on 19 September 2015
In one sense, Islam was born in the early seventh (Christian) century when the Qu’ran was revealed to Mohammed; a new religion but already mature and one preserved more-or-less immutably ever since. So tradition would have it. Yet as Tom Holland shows in his magnificent study, there is much more to it than that.
In fact, there’s so much more to it than that that he spends most of the book setting the context of the times before delivering his devastating but well-argued conclusions. By AD600, the classical world was way past its heyday. The Roman empire was much reduced (indeed, it didn’t even include Rome), and both it and its long-term rival to the east were exhausted by both twenty years of desperate war against each other and by population-slashing outbreaks of plague. If ever conditions were made for an explosive creation of a new state built by the sword, these were they.
Holland lays out clearly why the two ancient empires – one Christian, one Zoroastrian – had reached such a state, citing military, social, economic and religious reasons in a narrative that’s both convincing and entertaining. No dry academic tome here; the prose is as earthy as the land it describes and at times drips with sarcasm, comic understatement or derision at the actions and choices of societies and leaders alike. Similarly, the detail and anecdote leap lifelike from the page.
But if the half of his story covering how the ancient world collapsed is impressive and entertaining, the half covering the birth of the Islamic empire is dazzling. Holland unpicks centuries of tradition and myth to find uncover a religion born not in the full glare of history but in a foggy murk. Although who established it and when seems unquestionable, its precise birthplace and its relationship to and inheritance from Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianiam and Arabic pagan culture – among other things – are not. Time and again, Holland demonstrates that far from being springing fully formed out of nowhere, many Islamic traditions and rituals were already held by the pre-existing cultures of the people who would come to live under the sway of the Caliphs.
All this is pretty controversial stuff. To avoid spoilers, I’ve hopefully not revealed too much here but Holland’s boldest claims strike right at the foundations of the religion. That he provocatively and ambiguously titles his last chapter ‘The Forging of Islam’ should say enough. Yet this is no hatchet job. On the contrary: it’s a forensic, fearless and valuable investigation into the evidence (or frequently, the lack of evidence).
Criticisms? Precious few. Holland does sometimes seem a little too taken with his language; there were times I was mentally asking him to tone it down. One might argue that some parts could do with more depth – the detail of the Umayyad conquests, for example – but I’m not sure whether that would add to the central narrative or distract from it.
All in all, this is an thoroughly eye-opening history of a fascinating period; one which challenges preconceptions and is told with panache and verve.
Despite what adherents and clerics have believed and claimed from time immemorial, in reality no religion ever appears in a vacuum, in a divinely inspired flash of light fully formed and internally coherent. All religions, from Islam to Christianity, Zoroastrianism to Buddhism, Hinduism to Manichaeism, all owe more than a little to the time and place of their origin, to the political currents circulating at the time, to the cultures and beliefs surrounding them; and all evolve over time, this doctrine being added, that dogma being dropped. Islam is no different. This book is the history of those origins, the context, the time and the place of Islam's birth. Obviously, it goes without saying that Holland is taking a historical approach here, treating the Qur'an like any other historical document, rather than a religious text.
Islam more than anything else is the product of a global confrontation between two superpowers - the Eastern Roman and Persian Sasanian Empires - and the battleground that the Middle East became as these two giants tussled over their borders. The traditional history of the era is that Islam burst out of the desert, unknown and unexpected, inspired by religious fervour, and took both these empires unaware, overwhelming them both in a matter of decades and establishing an empire that in one form or another lasted until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Tom Holland's central argument is that Islam is a product of both these empires, a hybrid in many ways, influenced and shaped by crucial elements of both empires' official religions, Christianity and Zoroastrianism and could not have been forged anywhere else. He also argues that Islam as we know it, in its written and codified form, only really came into being after the Islamic Empire had been established; that it was not Islam per se that inspired the martial success of the Arabs but Muhammed and his followers' success in marshalling the disparate tribes into a unified force, inspired by an embryo version of Islam, it's true; that even after the established of the Umayyad Caliphate political dynasty many Muslims were practicing a form of Islam that still borrowed heavily from earlier pagan, Zoroastrian, Christian and Judaic religious practices; and that the written version of the Qur'an is heavily influenced by earlier Christian and Judaic writings and was in many places written as a direct response to political and military events taking place many years after Muhammed's life.
Challenging the origins of any religious text is controversial to those who believe in its divine truth, and I've no doubt this book has probably raised a few hackles. But I found it a truly fascinating depiction of an era in history I knew very little about. I must confess I have never heard of the Sasanian Empire before this book, or the Hephthalite Empire, or much about the Eastern Roman Empire beyond its base in Constantinople. I've heard all the usual stories about Muhammed's birth, his life in Mecca, the flight to Medina - but to read about the historical questions and doubts behind the religious tales was eye-opening, much as it is with the gaps between established Christian 'fact' and actual historical reality. I would recommend this to anyone interested in the origins of Islam - or quite frankly, to anyone interested in religious history, or just history. Tom Holland is an excellent historian and a fine writer, and I am sure even if you started this book uninterested in the topic or the era you wouldn't finish it thinking the same.
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.
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.
on 25 September 2013
I must admit to being baffled by how this book was marketed, especially in the US, because roughly two-thirds of the book simply isn't about the rise of Islam. It's a fantastic and evocative entry-level introduction to the world of 'Late Antiquity' after the eclipse and eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire, the battle the Eastern Roman Empire had with it's Persian rival, and how both empires came to be eclipsed in the region now known as the 'Middle East' by the original Arab empire, but the story of Islam is not really given any more or less of a thorough treatment than the story of the early Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians.
