10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 12 October 2012
A very touchy subject expressed in a well written, easy to read, pleasant manner. Maybe a bit too much time was spent on Christian evolution, but not to the detriment of the book. As some previous reviews indicated, the hardened historian might not like the way this book is written. It is more in "story" form than what you would expect from a standard textbook-like book (which can be such a bore). The writing is factual, engaging and entertaining, the way history should be written.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Having read other works by Tom Holland ( Millennium and Rubicon) and having thoroughly enjoyed them, I was looking forward to this book very much. I must admit to being a little disappointed. The writing seems disjointed and staccato at times and it is hard to follow the narrative flow. To cover so many events, locations, and historic figures across a span of well over 500 years, as well as to describe the development of monotheistic religious belief around so much of the world in a mere 432 pages is quite a task. For me it didn't quite work either as reading pleasure or a learning experience, although at times, particularly where a few pages are devoted to a single issue or event, the writing can and does hold the attention.
However, so much is covered here that on finishing the book I was left with impressions - of the battles for religious and political supremacy, of the harshness of life and death at the time, and of the ultimate strength of ideas over the force of arms - more than with specific learning about the historical events. For me the book was too much of a kaleidescope of events, people and places, covered in too brief a narrative, for real understanding to develop.
Having said that it is clear from other reviews that many people have enjoyed this book immensely - It just didn't work for me
109 of 121 people found the following review helpful
on 17 November 2012
When I set out to understand a bit more about Islam, my first port of call was Karen Armstrong's book 'Mohammed'. I came away from that with a portrait of Mohammed as a really rather impressive character - charismatic, compassionate, in many ways a couple of centuries or even millennia ahead of his time. I wasn't converted, but i was certainly made to think.
Now after reading Tom Holland, I realize that Armstrong's book is quite probably, in great measure, essentially a work of fiction. I say probably because, as Holland is the first to point out, the whole origin of Islam is shrouded in uncertainty, with far more unanswered questions than firm answers. If I was impressed by Mohammed, there's a simple reason for that - the first chroniclers of his life wanted me to be impressed, and that's how they presented him. I'm embarrassed now at the way in which I swallowed Armstrong's friendly portrait quite so uncritically.
Tom Holland picks up on the (once you see it) glaringly obvious problems and inconsistencies of the 'standard model' of Islamic origins and ruthlessly examines them. He writes with great confidence and considerable persuasive powers. My first reaction on reaching the end is 'I need to know more!' I need to know just where Holland stands in line with other scholars of the subject - is he mainstream or a maverick - I'm not sure.
I listened to the audio version of the book. I think reading in print might have been hard work. As audio it's great. Strongly recommended.
62 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on 14 July 2012
Tom Holland's fourth book charts the birth of Islam. The chronology is a little confusing: we open with the defeat in battle and death of the king of a Jewish kingdom in what is now the Yemen. Holland then takes us back to the recent histories of the Persian Empire and Constantinople. When we are back up to date we rush through Mohammed and on into the Ummayyads finishing with their annihilation by the Abbassids.
His thesis seems to be that this was the time when people of this region began to write down their religious beliefs; possible to protect them since they lived largely in the border area between the continually feuding Persian and 'Roman' empires. So he shows how the Zoroastrian priests of Persia start to write things down and then the project is enthusiastically taken up by the Jews of the area who develop the Torah. Justinian writes his laws, carefully based on scholarship to demonstrate their ancient provenance. The Bible is collected as a way of imposing orthodoxy on the feuding Christian sects of Constantine's empire although the hadiths amplifying the Koran (largely developed in a town thirty miles from the centre of Jewish learning) seem to be rather an attempt by the religious community to have an authority separate from the say-so if the Caliph.
What I found far more interesting (and frustrating) was the way he challenged the conventional view of Islamic history. Thus is a footnote on page 304 he claims that the concept of their being only a single version of the Koran dates back to 1924; before then it was largely accepted that there were seven 'readings'. The first mention of Mecca outside the Koran was in 741 (Mohammed died before 634). 'Mecca' is described as a significant trading town which presumably required significant agricultural resources: impossible for this remote part of the desert. The Koran itself is unmentioned in the early Islamic writings; it only mentions Mohammed four times.
And so he develops his thesis although he does little more than hint at it (whether this is because there is so little evidence in any direction or he is afraid of a Moslem backlash is not clear). The context for Mohammed's life and the development of his thought is on the borders of Palestine, perhaps in the Negev desert, where Arab tribes lived who were paid by the Romans to guard the borders of Palestine from the Persians. The holy city was originally in this region and was moved to Mecca well after Mohammed's death (there is evidence that the direction of prayer and the alignment of mosques moved). There were a number of ka'bas; the Arabs rather liked worshipping at cube-shaped shrines. Mohammed's teachings were originally thought to be a refinement of the Torah; thus the punishment for adultery changed from the Koranic prescription of 100 lashes to the Jewish stoning. A number of Islamic ideas came from Zoroastrians: for example Moslems were originally required to pray three times a day, Zoroastrians five.
And these revelations are shocking and exciting. However, Holland never really explains the chronologies carefully. Exactly when was the Koran first mentioned by another witness? And when was Mohammed first described? I wanted more dates and details even if certainty is impossible.
A fascinating appetiser.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on 6 December 2012
I had been looking forward to this book for ages, and it seemed the publication date was subject to continuous revival backwards!
So finally having grabbed a copy of it and then awaiting an opportunity to actually read it, I have rather mixed responses to it.
Firstly, hats off to Tom Holland for grappling with what is not an uncontroversial field with few sources and those contradictory and politically laden- the evolution of great monotheistic discourses whose framework informs so much of the world we inhabit today. If you like, you could call it the 'other-half' of the story as opposed to the classical traditions Holland talks about in Rubicon and Persian Fire.
