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In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of…
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In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire (original 2012; edition 2013)

by Tom Holland (Author)

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9231822,885 (3.75)2 / 18
In the 6th century AD, the Near East was divided between two venerable empires: the Persian and the Roman. A hundred years on, and one had vanished forever, while the other seemed almost finished. Ruling in their place were the Arabs: an upheaval so profound that it spelt, in effect, the end of the ancient world. In The Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland explores how this came about. Spanning Constantinople to the Arabian desert, and starring some of the most remarkable rulers who ever lived, he tells a story vivid with drama, horror and startling achievement.… (more)
Member:AbbyClingerPA
Title:In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire
Authors:Tom Holland (Author)
Info:Anchor (2013), Edition: Reprint, 560 pages
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In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire by Tom Holland (2012)

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» See also 18 mentions

English (16)  Dutch (1)  All languages (17)
Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
Didn't really seem to have a unifying point or a strong conclusion. ( )
  Vitaly1 | May 28, 2023 |
The author's core premise is a fascinating one: that the rise of Islam and the Koran should be seen as the last great development of the Classical world, rooted very much in the broader politics and cultural clash between Byzantine Rome and Persia rather than a movement that arose almost independently in the wilds of the Arabian desert.

This may not be the book for absolute beginners to the period in question, as while the book is engagingly written it is academically rigorous and presupposes some basic knowledge about the late Classical world. The episodes bounce around a little in the middle stages of the book, meaning I had to make frequent references to the list of people and concepts at the back of the book to keep track of developments. There is more emphasis on the period of and after Justinian's reign rather than on Mohammed, and I found it fascinating to retrace the steps through the Byzantine world of Syria and the Holy Land. ( )
  SuzieD | Jan 3, 2023 |
fascinating account of the early days of Islam but also considering history of Iranshahr and early church. Interesting stuff. ( )
  cbinstead | Feb 26, 2021 |
I liked this book a lot less than I expected. It's well-written and thought-provoking, but less than it could have been.

Ultimately In the Shadow of the Sword is two books in one: a narrative history of the rise of Islam, and a revisionist history challenging traditional assumptions about Islam's origins. Both intertwine in a way that is entertaining but slight. Too often the need to keep the narrative moving forward stops Holland from fully making the argument he wants to: that the Prophet Muhammad emerged not from the Hejaz, as traditional assumptions say, but from the deserts of Mesopotamia, the free-wheeling political and religious borderland where Arab tribes had lived for centuries between Romans and Persians, Christians and Zoroastrians. Instead, these arguments are often made in passing and by implication.

To be fair, Holland couldn't have done much better. Contemporary sources are so scarce for this period — once one discards later efforts that may or may not be accurate — that making a positive argument about Muhammad's origins away from Mecca is basically impossible. He has to rely on coins, inscriptions, fragments of writing and observations from foreign observers to fill in the gaps left by the suspiciously late emergence several centuries later of Muhammad's traditional biography. This isn't enough to prove alternatives, but is enough to raise doubts about the traditional history.

I found the weakest part to be the first half, which is only obliquely about the Arabs at all. Instead, Holland goes into detail about the histories of two subjects he's written about before: the empires of Byzantine Rome and Sassanid Persia. This was interesting in itself (or would have been had I not recently covered almost all of it listening to the History of Byzantium podcast) and sometimes foreshadowed important developments, but largely felt like a distraction from the book's core thesis. ( )
  dhmontgomery | Dec 13, 2020 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 16 (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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Epigraph
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
Dedication
Aan Hillos
In memoriam.
To Hillos
In memoriam
First words
Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar, an Arab king celebrated for his long hair, his piety and his utter ruthlessness, had been brought to defeat.
Quotations
'No man is a believer who fills his stomach while his neighbour goes hungry.' - Al-Adab al-Mufrad al-Bukhari 6.112
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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In the 6th century AD, the Near East was divided between two venerable empires: the Persian and the Roman. A hundred years on, and one had vanished forever, while the other seemed almost finished. Ruling in their place were the Arabs: an upheaval so profound that it spelt, in effect, the end of the ancient world. In The Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland explores how this came about. Spanning Constantinople to the Arabian desert, and starring some of the most remarkable rulers who ever lived, he tells a story vivid with drama, horror and startling achievement.

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