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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not really the book it was hyped up to be but nonetheless excellent
Tom Holland is one of my favorite authors and I am also fascinated by the rise of Islam. I was therefore very excited when the publicity started for this volume. It was hyped as some sort of daring expose of Islam's roots - a dangerous and exciting topic.

There was a long delay before the hardback came out and when my pre-ordered copy arrived I dived in...
Published 9 months ago by W Greenhalf

versus
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting.....
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...
Published 20 months ago by Gerald T. Walford


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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not really the book it was hyped up to be but nonetheless excellent, 29 Oct 2013
Tom Holland is one of my favorite authors and I am also fascinated by the rise of Islam. I was therefore very excited when the publicity started for this volume. It was hyped as some sort of daring expose of Islam's roots - a dangerous and exciting topic.

There was a long delay before the hardback came out and when my pre-ordered copy arrived I dived in straight away. What I found was an excellent telling of the decline of the Byzantine empire. Very much continuing the story of the classical world which started with Persian Fire and was followed by Rubicon. Read all three books in order, there is no question that Tom Holland truly makes history accessible and entertaining. What I did not find was a revisionist view of Mohammed and the early Arab conquests. If you want that story can I recommend The Great Arab Conquests by Hugh Kennedy.

There probably is enough in the book to slightly upset a few fundamentalist Shiites and or Sunnis, but I don't think Mr Holland needs to fear a Fatwa.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting....., 6 Dec 2012
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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.
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80 of 89 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Book, 17 Nov 2012
By 
Dr Norman Walford (Singapore, Singapore) - See all my reviews
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.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and readable history, 19 April 2012
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Do not be put off by those who have treated this serious and readable history of late antiquity as an attack on Islam. It is far from that and much more. It describes the decline of the Roman and Persian Empires and the ascent of the Arab Islamic domination of the Middle East, North Africa and southern Europe in a period of little more than 100 years. It shows how the three great monotheistic religions, including Islam, evolved over the same period of time. The book is a highly entertaining and informative account of the time and place.
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47 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating revelations about the birth of Islam, 14 July 2012
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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.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Emergence of Islam and the end of Antiquity - in context, 23 Nov 2012
By 
rob crawford "Rob Crawford" (Balmette Talloires, France) - See all my reviews
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This book covers a seminal historical nexus. First, there are 2 classical empires about to be eclipsed: Byzantium and Persia, which were involved in a brutal conflict that was as close to the modern conception of total war as you could come. While the west was crumbling into the near-anarchy that presaged the dark ages, these 2 empires remained gigantically ambitious, endowed with extraordinarily rich civilizations and elaborate customs developed over centuries. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the religious ideology (or concept or belief, whatever you choose) of monotheism is reaching the tipping point of general and unquestioned acceptance from Europe to Central Asia. Here, you have the Jewish and Christian religions, but also Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and many others (e.g. Samaritans) that have been long forgotten. This represented a swirling mass of ideas - evolving practices as well as support for the ideology behind despotic states - that were being written down in what would become definitive texts to the present day, e.g. the "oral" Torah and the New Testament. Finally, from this context, there is the birth of the Islamic faith, which draws on many of these ideas to create a fighting force and ideology that would become the dominent world cultural and military force for at least the next 400 years. It too was written down in the Kuran but also its explosively burgeoning commentaries that accompanied it.

From the 5th C CE, the classical empires found themselves in a perilous state of transition. This involved the systematic usurpation of religious ideology into the service of the autocratic state. In the long christological struggle to define the nature of Christ and the "correct" form of orthodoxy, the emperor Justinian imposed his version of the faith on all the peoples of the eastern Roman Empire with the heavy hand of administrative and police repression. Prior to this internal inquisition, the Empire had been relatively more tolerant of competing faiths, including Christian variants, Jews, and the fading pagan religions. This created bitter resentment and eventually undermined support for the Empire. For its part, the Sassanian Empire developed its own fundamentalist version of Zoroastrianism, at a moment when it was facing pressure on its Northeastern frontier. Combined with traditional rivalries from Parthian aristocrats, this also undermined the cohesion of the Persian diaspora. (As I was largely ignorant of this version of the Persian Empire, this was one of the most stimulating sections of the book.) Add to this the exhaustion following total war of 30 years or so, and both empires found themselves in a unique state of geopolitical weakness.

