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In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of…

In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global… (2012)

by Tom Holland

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5751327,420 (3.68)2 / 18
"The remarkable story of an imperial civilization that endures as perhaps the only one to have survived from antiquity into the present day. No less significant than the collapse of the Roman Republic or the Persian invasion of Greece, the evolution of the Arab empire is one of the supreme narratives of ancient history, a story of manifest destiny that is dazzlingly rich in drama, character, and achievement. Just like the Romans, the Arabs came from nowhere; yet by 632, when the Prophet Muhammad is supposed to have died, all the tribes of the Arabian peninsula had come to acknowledge the authority of his teachings. During the next two hundred years, they carved out a stupefyingly vast dominion, overcoming seemingly insuperable odds to emerge triumphant against the greatest empire of the day."--Book cover.… (more)



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Easy reading & well worth it. 2 critiques:

1. He often quotes contemporaries fantastical view of events straight up when it is quite obvious he is slightly mocking them, which is fine once in a while but it becomes repetitious shtick
2. He hints at but doesn't really answer the question he posed at the beginning - what are the origins of the Quran and Islam and who is the Mohammed character?

In the documentary he did and in interviews he is much more forthcoming about his theories on point 2. Anyone reading this book should also watch the documentary and listed to his interview with Robin Pearson from the History of Byzantium podcast (as well as Robin's podcast on the topic of the Origen of Islam). I get that they are just theories and perhaps he was a bit reluctant to be too concrete and explicit in a book so as not to be accused of replacing one fantasy for another.

One last point: for every other major religion existent (and non-existent) today where there are tons of popular science*-based overviews, Holland's book is the first on the shelf for this topic and he does a damn good job. To his credit he's cracked the nut, opening the doors for others to popularize a more scientific approach to the origins of Islam.

* by science I mean critical, skeptical & evidence-based approaches not based on the evidence-free premise that any given religion is the word of God/s ( )
  aront | Jul 25, 2017 |
Tom Holland has made quite the name for himself with his narrative histories. His first, [b:Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic|91017|Rubicon The Last Years of the Roman Republic|Tom Holland|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1320470983s/91017.jpg|87825], is about the rise of Julius Caesar and the transformation of Rome from the Republic it had been to the Empire usually envisioned by those of us raised on Hollywood sword and sandal epics and the UK history syllabus.

Here, Holland covers a far more complex and controversial era of history, the world of late antiquity centred on what we now refer to as the Middle East. This fits in nicely with my current undertaking of patching the massive holes left in my knowledge of world history by the aforementioned UK school syllabus. It particularly snuggles like a jigsaw piece against [a:Judith Herrin|280510|Judith Herrin|https://images.gr-assets.com/authors/1287143216p2/280510.jpg]’s superlative history of [b:Byzantium|2166088|Byzantium The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire|Judith Herrin|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1329504991s/2166088.jpg|2171615] which, naturally, focused on that great city itself and the world beyond only inasmuch as it bore directly upon it.

The setting here is the Eastern edge of the late Roman Empire where it abuts the most Westerly of the great Asian empires - initially the Parthians, then succeeded by the Sassanians. Each, much to the surprise of most people with a Western Classical education, was easily a match for mighty Rome and inflicted at least as many defeats and humiliations upon it as it upon them (the most striking of which is the fate of Emperor Valerian who, after being captured by the Parthians, spent the rest of his life being used by King Shapur I as a stool to mount his house and, on his death, having his skin flayed and gilded as a throneroom trophy).

Holland throws in vignettes like this to wonderful effect - such as the introductory account of the bloodthirsty religions zeal of Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar, before ending with the startling line “So perished… the last Jewish king to rule in Arabia.”

The author spends most of the book with background of how the two great empires grew and changed through the first 600 years or so of the Common Era - more detail on the Sassanids as Rome is more familiar to his audience, although he sketches in such things as the Gothic conquest of Italy and Spain and refers to a few things with which we are more likely to be familiar to ground the narrative. He takes us through the difficulties that Parthia has with the ‘barbarians’ on its Northern and Eastern frontiers that it massively underestimates and leads to its collapse (if I’ve learnt one thing from reading history, it is NEVER pursue bands of mobile mounted archers however much the taunt you), along with an overview of their culture and religion.

