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In the Shadow of the Sword

Nick Spencer

The battle for global empire and the end of the ancient world
Tom Holland
Little, Brown, 544pp

Write a book about how the origins of Christianity are not quite as they appear in the New Testament, you might get a half-raised eyebrow or, if you do it luridly enough, a film deal. Do the same thing about Islam and you could find yourself bullet-proofing your bedroom window.

Tom Holland's latest excursion into the ancient world is not a narrow deconstruction of early Islamic history. Indeed, it is ostensibly the story of how the two empires that dominated the late ancient world declined and fell, marking the beginning of what the Renaissance came to call 'the Middle Ages'. Nevertheless, at the heart of the book, if not its title, is the tale of how Islamic origins ain't necessarily so.

Some of In the Shadow of the Sword will be familiar to Third Way readers, such as the transformation of Israel in exile, the Christianisation of the Roman empire and possibly the legendarily lascivious life of Empress Theodora (and if you don't know this one, don't google her at work). Much of it, however, will not. I knew precious little about the centuries long and vitally important battles between the Persian and Roman empires or the origins of Zoroastrianism, and I knew nothing whatsoever about Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar, the last Jewish king or Arabia, or the Persian struggle with the Hephthalites. If nothing else, the book will inform and entertain.

Inevitably, however, most attention will be focused on Islam. The books key argument here is not iconoclastic, or at least not intentionally so. Rather it is something of a historical truism: one can no more explain the emergence of Islam by reference to Islam alone, than one can Christianity without discussing Israel, Greece and Rome, or indeed any historical movement without its proper context.

This doesn't - or shouldn't - shock Christians, but it clearly does upset many Muslims today, not least because the approach leads to some uncomfortable questions. Does the Qur'an date from the prophet's lifetime? Are the hadiths, the reports of Muhammad's words and actions that are second only to the Qur'an in their authority, historically reliable? What about the isnads, the chains of witnesses that attach prophet to hadith thereby giving them validity? Although Holland is clear that all answers in this field must be provisional, those he offers range from 'we can't be sure' to 'completely unreliable'. It's strong medicine for those unprepared for it.

None of this is, in itself, ground-breaking. Indeed, as the author says early on, 'over the past forty years, the reliability of what the Muslim historical tradition can tell is about the origins of Islam has…come under brutal and escalating attack - to the degree that many historians now doubt that it can tell us anything much of any value at all… Whatever else it may be, the Qur'an is no work of history.'

Holland, however, is not claiming to have opened up a new field in the study of early Islam. Nor, even, is he claiming to reveal to the common reader what academics have known for years (although that is what he does). Rather, In the Shadow of the Sword does what his previous books do so well, which is to animate history, alerting readers to the fact that the past consists of more than Tudors and Nazis, and suggesting, gently, that if we wish to understand where we are today, we should have some idea of where we have come from.

Nick Spencer