A vital theme of the book is the establishment of fundamental texts in each tradition. This covers an extraordinary range of ideas, from the New Testament, Torah, and Kuran to the consolidation of all Roman law in the Justinian Code. The importance of these accomplishments cannot be over-emphasized: they set, in many ways, the terms and sources of debate to govern each society (and culture) that reigned supreme until the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the West, retaining their influence to the present day. So rich and complex, I cannot encapsulate them here, but feel inspired to go to additional sources to explore them - this sets me on ten-year path of enquiry, a legacy of inspiration from this book.

The heart of the book, of course, is the author's exploration of the first 100 years of Islam, from its origins to the fall of its first dynasty, the Ummayad Caliphate. While this is a subject that I felt I knew relatively well, Holland brings a revisionist perspective that is as fascinating as it is bound to be controversial. In a long (rather dry) introductory section, he questions the validity of all early written sources, concluding that many long-accepted notions about the prophet Mohammed and what he created are suspect - not only does this cast a skeptical eye on the Kuran (in addition to all the commentaries), but on the contours of his biography, including the choice of Mecca as his birth place! In my reading, what this does is displace the establishment of the basic tenets and traditions of the Islamic religion onto later founders, who like Athanasius compiled the earliest texts for their own purposes, many of them political. He incorporates both philological and archaeological evidence to make his case.

This is the time when Islamic civilization replaced the classical ones as the ascendant power and cultural force. It was profoundly eclectic, incorporating many judeo-christian elements, but also the other competing traditions from Zoroastrian practices to greco-roman intellectual legacy (which Justinian had shut down). Though orthodox Islamists claim that Mohammed was the exclusive source of it, Holland decisively demonstrates that it is an amalgam of all the currents he places in context throughout the book. In my opinion, it is a masterful synthesis. The wielding of politcal power and military techniques are also covered, though more as evocations than analyses. By the end of the 8C CE, both Persia and Byzantium were spent forces, though the latter Empire endured for 700 more years as a defensive bulwark.

I do have criticisms of the book. First, footnotes refer almost exclusively to primary sources, which deprived me of the treat of seeking good secondary sources to explore specific issues. THere is a good bibliography, but only the titles appear. Second, it leaves a number of yawning gaps that the reader must explore in sources elsewhere - that I want to know so much more is certainly a sign of the book's success, but also signals that it could have been more dense. Third, the writing style is oddly elliptical, circling its subject and flowing into many tangents instead of following a linear narrative. While fun to read, it is at times difficult to follow his logic. Finally, of all his popular histories, this one is the most academic in tone, with many dry patches on methodology or obscure controversies, a bit to excess in my opinion but never overboard.