Along with this, as part of the timeline of Constantinople, we are shown the rise of Christianity in Palestine - the response of Rome to the various Hebrew insurrections, leading ultimately to expulsion from Jerusalem, the foundation of the Holy Land as a place of pilgrimage from Europe following Constantine’s conversion, the ascetic monks such as Simeon on his pillar. We also get a potted history of the schisms of Christianity, Nicea and Chalcedon, the Arians and the Copts.

Then, in the third part of the book, we are introduced again to that fragment of the region under the control of neither superpower. To the south of the fractious border is Arabia, a land considered barbarous by both Romans and Sassanians, although they are both also quite happy to pay the tribes as mercenaries. This disregard despite the fact that this area has housed the kingdom of Sheba, made wealthy beyond imagining by being the major supplier of Frankincense but fallen on hard times by the rise of Christianity and their dislike of such pagan practices as the burning of incense. From this area comes a third force, one which gives some editions of this book its alternative (and rather inflammatory) subtitle, “The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire”.

And this is where the controversy comes in. Holland shows how Islam rose not only as a political force as much as a religious one, but that it was a melange of the Hebraic history of the Arabian peninsula (as foreshadowed by that introduction with King Yusuf), the Manichaeism of late Iranshahr (Sassania), along with influences from others in the area such as the Biblically maligned Samaritans, the philosophy generated by the Christian schisms and the close textual analysis and argumentation of the Jewish yeshivas. Most controversial of all, the author points out the signal lack of contemporary accounts of the Qu’ran, Mecca and Mohammed’s direct influence. He shows Islam (or the Mohammedan faith, which came to be called Islam almost a century later) as a political construct, as riven with dissent and infighting as any other human political process. Perhaps most shockingly of all, he suggests that the hadiths, the sayings of Mohammed used as an adjunct to and expansion of the Qu’ran, are made up out of whole cloth the best part of a century after his death to justify interpretations of the extremely vague Qu’ran - or, indeed, to entirely re-write it, such as to upgrade the punishment for adultery from lashes to the traditional Jewish death by stoning. Mixed in with the jockeying for position as the power behind this new and vast empire, this shows that Islam and its holy texts are no more trustworthy and god-given than those of Christianity or Judaism, Zoroastrianism or Hinduism. They are products of human societies, of political power struggles that have a background and a frame, that both use belief and are a vector for it.

While Tom Holland’s fourth history book (he also write fiction - I really should investigate that!) is not without flaws, it is remarkably well written, well argued, as well as well researched and referenced. I have yet to read a narrative history as good as his debut, [b:Rubicon|91017|Rubicon The Last Years of the Roman Republic|Tom Holland|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1320470983s/91017.jpg|87825](although that is on a par with saying that I have yet to hear a symphony on par with Beethoven’s ninth or Mahler’s fifth. Okay, anything by Mahler) but I think that is because the relatively narrow focus of the internecine power plays of Roman perhaps lend themselves more easily to the narrative history style without oversimplification. Holland obviously must simplify somewhat, but he really does seem to try to include as much relevant information as is humanly possible. As with his book [b:Persian Fire|103749|Persian Fire The First World Empire and the Battle for the West|Tom Holland|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1171501730s/103749.jpg|100036] about the Greco-Persian wars (Thermopylae and all that) this can lead to a temporary overload of information, that I dealt with by putting aside the book for a few days on occasion to allow my brain to process it. I do also feel that he sometimes gives myths of Christianity an easier ride that those of other religions, putting them down with argumentative foot- or endnotes. While this may be purely as he expects the audience to be already more familiar with these, it does mean these appear to be accepted more uncritically.

In all, an utterly superb addition to my knowledge of the history that has formed our world, told in an utterly compelling, absorbing and informative manner.
( )
  Pezski | Jun 8, 2017 |
In the Shadow of the Sword is an account of the decline of the Roman and Persian empires in the Near East and the rise of the Arab empire. It tells the story of the rise of monotheism and the role religions played in the shifting of political and military power.

Holland takes you through the significance of Zoroastrianism in the Persian empire, the history of Judaism and the Jewish populations across the region, the growth of Christianity and how it impacts on Rome. It’s only a hundred or so pages from the end that we reach the story promised in the introduction – the rise of the Arab empire as Rome and Persia are both brought low following a devastating plague and years of military conflict.

