a landscape inhabited by olive-growing Arabs who have a deep knowledge of the Biblical tradition but whose worship of God might seem to some a little shop soiled.
This is the city of Avdat in the Negev desert. Back in the 7th century it was an Arab city on the fringes of the Roman empire, nominally Christian but with hints of a Christian past.
There can be no doubt that this is a Christian place of worship: there are two crosses on the ceiling, but there is also something very interesting in the corner which is a bull complete with horns and the bull is an image that very probably is drawn from much older native Arab pagan traditions. That doesn't mean that the Christians who build this were themselves pagan but it does mean I think that they are giving their monotheism and belief in a single god a little bit of pagan colour and that essentially is the crime that Muhammad and the Koran seems to be accusing his opponents of.
But Avdat had more than the right religious complexion. It also had agriculture and olives.
In the lifetime of Mohammad all this would have been green. It would have been agricultural fields as far as the eye can see. Archaeology leaves no doubt that there was a sophisticated irrigation system here that really did make the desert bloom.
So while this doesn't mean that Avdat is the actual spot where the Koran was composed, it does imply I think that the region as whole seems to fit the context of the Koran better than somewhere much further south in the arid region of Mecca.
When you read through and through the Koran what is really striking as compared to the Bible, which is full of allusions to recognisable landscapes that we know, in the Koran, it is an effort to find an allusion to any landscape or natural setting that you can actually pin down.
In fact, in the whole of the Koran there is only one exception you can pin down.
Not far from Avdat, a strange hint of where the Koran might actually come from: we are on the southernmost shores of the Dead Sea, between what is now Israel and Jordan.
Lot was the nephew of Abraham and he went to settle down in a city called Sodom. And the people of Sodom were notoriously racy. Unsurprisingly, this provoked the wrath of God and he destroyed this city and this is said to be the remains of Sodom where the anger of God was poured down upon it.
"So also was Lot amongst those sent by us. Behold we delivered him and all his adherents except an old woman who lagged behind. Then we destroyed the rest. Truly, you passed by their sights by day and by night."
But if the people being addressed by the prophet are passing this place by day and by night then what is it doing here - 1000 km away from Mecca?
In terms of someone who is looking for clues, you are very much in the situation of someone who was panning for gold. I think that this passage is just one little fleck. I mean there is one possibility of course which is that this one fragment originated from this neighbourhood. Perhaps the rest came from elsewhere. But that begs the question of where the component parts of the Koran come from.
Are they necessarily to be attributed to one person living at one time?
Again, when you start asking that question, it's very hard to know how far to push it.
It is from the West that this kind of history came out - that reason is the ultimate judge and decider of truth. But what I am saying is that those are not going to really give you the reason as logically satisfying.
Where do you think this place is?
That I don't know. I don't think I should speculate on that.
My greatest fear is that I have got it completely wrong. I do sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think "I have got it completely wrong."
Once the world is reduced to a mechanical world, then all other levels of reality lose their status as being real, and they are relegated to the realm of so-called superstition. And what is not seen is considered not to exist.
Trying to track the origins of Islam has been like chasing a mirage. The Arabs conquer half the world, but they don't about Muhammad. There is no mention of Mecca. So what do they do in detective stories? They follow the money.
What is the first coin that actually mentions the name of the prophet Muhammad? Do any of these coins mention Muhammad by name.
No, no, no.
Every coin mentions a story, every inscription conveys an idea of power, but sometimes what is not on the coin can be just as significant as what it.is. It would be nice to see the earliest coin that mentions Muhammad. It is just odd that 60 years on from the death of Muhammad and no mention of Muhammad ...
For nearly 60 years, the rulers of the Arab empire didn't put Muhammad on their coins and then they did. Maybe 60 years was what they needed to work out what the story really was.
Maybe the issue was not why Muhammad was not on the coinage in the beginning, but how he got there in the end.
What if I have been asking the wrong question?
What if it wasn't Islam that gave birth to the Arab empire, but the Arab empire that gave birth to Islam?