REcommended with enthusiasm. This book is for curious readers who are well acquainted with the period.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Miss this one, 4 July 2014
By 
R. Hampson "Robert H" (London) - See all my reviews
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Irritating written in a style that flirts around never getting to the point. The information is there but boy could it have been written better. This material needs to be in the public domaine but there are a lot better histories out there, even ones written a century ago, than this poor example. A real disappointment where journalistic writing parts the way from proper scholarship. Miss this one!
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65 of 76 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best yet, 16 April 2012
Tom Holland has a singular talent: the ability to bring to glorious life a period (or periods) - the Ancient and early Medieval - that are underpinned by relatively few reliable historical sources. Now he has used this talent for his most ambitious project yet: a gripping account of the seismic century or so - arguably the most important in history - that saw the dismemberment of the Roman and Persian Empires, and the rise of Islam. He describes the upheaval as spelling the 'end of the ancient world', and he is surely right. In The Shadow of the Sword is a carefully constructed, beautifully written re-assessment of this momentous period. Not everyone will agree with all his conclusions; there are too many vested interests at stake. But the sheer intellectual prowess of the book should win over the vast majority - myself among them.
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65 of 76 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating narrative and compelling thesis about the rise of Islam, 14 April 2012
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The meteoric rise of Islam accompanied by the dismemberment of the mighty Roman and Persian Empires in the 7th C must be one of these rare seismic events in the history of Humanity with repercussions still resonating across the centuries into our own time.The author is one of the brightest Historians of Antiquity.He has broached his most ambitious historical project yet, with great gusto by discarding the traditional narratives and marshalling from what turns out to be a historical minefield ,the scarce reliable contemporary evidence to unravel this gigantic jigsaw.Within these limitations and despite the great lapses in available authoritative sources ,he succeeds in providing an original narrative combined with an enlightening description of the melting pot of the Imperial and religious traditions of the Near East that shaped the circumstantial context for the early development of Islam.The text clearly reflects a vision of Islam that is an organic part of the late Antiquity cultural and religious world and the author goes as far as contending that the Islamic Empire was the last and most enduring Empire of Antiquity.

The author is not showing any hostility by stating the widely recognised fact about the total absence for nearly two centuries after the events of any Arabic chronicles documenting the Prophet's life or the conquests associated with the spread of Islam.On the contrary he takes great pains in emphasising the common ground that links this religion so intimately to the other monotheistic traditions of the Near East.He dispels the myth that Islam was singularly wed to the idea of the martial spread of the word of God by highlighting in the narrative the continuous cycles of savage warfare that pitted the Christian Romans against the Zoroastrian Persians in their efforts to build their own versions of the Kingdom of God or Global Empires and obliterating in the process all tangible manifestations of rival religions.In fact the Arab conquest in comparison was relatively benevolent and respectful of other beliefs at least in the early stages, as long as the local populations paid the poll tax or protection money.

Religion like most cultural phenomena evolves and develops over a long span of time.The specific tenets of religious belief which crystallised in the three monotheistic religions took centuries to shape up in their present recognisable forms after endless debates, disputes ,borrowings and corrections compounded by bloody conflicts and persecutions until orthodoxy prevailed,even though dissent has persisted to our days.One of the main theses of the book is to assert that it is in the crucible of late Antiquity that Rabbinical Judaism, Trinitarian Christianity and the Sunna of Islam were forged to create the finished doctrinal products we have inherited, sharing in the process numerous ingredients, some even derived from Zoroastrianism

Biblical exegesis in western Europe goes as far back as the 17th C. The scriptural analysis of the Gospels as well the historical scholarship of early Christianity have made great forays in recent years with remarkable findings which are bound to offend the sensibilities of some believers.By comparison it is only in the last 40 years that the Quran and the Islamic tradition of Hadith have been subjected to the same rigorous scientific scrutiny to explain the origins of Islam.It has so far been a bumpy road as the academic field is still riven by profound disagreements and controversial interpretations, hence one's reservations about some of the author's more wayward speculations.Nevertheless one has to admire his dedication and scholarship with the objective of shedding light on a thorny historical subject and making it accessible to the wider reading public.I must add that the first chapter, despite the obvious irony of the title" Known Unknowns", is a model of judicious historical analysis worth alone buying the book for.However no one should be deluded after reading this work that it represents by any means the last word about this historical "enigma" and that the author's account will remain unchallenged by present scholars or future Historians.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars well written, 11 Dec 2013
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This review is from: In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (Paperback)
A very well written book. Easy to read and very interesting. The author makes it clear that he is going to use historical sources (i.e. based on fact) and wasn't going to lean on religious sources with no basis of fact i.e. based on faith. So I clearly don't understand some of the 1 star reviews who are basically moaning because the author doesn't back up their faith based on no evidence at all. This is a fair and excellent analysis and is ground braking in covering the rise of world religion. Good book.
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