In the Shadow of the Sword makes some points that were new and interesting to me – for example that Judaism and Christianity represented a threat to their opponents, because they were not tied to a particularly location or shrine, as pagan religions were. Holland shows how written texts were central to the power or religion – and how political and religious leaders were willing to rewrite them to suit political expedients. He highlights the link between religion and militarism, such as the early Christians likening their role to that of a soldier, and the suggestion that the word ‘pagan’ is derived from a Latin world meaning ‘civilian’.

Along with the analysis there are anecdotes ranging from the macabre to the absurd – grisly accounts of early Christians welcoming martyrdom by ever more cruel torture and death, a burgeoning tourist industry as pilgrims flock to holy sites and relics, an Arab ruler famed for his golden dentures and fearsome halitosis.

In the final chapters of the book, Holland tries to distinguish the historical figure of Muhammed from the version in the Qu’ran. He says that no contemporary accounts of the life of Muhammad are known and that much of what is understood about him comes from writings two hundred years after his death. In particular he questions how Muhammad could have lived in Mecca, a remote desert outpost, when the Qu’ran clearly draws on contemporary religious and cultural ideas which suggest involvement in trade and awareness of the other Abrahamic religions and their adherents.

Holland’s writing is clear and relatively accessible but he does favour long sentences in long paragraphs in long chapters, which, coupled with my lack of context and the unfamiliar names meant I paced myself, reading a few pages at sitting, so I could absorb what I’d read. The book also has a really useful timeline, a glossary and a list of dramatis personae.

This was an interesting and readable account and, for me, an introduction to new ideas and one that made me want to learn more.