I actually agree with other reviewers here, and say that Holland's famously elegant prose can sometimes seem to muddy the waters here, especially when the narrative veers off into what was for this reader at least very unfamiliar territory. For some reason it seemed to work against the subject matter rather than enhance and clarify it- none of which made for an easy read.
What is very interesting and carried really well, was how, contrary to the whiggish perception of Byzantine and Middle-Eastern history, the period can be seen as more than the flat and depressing decline of Classical greatness but a period of unparallelled ferment and psychological freedom, when everything was changing and no one really knew what would happen next. The other thing that came over for me was how each tradition- Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, Pagan, and the various denominations of each, actually owed a good deal to each other indeed, their narratives still being created and still unfinished during the period covered by this book.
Religion is one thing many people have an opinion on one way or the other, and I'm aware- although naturally on a much smaller scale- than even writing this review my Humanistic upbringing is on display and thus up for question. I think it is to be commended that Holland wrote this book in the spirit of discussion and enquiry, although if I am frankly honest, it is perhaps not his greatest.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 2 July 2012
You might liken Tom Holland's book to a great canvas of dark landscapes on which great swathes of lightning reveal grim images of slaughter; here, 10,000 corpses butchered in Samaria and 20,000 dead at another place and yet another time 50,000; a bishop burns in a fire of martyrs' bones; a Persian king humiliates a Roman emperor, using him as a mounting block before despatching him; elsewhere the newly slaughtered are covered with carpet to serve as a gruesome banqueting table. It is painted, this portrait, in blood for these are the convulsions of two nations. The Western Roman Empire, in barbarian hands, is ailing though the world still bears such wonderful cities as Alexandria and Antioch, Damascus and Constantinople.
But if the two great empires, the Persian and the Roman, had made their mark on the Ancient World they were by the 7th century tired out by incessant warring, by famine, by plague.
And why all this war? Was it all about belief? About the worship of pagan gods? Or the Jewish god? Or that strange god who was his own father, his own son, and at the same time a joint Holy Spirit? Oh, the struggles in the various communities to work out the nature of their god. The scholars, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, were at work, arguing, cajoling, persuading and the emperors knew not what to make of it until Constantine came along.
Emperor Constantine could not make up his mind about whom to acknowledge as the true god - should it be Apollo or the god of the Christians? - until he had a vision (or did he toss a coin?) At a stroke, Rome - centred now in Constantinople - was declared a Christian state. Not that the declaration was accepted universally. It took more years and another emperor to brutally enforce the state religion upon the diverse peoples of the declining empire.
And then along came Mohammed and his followers, quite out of the blue it seems. And within half a dozen decades the Arabs, many of whom who had learned their trade as mercenaries in the armies of Rome or Persia, had conquered vast territories. And it seems as if in no time they came out of their deserts and had shed their pagan gods in favour of a new monotheistic belief. But it does seem at times to have been borrowed in part from the old Greek myths as well as from the writings of the Jews and the Christians. Holland points out how little is known of Mohammed until almost two hundred years after his death and certainly there is little of Islam's early years to help the historian unravel its development. Here, the author is asking the pertinent question: how much are we to believe of what we are told about that period, those crucial missing years?
What a hotch-potch. What a difficult story to tame with its roots in rumour mills and propaganda, in unsubstantiated declarations and self-serving claims. Yet Tom Holland keeps the tale going, interpreting and of course guessing as all historians must when faced with such variety of not always reliable evidence. It's a great read but one that is not easy for the detail at times is both overwhelming and vague. There are gaps, not of the author's making, but because of history's silence.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 11 April 2014
Tom Holland specialises in large meaty tomes featuring the late medieval period. If this is your thing, go for it. In the Shadow of the Sword is not a light read but Holland's style is accessible, even colloquial, bouncing along at a fair lick through a millennium that laid the foundations of faith for the next millennium. Helpfully, he provides a glossary of terms or concepts that might be unfamiliar to non- specialists, like 'Hadith' and 'duality', also a Dramatist Personae that would have been very useful except that reading on a Kindle, I didn't realise these were there until I got to the end. I found I didn't read the whole book consistently, rather picking it up, reading a chapter, then leaving it for a lighter read, then plunging back in. A very satisfying book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 11 May 2014
The victors write history. Holland argues that is exactly what happened with Islam. To understand the context for this. he takes us on an arduous and colourful journey through the struggle between the Byzantine and Persian empires of late antiquity. The sudden emergence of Arab power in 630 AD becomes more understandable. Holland explores the variations of early Muslim beliefs and the gradual definition of orthodoxy.
This is a fascinating exploration of a poorly understood era. Holland questions the location of Mecca, the nature of the Qur'an, the source and purpose of the hadiths. His conclusions are not as revolutionary as his questions seem to promise, but are no less satisfying for that.
A great read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 4 October 2013
Very clear and lively writing. It enables the reader to relate the minds and behaviour of the actors to modern ideas but is not too anachronistic. It brings out the similarity of the period to the present day globalisation crises. Plus ca change and so on. It's good to read in conjunction with Selena O'Grady's 'And Man created God.'
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 14 February 2014
As a history graduate I have kept a vivid interest in reading easy to grasp books such as this over the last decade. This was undeniably one of the most enjoyable though; an interweaving of the last days of the Persian and Eastern roman empires with the beginning of global religion. Late antiquity is an area that seems overlooked in a lot of more popular / less scholarly works and this filled that gap for me. I'm sure many historians will disagree with it, and god knows a lot of very religious readers might not appreciate reading about the history of their religions, but I couldn't recommend it more if you are interested in knowing more about this area of the past.