Customer Review

66 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best yet, 16 April 2012
This review is from: In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (Hardcover)
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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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 14 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 Jun 2012 14:08:57 BDT
enthusiast says:
Having just read Glen Bowersock's review of the book in the Guardian, I'm fascinated by all the very positive reviews for it here. Bowersock is scandalised by Holland's poor scholarship in this area and believe Holland's misreading of this history to be dangerous. I don't necessarily believe the professionals but am baffled by the total mismatch with the reviews here ... . Does anyone know if Bowersock's objections hold water in the scholarly world?

Here are some quotes:

"Holland came to his work on Islam unencumbered by any prior acquaintance with its fundamental texts or the scholarly literature. He modestly compares himself to Edward Gibbon, whom he can call without the slightest fear of contradiction "an infinitely greater historian than myself". In the Decline and Fall, at the opening of his magisterial chapter 50 on Muhammad, Gibbon had candidly acknowledged his ignorance of "Oriental tongues", but he also expressed his gratitude "to the learned interpreters who have transfused their science in the Latin, French, and English languages". Holland seems to have confined himself largely to interpreters, learned or otherwise, writing in English, but his efforts to inform himself, arduous as they may have been, were manifestly insufficient."

"... Holland is at his most irresponsible when he turns to the Meccan origins of Islam. After reasonably supporting Patricia Crone's argument against the tradition of Mecca as a mercantile centre, he goes on to ask whether the place itself might not be an invention in the story of Muhammad. He raises the possibility that the Qur'anic pagans, called mushrikun, might be confederate tribes simply because the word is constructed from the Arabic root for "sharing". He looks for these tribes in southern Jordan and not only thinks of placing Muhammad among them but proposes that his own Meccan tribe, the Quraysh, took its name from the Syriac word qarisha, which, according to Holland, would have been "duly Arabised". This jaw-dropping idea depends on Holland's mistaken view that the Syriac word could allude to a confederation. What it means is to clot or congeal."

"For some reason Holland's book was released in the Netherlands in Dutch before it appeared in English. It had a different title then, The Fourth Beast. A marketing strategy of this kind looks like a conscious effort to profit from recent Dutch anxiety over Muslim immigrants."

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jun 2012 00:25:50 BDT
Last edited by the author on 7 May 2013 20:19:04 BDT
JPS says:
I am afraid that I can only agree with this review from the Guardian. Mr Holland's book is a miss where he exposes both his biases (to put it nicely), the limits of his research (if you can even call it that) and his over-eagerness to "sell a good story". I also entirely agree that he is being totally irresponsible. This is mercantile journalism, based on other peoples' work (who happen to be real scholars, even if their theories might be questionable at times), not history. It is also a piece of spin, and not even a good one...

