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on 21 September 2012
Fascinating stuff, no doubt. But it does go on a bit - like he didn't have time to write a good short book.

I also found it very hard to relate where each of the several hundred (thousand?) little episodes fitted into the overall timeline and geography. This could easily be overcome with a bit more "signposting" work on the part of author and editor.
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on 7 September 2017
Could not put this book down....the harsh reality of this period in our history makes Game of Thrones seem like an episode of Little House on the Prairie!! Great characters and incredible stories of empires, Gods, Kings and Prophets...
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on 19 September 2017
Came punctually. Quality as promised. Super book
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on 4 March 2017
awesome
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on 18 May 2017
Thought provoking and stimulating.
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on 21 March 2017
Good condition & excellent informative book, well written
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on 20 July 2017
Great book thank you for an excellent service.
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on 18 January 2014
Subtitled "The Battle for Global Empire and The End of Ancient World" this book gives a detailed and scholarly account of the collapse of the Persian and Roman empires and the rise of Islam in late antiquity. One of the central themes of the book is to question the degree to which Islam was the cause of the conquering dynamism unleashed from the Arabian deserts and to what extent the Arabs having succeeded and having adopted the Islamic religion wrote history to fit their religious preoccupations. The picture that emerges is bewildering complex and populated by peoples and cultures that, though we are descendants of them, appear somewhat otherworldly in their passions, schisms and irrationalities - that is, unless you happen to be a modern day Islamist whose vision of the future is firmly rooted in a belief in sacrosanct 'truths' about this past.

Given the combination of war, crumbling empires, inventive cruelty and plague there were points in this account where the vision of life in the middle east looked so exceedingly dismal that it made the current situation look like significant moral progress. In late antiquity there seemed to be little moral improvement being wrought by either Judaism, Christianity or Islam - indeed a reasonable argument could be put the these imperialistic monotheisms were, if not the root of the problem (and they might have been that), a nasty catalyst for brutal excesses.

The first chapter of this book "Known Unknowns" I found the most rewarding in its lucid discussion of the imposition of contemporary narratives on past events and in its conveying of the hugely corrosive power of time over our understanding of what 'really happened' - this juxtaposed by the 'certainty' of the theological narrative imposed by Islamic 'scholars'. Thus, for example, Holland starts the chapter with a quote from Salman Rushdie:

"The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Mohammed, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and receiving-economic circumstances of the time".

Holland goes on to show that none of this is true as 'the light of history' under which Mohammed has been illuminated, for all the pretensions of Islamic scholarship, might more properly be considered to be of the sort of historical narrative described by the Christian historian Eusebius "I shall include in my narrative only those things by which first we ourselves, then later generations, may benefit". That somebody as 'heretical' as Rushdie did not realise this shows the significant power of theocratic propaganda.

Predictably Holland's work has been received in some Islamic quarters with a mix of paranoia, denial, personal attacks and theocratic obfuscation.

Did Mohammed unleash a religiously inspired political dynamism that swept all before it? I have my doubts, but if true then perhaps we should worry that, according to some quarters, Al Qaida has an estimated base of sympathy of between 10-15% amongst the world's estimated 1.6 billion Muslims and affiliates in some 55 countries. Monstrous tyrannies have grown from lesser acorns.
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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.
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on 28 May 2017
This is the first Tom Holland book I have read and I was very impressed by his style of writing. The scope of the period he writes about, and the grandness of the subject are quite daunting, and he is very assured in the way he deals with the material, bringing it alive with colourful and flowing prose.

This is no ordinary subject matter, though. Anyone who comes close to scrutinising Islam is brave, as we know. He sets things up on the subject in early passages really well, and then goes back to the history of the two great empires - Rome and Persia - and their rich religious tapestries prior to Islam, so that we can get a good idea of their own religious struggles and dynamics, where they came from, and how they came about, before charting the Arab conquest. I had already read a fair amount about Islam, but this book added a very rich background history of the roots of Islam and the influences upon it from contact with religions in the Roman and Persian empires.

I couldn't help wondering, though, whether the author was holding back on some things, like tying up material and expressing what he thinks are the conclusions about the formation of Islam and the implications. Some treading on eggshells perhaps, which lots of people tend to experience.
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