A version of this review first appeared on my blog https://katevane.wordpress.com/ ( )
  KateVane | Jan 26, 2017 |
Mr. Holland presents us with his take on the rise of Islam and an image of the world of the 500 - 600's CE that somehow mirrors some aspects of our own times. His writing style slips back and forth between the lively and the sensational and provides an entertaining survey of the period.
The end of the Persian-Roman dyarchy in the Middle East and the insertion of the Byzantine-Islamic dyarchy is his theme, and the method is to draw a rather sensational view of the preceding century, playing up the great plague of the mid-500's and the resulting lack of manpower and energy to resist a new irruption of relatively barbaric conquerors from the Arabic desert. The career of the emperor Heraclius neatly straddles the fall of the Persians, and the creation of the Byzantine-Islamic frontier that will remain constant for the following four and a half centuries. So Heraclius' dramatic story gets more attention than usual.
It is necessary as well to cover the state of the religion of the Zoroastrians of the period, and this is a useful addition to historians of the Middle East as there is little coverage of this group, especially in such a popularized format. Holland explains how these believers came to be classified as a "People of the Book". This brings us to the major theme of "In the Shadow of the Sword".
while Edward Gibbon gave us the initial Impression that Islam arose from a drive to civilize on the part of the Arabs embodied in creation of their own religion, and Toynbee saw Islam arising from a need for a declining civilization, the Syriac, to embody itself in a new world religion, Mr. Holland doesn't explore the idea of why Islam arose.
His field is a review of several of the intellectual strains that were interwoven into the Islamic Carpet (I'm sorry, couldn't resist that!) and a revisionist view of how Islam could have assumed its outlines by the end of the Umayyad Dynasty and the rise of the Abbasids, who presented the new faith in the guise that is familiar to us today.
In history we would like to have a period in which we possess an objective account, firmly buttressed with references from surrounding cultural groups, and tied to a firm chronology, with easily recoverable archaeological evidence. Mohammad's time doesn't fit that description, if we are using anything but the received account starting with a firm belief in the truth of Mohammad's recorded revelation, direct from Allah through the medium of an angelic guide. But as the period saw wide-spread violence in the area studied, a large movement of cultural groups and perhaps deliberate destruction of relating material. Like Christianity in its first century and a half, Islam is not a well documented religion until after 750.
Holland creates a good deal of doubt that the standard account of the Prophet should be uncritically received. He manages to make us think about whether or not Mecca was the original shrine of Islam, whether the body of lore "The Hadith" was ever quotes from the Prophet, instead of a body of opportunistic rulings by a priestly class trying to evolve a workable institution, and whether the lack of prior writings of a religious nature in Arabic or stemming from the inhabitants of the Arabian Desert, is not the result of a rigorous intellectual cleansing of contentious or competing strains of religious writing from that area by the Abbasid dynasty bent on totalitarian rule.
It makes a very readable book, and makes us wonder if the creation of religions should not join legislation and sausage making as areas rewarding caution on the part of the consumer. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Sep 21, 2015 |
Central thesis is powerfully demonstrated and explored: the corpus of Muslim belief and practice was not delivered in a oner by an illiterate chap called M** in a remote corner of Arabia. It grew up over the two centuries of Arab conquest in the 8th and 9th centuries, incorporating myth, ritual, law and tradition from all the cultures of the Near East, especially Judaism and zoroastrianism. I'd always assumed that the Islamic story was reasonably authentic, though i knew that there has never been anything as rigorous as the Western biblical criticism. and i knew there were some variations in the islamic instructions on things like alcohol. but here we learn that the Koran lays down stoning as punishment for adultery , whereas Sharia law says "Stone them!", or rather "Stone her!" and that is Jewish. The Koran says: pray 3 times a day, the Sharia says five, and so on. I wold have liked much more of this, but Holland goes off after the first section on a huge digression which forms the bulk of the book; we get detailed histories of Byzantium (down to what Theodora wanted to do with her tits), of Iran including every fratricidal feud and Aryan assassination, and of Central asian tribes without number. This is perhaps there to give context, but is hard work dealing with myriad obscure groupings and short-lived dynasties. All is written in Holland's slightly purple suspense-building style which is fine, but i would rather have had the full meal on the shaky foundations of Islam promised by the title, subtitle and intro. ( )
  vguy | Nov 20, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
I found the book fascinating to read, and grippingly written. It is not a dry historical text but a genuinely exciting story. The author has vividly brought the ancient Eastern Roman and Persian empires back to life.... I recommend the book to everyone who wishes to learn more about that part of the world in that period.... I see no reasons for any Muslim to get upset about the book just because it disagrees with part of the Muslim understanding of history.
...[N]ot just a history of Islam, but rather an account of the birth and development of monotheism — an exploration of how a handful of obscure sects came to outlive the mighty empires of the ancient world and wield a massive influence over billions of people today.... Holland writes with the skepticism of a secular historian, but his prose is shot through with wit and empathy. The result is a portrait of a lost world that is complex, contradictory and populated by people in thrall to ideas future generations would dismiss as ridiculous. Much like our own, in other words.
Holland... is about as exciting a stylist as we have writing history today... Holland presents this account more as story than as a laying forth of the evidence, making his book not only accessible but delightful to those who will never work their way through the scholarly debates over the origins of Islam. By joining his account of the invention of Islam to analogous descriptions of the definition of Christian orthodoxy, the rise and fall of Zoroastrianism, and the evolution of rabbinic Judaism, Holland invites greater humility from followers of all faiths.
Mr. Holland admits that his answers are "unashamedly provisional," but he traces a broad arc that connects the rise of Islam with the religious themes that accompanied the decline of the imperial systems of Rome, Byzantium and Persia. His conclusions may be tentative, but they are convincing. His book is elegantly written and refreshingly free from specialist jargon. Marshaling its resources with dexterity, it is a veritable tour de force.
Holland came to his work on Islam unencumbered by any prior acquaintance with its fundamental texts or the scholarly literature.... He has written his book in a swashbuckling style that aims more to unsettle his readers than to instruct them. I have not seen a book about Arabia that is so irresponsible and unreliable since Kamal Salibi's The Bible Came from Arabia (1985).... The scattershot nature of Holland's investigations is particularly apparent in his breezy reference to the Qur'an manuscripts that were found in Sana'a, Yemen, in 1973.... But Holland is at his most irresponsible when he turns to the Meccan origins of Islam.... Holland's cavalier treatment of his sources, ignorance of current research and lack of linguistic and historical acumen serve to undermine his provocative narrative.
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Do not look for a fight with the enemy. Beg God for peace and security. But if you do end up facing the enemy, then show endurance, and remember that the gates of Paradise lie in the shadow of the sword. -Saying of Muhammad, as recorded by Salih Muslim
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Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar, an Arab king celebrated for his long hair, his piety and his utter ruthlessness, had been brought to defeat.
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