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jun 2012 12:15:37 BDT
Last edited by the author on 18 Aug 2012 12:21:51 BDT
J. F. Adkins says:
Tom Holland's response to Glen Bowrstock's review of In The Shadow Of The Sword :-
Is it justifiable to question what Muslim tradition has to say about the origins of Islam? Readers of Glen Bowersock's review of my book might very well conclude not. That Qur'anic studies are currently in a state of the utmost disarray is a fact he simply shrugs aside. Instead, my book is cast by him as something worse than irresponsible. In a dyspeptic final paragraph, he strongly implies that it was cooked up by "author, agent and publisher" as something truly reprehensible: an attempt to exploit Islamophobia for commercial gain.
This is a serious charge - and since it is founded on Bowersock's claim that my scholarship is shoddy and out on a limb, I hope that he will forgive me defending myself. I am accused of twisting my sources. I could, however, level much the same charge against Bowersock's criticisms of me. In a passage on the early Qur'anic manuscripts found in Sana'a, for instance, he condemns my failure to mention that various palimpsests are currently "with the publisher". But he has missed the two points that I am clearly using my brief mention of the Sana'a manuscripts to make. First - since "with the publisher" effectively equals "not yet published" - it has been impossible for any scholarly consensus as to their precise significance to emerge. Second, what research on them has so far been published points to the fact that the Qur'anic text, far from evolving over the seventh and eighth centuries, as some venturesome scholars have suggested in the past, seems to have been broadly stable throughout that period. My conclusion, in other words, could hardly be more sober. "There is not a hint of deliberate fabrication in any of the Sana'a fragments."
This, it seems to me, is as much certainty as the ferociously contested fields of Qur'anic palaeography and orthography will permit. If I did not cite a manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale dated by the French scholar François Déroche to the third quarter of the seventh century, it was not - as Bowersock charges - because I had "missed" it, but because the dating of early Qur'an manuscripts is notoriously a work in progress. Déroche himself, for instance, originally placed the origins of the Bibliothèque Nationale manuscript in the early eighth century - and there are other scholars who still do. Nor, unfortunately, does carbon dating offer any greater certainty. At a conference in 2010, the same Christian Robin cited by Bowersock in his review revealed that a preliminary carbon dating of some pages from one of the Sana'a palimpsests had given dates in the late 500s - a most awkward misfire. I hope, then, that it will be understandable why, in a book aimed at a general readership, I opted not to venture into such a quagmire.
Instead, in my attempt to explore where and how the Qur'an might have emerged, if not from God, I adopted what is currently a fashion in Qur'anic studies, by looking at it in its historical context. The challenge with adopting this approach - which in any other field of history would be wholly uncontroversial - is that Muslim accounts of its composition, all of them written long after the lifetime of Muhammad, and often in direct contradiction of the Qur'an itself, are the only accounts we possess. No wonder, then, that Fred Donner, the éminence grise of early Islamic studies, should openly have acknowledged that "we simply do not know some very basic things about the Qur'an - things so basic that the knowledge of them is usually taken for granted by scholars dealing with other texts." Attempts to explain its origins, then, cannot help but be provisional. I could hardly have been any clearer in emphasising that point. It is precisely why my chapter on Muhammad is titled "More Questions than Answers".
It is in this light that most of Bowersock's criticisms should be seen. When I suggest that "Quraysh", the name given by Muslim tradition to Muhammad's tribe, might have derived from a Syriac word, "qarisha", I am casting it as precisely that: a suggestion. Bowersock is wrong that the Syriac root verb - "QRSh" - means only to congeal or clot. Look up page 1,418 of the most recent Syriac lexicon, by Michael Sokoloff, and a definition can be found corresponding to an Arabic cognate: "to gather people". Hardly the stuff of gripping popular history, of course; and yet readers need to be reassured that my narrative, however "swashbuckling," draws on years of careful research.
Of course, even Homer nods - and Bowersock himself can sometimes nap. How he can approvingly cite the seminal study on Meccan trade by his erstwhile Princeton colleague, Patricia Crone, and simultaneously claim that "no one before has seriously doubted the conjunction of Muhammad and Mecca," I am at a loss to explain. It is precisely such a doubt that lies at the heart of Crone's book. Nor is she alone: many leading Qur'anic scholars would now admit that it remains deeply obscure where the Qur'an might originally have taken shape.
Most egregiously of all, Bowersock says that the Dutch title of the book - The Fourth Beast - "looks like" it was chosen "to profit from recent Dutch anxiety over Muslim immigrants". Au contraire - as with my previous book, so with this, Dutch and British publishers chose different titles, from a whole number suggested by me. The Fourth Beast was a phrase derived from the Biblical Book of Daniel, applied successively to the pagan Roman empire, its Christian heir, and the Arab Caliphate - making it the perfect title for a survey of all three. I invite anyone who doubts that simply to read the penultimate paragraph of my book.
Bowersock is a formidable scholar for whom I have great admiration - and his most recent work on ancient Ethiopia shows him to be as on the ball as ever. But this review, which is targetted not just at me but at an entire efflorescence in contemporary scholarship, is unworthy of him. Far from it being inappropriate to place the rise of Islam in the context of "languages and ideas floating around in the Near East", the truly inappropriate thing, I would suggest, is to veil an important trend in scholarship from the gaze of the general public, and to scold those who would seek to lift it.

In reply to an earlier post on 18 Aug 2012 06:25:56 BDT
Last edited by the author on 18 Aug 2012 06:34:45 BDT
JPS says:
Questioning your sources is all very fine, as long as it is done honestly by a historian. In this book, it is done by somebody who behaves more like an investigative journalist looking for a sensasional piece than as a historian: this is my main grip with this book. History takes a backseat and comes a distant third after marketing and spin techniques.

