Customer Reviews


136 Reviews
5 star:
 (72)
4 star:
 (24)
3 star:
 (18)
2 star:
 (7)
1 star:
 (15)
 
 
 
 
 
Average Customer Review
Share your thoughts with other customers
Create your own review
 
 

The most helpful favourable review
The most helpful critical review


3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb and brave
Any book by Tom Holland is going to be an absorbing treat. He is only one of two writers (the other is Jenny Uglow), who's books I'll buy no matter the subject. Why? Because they both write so well. Holland has an amazing skill of writing with insight, compassion and whit. He can tell an extremely complex story like a very good novelist, holding everything...
Published on 18 Oct 2012 by C. Miller

versus
22 of 24 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 on 6 Dec 2012 by Gerald T. Walford


‹ Previous | 1 214 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb and brave, 18 Oct 2012
By 
C. Miller "Colin" (Brighton, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Any book by Tom Holland is going to be an absorbing treat. He is only one of two writers (the other is Jenny Uglow), who's books I'll buy no matter the subject. Why? Because they both write so well. Holland has an amazing skill of writing with insight, compassion and whit. He can tell an extremely complex story like a very good novelist, holding everything together.

From other reviews you might get the impression that this book is solely about the development of Islam, it is not. It is about the context of the rise of Islam as a set of ideas, beliefs and a political, religious and military paradigm/ideology. He relates the tale of the four monotheism's of Judaism, Christianity, Zoratrianism and Islam (and their deep intolerance - or rather paranoia, of any but their own beliefs pretty much from the beginning), in the context of the late Roman and Persian empires. He approaches the subject as a secular historian, rightly turning a questioning and sometime critical eye on the received and all to often unquestioned 'certainties' of many believers of these Abrahamic based faiths. Holland has the temerity to approach the creation of the Quran as an historical document worthy of study. As he points, an approach that has been happening with the Bible for over 100 years.

We face dangerous times where the mere questioning of a faith based on a book that claims divine inspiration can lead to threats on a writers life. This is true of Tom Holland and of others, and let's not fool ourselves this same level of dangerous, blind intolerance to historical questioning is not exclusive to some elements within Islam, Christians and Jews have had an awful of practice in this area, starting (as Holland so eloquently describes) way before Islam appeared. Holland is to be applauded for his courage in writing this writing a superbly written book.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting....., 6 Dec 2012
By 
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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good book, more than "well worth a read", 7 Oct 2014
Well, Tom Holland took on something here. And, very good though his book is, one is left wondering if he is altogether satisfied with the result. Although a large book, over 500 pages, it could and should perhaps have been longer. Multi-volume works don't appear to be as much in vogue as they once were, but this would have made a terrific two-volume work. My reasoning is that having whetted our appetite on the history of Islam, before putting this to bed (ok, a if one could ever do that...) Tom moves on to another, albeit related topic. He has come under some attacks for some of his statements about Islamic history, but these days this is to be expected. I was left with the feeling that he was trying to work some deep issues out as he was writing, then perhaps came to the conclusion the book was getting longer and longer, so decided to cut it short. Only my supposition of course. I did take some issue with the "over Roman emphasis" at the expense of Greek when he described the Eastern Roman Empire, but I have exchanged Tweets with him on this and am pretty satisfied with his answers (not meaning to sound pretentious). But, a pedantic point, the eastern roman empire was indeed very Roman in character up to and including the reign of Justinian (up to about 550 AD) but thereafter IMHO, started to become more Greek, until during the reign of Heraclian (from 610AD) the official language was changed from Latin to Greek), and the Empire, although still called "Rome" ( Rum etc ) became very Greek in character, again in my humble opinion. Not sure Tom Holland agreed with this but in any case felt his book to be mainly "pre-630 AD". I think this illustrates the issue in that he set out to write a book covering a certain period - history and rise of Islam and it's interaction with the other two "superpowers" of the ancient world , Rome and Persia, and inevitably had to go into detail on these existing powers, which forced him into some "drift". Having said all that, it is a very good book, well worth reading
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


85 of 96 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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely fascinating, 10 Dec 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (Kindle Edition)
I read it on the plane to Istanbul. It told me masses about the ancient power blocks of the middle east, and Iwas totally surprised by the Jewish exile in Mesopotamia. It also very revealing on what makes a church, a state, and a nation.
Also interesting on how a legal system becomes encoded. Initial 50 pages need to be worked at, but after that very rewarding. I shall return to it time and again. However it's also available in hard copy which does have some glossy illustrations. On the other hand I don't think they add much.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History come alive!, 12 Oct 2012
By 
M. HENNING (South Africa) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


50 of 57 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating revelations about the birth of Islam, 14 July 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ABSORBING, 2 July 2012
By 
WH Johnson - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (Kindle Edition)
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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and readable history, 19 April 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


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
By 
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


‹ Previous | 1 214 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

This product

Only search this product's reviews