The empire was rich beyond imagining. By the mid 680s it stretched from Northern Persia to Egypt and North Africa, but who had the right to rule it? A vital question on which the Arabs could not agree. And with so much to play for, they began to turn upon themselves.
It's 680, 50 years on from the death of Muhammad. A deadly spiral of rebellion and civil war is threatening the Arab empire with implosion, and from deep within the Arabian desert, a new claimant to the empire emerges. His name: Abdullah Ibn Al Zubaiya. Ibn Al Zubaiya is going to change the game.
What we have is the coin that I was looking for in the Coin Museum and it is stamped quite literally with the genius of Ibn Al Zubaiya. It was struck in 685-686 so it was more than than half a century after the death of Muhammad. And it bears a novel and faithful slogan: "In the name of God, Muhammad is the prophet of God". So here, at last, emerging from the black hole, we get a mention of Muhammad who is a prophet and this is the first time we have it on any inscription on any surviving document. Ibn Al Zubaiya had essentially realised what Constantine the first Christian Roman empire had long realised before him, that it was no good the lord of an earthly empire laying claim to the favour of God unless he can absolutely demonstrate the cast iron basis on which he was making that claim.
Constantine, in his attempt to obtain that sanction had turned to the Christian church and Ibn Al Zubaiywa turns to the figure of Muhammad.
Now as it happens Ibn Al Zubaiya loses the civil war. He is defeated by a rival warlord who lays claim to the empire of the Arabs. But the discovery that the name of Muhammad could be used to buttress earthly power - that is not forgotten.
The civil war had been a very close-run thing, and the victorious warlord Abdul Malik had no intention of every again allowing the legacy of Muhammad to fall into the hands of a dangerous rival.
The Romans had known all about religion and power. When they had become Christian, they had redrawn the map of Jerusalem. Now, Abdul Malik set about fashioning a holy city of his own.
The Dome of the Rock: it is the oldest Islamic building in existence. In design it was Roman, and Abdul Malik was doing something else that was Roman: plugging his dominion into the power of God. On the walls, there is an unequivocal mission statement: religion, in the eyes of God, is Islam. There are mentions of Muhammad, quotations from the Koran. At last, something that we can recognise unmistakably as a new religion.
There is a sense of something new coming into being. It is the sense of the old Roman-style pillars and mosaics, yet, this is clearly not Roman, this is clearly not Christian. This is the beginning of something very very potent: the harbinger of a spectacular future. It was built on the site of the old Jewish temple. Down here, the foundation stone of the old, the juncture of heaven and earth. This is quite possibly one of the most awesome places on the entire planet. It is deeply deeply holy not to one but two great religions. This is the place where Jews believe God inhabits the earth - the holy of holies. To Muslims it is the cave Mohammad prayed in after having been brought here from Mecca, before he is sent to heaven ....
In religious terms this is a sort of nuclear reactor firing out isotopes of power.
It is certainly a grand statement that "We Muslims have superseded Jews and we have superseded you Christians by being filled with inscriptions directed against Christian Trinitarian beliefs" so it is Muslims saying "We are here, we have come to stay and we are the winners."
Abdul Malik now rules his empire as the Deputy of God just as the Christian Roman empires had done. And like the Roman emperors he has built a House of God in Jerusalem. But Abdul Malik, Lord of Jerusalem though he is, is also an Arab. Perhaps for Arabs, Jerusalem for all its ancient and unrivalled potency owe too much to the Jews and Christians to stand alone as the city of the new Arab empire. A poet at Abdual Malik's court describes him as the Lord of the Two Houses Sacred to God: one in Jerusalem, and well, he doesn't say where it is.
And for 100 years after the death of Muhammad no one says where it is.
All sources go on calling it a place in the desert. It is a sanctuary in the desert without giving it a name.
And at some point this sanctuary must have been fixed at Mecca in the middle of the desert, but why?
The truth of the matter is that we don't know what was the true religion of the first Arab cultures.