This, by the way, is also one of the things that Bowersock (and a quite a few others...) holds against Mr Holland and those who behave like him. This is not about "veiling an important trend in scholarship etc..." It's about writing history and personal integrity. If you are going to write history, then you tell the whole story, not only the bits and pieces that fit your own very much pre-conceived views.

Otherwise, you are perhaps a talented spin-doctor but you are not a historian anymore...

In reply to an earlier post on 18 Aug 2012 12:18:04 BDT
Last edited by the author on 18 Aug 2012 12:20:24 BDT
J. F. Adkins says:
I am not an historian so I'll leave the mud slinging to the experts. What I can say however is that I've enjoyed all Tom Holland's books and I felt his response to Glen Bowerstock's review deserved an airing. What interested me with this book in particular is that I've never understood why early Islam drew so much on Jewish and Christian traditions in its writing and beliefs in that it was based some 1200 Km to the south of Jerusalem amongst supposedly pagan tribesmen. This book goes some way in giving an explanation.
To digress, I have say JPS, that I am more than a little impressed with the amount of reading you've done recently, given the heroic number of reviews you've posted.

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Oct 2012 17:28:43 BDT
Last edited by the author on 8 Oct 2012 17:36:26 BDT
JPS says:
You can call it "mud slinging" if you will. I do not go into that, and could not care less about it. Believe it or not, this is not what I was up to. The thing is, when you do happen to know the history behind the "story" that Mr Holland is telling, you cannot help from being somewhat disgusted with the way he spins it. I find this behaviour rather unacceptable. It is a form of fraud where the author essentially takes advantage of his superior knowledge over most of his readers to slant the story to fit his personal views. Needless to say, this is not history anymore. It is even rather dishonest, and it is called spin, or even propaganda, if you prefer. He has also done it with Persian Fire, by the way, in addition to heavily "borrowing" from other authors. I have not read his other books apart from these two but Mr Holland's "methods" do not make me want to read anymore of his prose...

By the way, I am not a professional historian, so I have no personal interest whatsoever in tarnishing Mr Holland's reputation or shooting down his books. Regarding the number of reviews that I have posted, I happen to have about 3000 books in my library, although there are a few hundred that I have yet to read, in addition to all the additional ones that I order. I have had many of those on which I posted reviews for years, sometimes even a decade or two. When I do post a review on such a book, as opposed to a recently published bestseller, for instance, I do happen to go through it extensively (and often end up by rereading it again, especially when I loved it the first time round). And, yes, as you have certainly noted, I do happen to have a rather deep and long-standing interest in history. I have had that "bug" for over thirty years now...

Anyway, thanks for your appreciation, if it was that and I do agree with you on at least one point: regardless of what I may think of Mr Holland (there are a few others who use the same kind of methods as he does, by the way, but only a few), his response also needed to be aired, if only to be fair and try to remain as objective as possible...

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Dec 2012 11:00:05 GMT
J. F. Adkins says:
Yes, well I'd still like to know how pagan tribesmen managed to draw so much on the traditions and beliefs of 2 distinct cultures 1200 km to the north in their embryonic religion. Perhaps it was the word of God ?

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Dec 2012 11:26:08 GMT
Alexa says:
Pagan tribesmen who were on a major trade route between Europe and Asia, and used to undertaking long expeditions for that purpose themselves...
The Scandinavians who formed the Varangian guard in Byzantium were also pagans. I hope you are not suggesting that a pagan religion results in either lack of curiosity or willingness to travel?

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Dec 2012 11:41:51 GMT
Last edited by the author on 13 Dec 2012 11:42:34 GMT
J. F. Adkins says:
No indeed but the Scandinavians did not adopt whole chunks alien religions and traditions as did the early Muslims. This suggests to me that they, (Muslims) had more than just a passing acquaintance with Jewish and Christian culture. I don't know the answer I'm just curious, (like a Pagan !).

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Dec 2012 16:32:01 GMT
I loved RUBICON and PERSIAN FIRE, was disappointed with MILLENIUM and will only buy this when available for £5 or less.
Come on, Tom, return to the Greeks and Romans.
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