After a long and gently scathing introduction to the challenges of historical investigation of the early Islamic texts, the books settles into a broad-brushed narrative sweep across the highs and lows of Sassanid-era Iran (based more in Mesopotamia than Persia, I learned) and early-era Byzantium, and how the triumph of monotheistic belief systems ultimately created the conditions for Islam to take root.
It's a pleasant mix of critical analysis and apparently-credulous reporting. For example, the appearance of spectral bronze ships off the coast of Egypt in 541, which appears in a primary source from the time (however unlikely it seems), is relayed as fact, and yet seemingly more credible events which don't appear in contemporary records are given a more thorough examination.
I really enjoyed the book and don't believe the author set out to offend anyone. All of the religions are reported in the same slightly irreverent manner, but for all the fuss about the Islamic section of the book, it's this part that actually feels the least thorough. The Rashidun caliphate and the subsequent rise of the Umayyads is covered in more or less the same level of detail as the earlier events in the book, but the pace picks up to such an extent that the end of the book soon comes racing into view, and their eventual eclipse by the Abbasids is fairly rushed through. The book ends with the founding of Baghdad, and the last word is a seemingly sincere tribute to the scholars of the three Monotheistic faiths that effectively codified religions that have lasted a thousand years and more since then, but I'm left hoping there is a better objective history of the Islamic world in the early Middle Ages still to be found, because this book isn't quite it, despite what the publishers seem to have suggested.
Having said that, it's still a five star book.
on 28 April 2013
Tom Holland has presented us with a very good colourful overview of the protracted power struggle between the Christian Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanian Empire, and their internal problems, continuing on into the period leading up to the Arab Conquest commencing circa AD 634. He covers the signifant political, religious and military interactions of that period in a fast moving, forthright and entertaining style and gives us an insight into the thinking of the key protaganists of the period. Given the scale of the activities across the two major international empires of the day this can of course be only a selective overview of key events. However we are given a credible understanding of the period supported by a wealth of references and supporting evidence to verify his findings.
It helps for the reader not to be a novice in this period of history, and helps if he has a previous understanding of the timelines, and the main players and characters of that age. Holland's Timelines and Glossary are a useful tool in achieving this.
Of particular interest is the development of the Christian theology of Monotheism from the Council of Nicea and the divisions in the understanding of the Trinity and Divinity of Christ which followed it, and the subsequent migration from New Roma of differing interpretations of Monotheism from what came to be the accepted Orthodoxy, into the border regions and into the Arabian Peninsular. We are also acquainted with the relationships that were developed by both New Roma and Shahiran with the Arab clans, the foederati, who were paid as mercenaries to police both Empires' borders.
The scene is thus set for understanding the historical setting for the Arab Conquest. Tired and weary, decimated, lacking treasure and manpower, ravaged and decimated by plague, both the Roman and Sassanian Empires after centuries of conflict between themselves, are declining in power and authority. Opportunities for booty for the taking in fertile lands then present the nomadic Arabs, largely unaffected by plague, and militarily strong as foederati, with irresistible temptation. Thus the Conquest can be seen as the normal progression of the worldly cycle of declining and rising empires. Holland poses the theory that the prophet Mohammed, the Quran and the birth of Islam was a necessary requirement for the unification and cohesion of this new Arab Empire, rather than the generally accepted traditional Islamic view that the Arab Empire resulted from the Prophet, the Divine Revelations and the spreading of the Message.
Hollands scrutiny of the Quran suggests that there is some doubt about the Quran's Divine origins, and that it was developed in the years after Mohammed's death by the Arab leaders and Umayyad Caliphates as a tool to unify what would otherwise have dissolved into a dismembered Arab Empire of feuding clans and chieftans. He poses that the Quran was developed from and inspired by a mixture of Jewish and Christian traditions, early scripture and legends that were extant at that period in time, and which reflected Monotheistic interpretations contrary to the New Roma Orthodoxy.
Holland's investigations into the Hadiths, and biographies of Mohammed suggest that these were written well after the death of Mohammed and show considerable signs of additions and development to suit contempory political expediency. Investigation of the Sunna shows signs of it reflecting and adopting earlier Jewish and Zoroastrian origins. Indeed if one doubts the Divinity of the Quran's origins then the foundation rock on which these documents were raised turns to sand, and the Hadiths and Sunna, however well meaning, can only be considered as the works of mortal man influenced by Judaic Christian and Zoroastrian traditions, contempory events, and little more.
Holland quotes the Quran, "Religion in God's eyes is submission" (Quran 3.19), and that Islam is "The religion of truth" (Quran 61.9). What we do not see in Holland's analysis is little if anything of God's love. Rather we see mercenary war bands of foederati, the search for booty and plunder, the oppressive jizra taxes on non Muslims, organised slavery of the conquered peoples including the abuse of women, unwillingness to share the new faith with the conquered peoples, and continual fitna (civil) war. Surely the truth of Islam should be exemplified in the formative years of Islam and in the birth pains? If this then is the truth, the full truth is not only in what we see in Holland's analysis, but is also in what is not there to be seen. "In the Shadow of the Sword" can be seen as an apt title, if this is indeed the truth.
In summary this book is a must for all thinking Christians, Muslims and Jews who are interested in discovering, investigating and understanding the truth behind the Arab Conquest and the Birth of Islam in today's Age of Enlightenment. Research too into the many references should be a serious undertaking.
on 14 April 2012
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.
on 19 April 2012
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.
on 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.
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.