It is an Arab story. Arabs come from the desert. God is speaking to the Arabs. Arabs don't want Jews or Christians having any influence on Muhammad.
The prophet Muhammad was like us. We are their progeny. We are their descendants.
The Koran is in Arabic. The Koran is full of characters from the Bible, but if the book came out of the desert, how did these characters get there?
We have nothing. We have this one book and nothing. We don't have the key that can unlock the tradition.
Maybe that is the point: we are not supposed to unlock the tradition. God's message comes from the prophet, the prophet lives in a desert. There is no room for anyone else.
It is remote. It is uncontaminated. It is pure. It is a place where we can rule out the fact that Muhammad got his ideas from others.
It is interesting that this rationalistic history is very weak in being able to provide causes for certain effects. Not being able to know something is no proof that it does not exist.
You being looking at the record and all you find is emptiness. And you end up in the desert and all you see is emptiness. But perhaps the emptiness is the answer. Maybe Mecca gave Islam what it most needed: a blank sheet where Muslims could put their prophet beyond the reach of history.
Professor, do you think what I am doing is complicit with the brute fact of Western imperialism and hegemony?
No, not necessarily, as long as you remain aware of what you are doing. If you come as a Western scholar or historian and in all honesty present what your world view is, and say when I look at this Islamic world from this paradigm this is what I see, and bring out what is different from how Muslims see themselves, that I think is a very honest effort, and it is a good effort. But if you try to act as a doctor to a child: "Take this medicine, it is good for you, but you don't know if you are eating the wrong thing, but this is how it should be", that's where the problem begins. The Muslim world is not going to accept that. The days when the British would bring scholars from England to teach Indians how to be Hindus and Muslims are finished. It is finished.
It is true before I began I did have preconceptions. I was brought up a Christian but I was also brought up in an environment that questions everything. Studying ancient history is a process of paint-stripping, tearing away at stories you want to believe are the literal truth.
This is supposed to be Mt Sinai where Moses, where Moses saw the burning bush, where God gave him the 10 Commandments, but there is no historical evidence for any of this. Christian monastery, Roman fortifications, the old partnership - God and Empire - between them they turned this place into Sinai. In my heart I want to believe it, but my head won't let me.
Father Justin, St Catherine's Monastery:
We believe that there was a living tradition cut by the people here that this was where God had revealed himself in an extraordinary way.
How much would it matter if this turned out that this wasn't the place where Moses had received the 10 Commandments?
But the spiritual encounter with God is important. The reality is there even if your eyes aren't open to see things in actuality. God is always present, but you are not aware of His presence.
Ultimately, the City of God matters more than the City of Man.
But as a historian I have to presume that the City of God was built by Man as well. I wanted to map the human past in human terms - to make map that fits the facts. But I travelled to places where the maps reveal a heavenly plan, sacred lands, sacred places - a world where you don't have to believe in God to feel the power of God. This is the Promised Land: some call it Israel, some call it Palestine - a land where Muslims, Christians and Jews still fight over the story of a promise made by God to Abraham thousands of years ago. Was there really a promise? It is not for the historian to say. But the world believers make in the name of God - that is what history is about. Even today, more people die for visions of heaven than they ever do for historical facts. Stories that never happened can be infinitely more powerful than stories that did.
I set out to write the story of the beginnings of Islam. If you are a Muslim, then there is no problem. Everything is explained by God. But I am not a Muslim, and I don't think civilisations appear like lightning from a clear blue sky.
What I think now is that Islam appeared from a whole range of circumstances, from the religions and the empires and the convulsions of the world that witnessed its birth. And of course it is still the case that the black hole that surrounds Islam's beginnings does not give up its secrets easily.
But maybe we are getting somewhere. The search for the historical Muhammad, for the origins of the Koran, for the whereabouts of the first sanctuary, for the way Islam evolved out of the Arab empire - these are pieces of a whole new story.
Tom Holland: ask a silly question, get a silly answer.