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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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This review is from: In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (Hardcover)
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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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 28 May 2012 17:00:52 BDT
Scriptural exegesis of the Quran was ongoing even whilst the Prophet was alive. There are documented instances for example of his companions asking for clarification as to the meaning of verses etc. It is a profoundly deep and ongoing science which resulted in great leaps forwards in the fields of linguistics and grammar. I know that the 'western' cultural prism has a severe problem with the idea of an oral culture transmitting information. But it did happen, and the Quran you see is the identical one revealed to the Prophet. I know that presents a problem for non-muslims. However, in the spirit of neutrality, one must not ignore the 99% of muslims who documented this information in the early years in favour of the 1% who sought to undermine that message. i.e don't ignore the majority of data to furnish your own preconceptions.

In reply to an earlier post on 28 May 2012 19:05:18 BDT
Last edited by the author on 9 Jun 2012 08:58:52 BDT
docread says:
I will attempt a brief reply which is unlikely to satisfy you as we are both starting from totally different premises.You are undoubtedly a devout Muslim. Faith is a wonderful thing as it thrives on dogmatic certainty and unshakable belief which must provide great inner comfort.Whereas I am a questioner and a scientific doubter but not a total sceptic.
Tafsir in the Islamic Kalam tradition is about interpreting for the faithful the tenets of the revealed text.Incidentally this type of exegesis has existed since times immemorial in the other two Abrahamic faiths as well.Modern exegesis is about subjecting the text to some scrutiny to examine its constituent parts and find out if they are historically valid and authentic, linguistically coherent and follow seamlessly.No one can deny that the scriptural collection of the Quran was a historical process which took place after the death of the Prophet and relied on assembling a myriad of oral testimonies or recitations from illiterate individuals by in large.So how can we distinguish on the basis of such unreliable sources between Prophetic Quranic utterances from those of his own personal sayings(Hadith).How come the penalty for an adulteress is flagellation in the Quran and stoning according to the Hadith?There are so many contradictions between the different Hadiths let alone between the Quran and the Hadith traditions.This is what interests the Modern scholar, the critical dissection of the text to be treated like any other historical artefact and not the polemical justification of the possible intended meanings of some obscurities in the text which is what the religious scholar is attempting.
Anyhow I don't think this exchange is likely to be fruitful.You have made your point and I accept that our use of the word exegesis is different.
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