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Onward Muslim Soldiers In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World
By Tom Holland (Little, Brown 526pp £25)
Almost 1,400 years ago, the established world order was overturned by the emergence of a dynamic new power in the Near East. From the mid-630s, fearsome bands of Arab tribesmen began to pour out of their homelands in the Arabian Peninsula. Within a few decades these highly mobile, mounted warriors achieved startling successes – overrunning Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt with mercurial speed – and, by the middle of the next century, their descendants could claim dominion over a vast swathe of territory, stretching from the Indus River and the borders of China in the east, across north Africa to Spain and southern France in the west.
long been sought. How was it that the Arabs – previously a known, but relatively insignificant, force on the world stage – suddenly became invincible conquerors? What lent them the unity of purpose and martial vigour to topple the ancient might of Rome and Persia, the region’s great imperial superpowers? One answer, frequently offered, has been Islam. According to Muslim tradition, the faith was born around AD 610 when Muhammad, an illiterate, forty-year-old Arab native of Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia, began to experience a series of ‘revelations’ from Allah, relayed by the Archangel Gabriel. These revelations, regarded as the sacred and immutable words of God, were later set down in written form – the Qur’an.
An explanation for this explosive, seemingly unheralded phenomenon has
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Tradition also holds that Muhammad set out to convert the polytheistic Arabs of Mecca and the surrounding Hijaz region on the Arabian Peninsula’s western coast to the monotheistic faith of Islam, and that this proved to be no easy task. In 622 the Prophet was forced to flee to the nearby city of Medina, a journey that served as the starting point of Islamic Chronology. He then waged a bloody and prolonged war of religion against Mecca, finally conquering the city two years before his death in 632. During Muhammad’s lifetime, and in the few years immediately following his death, the warring tribes of the Arabian Peninsula became united under the banner of Islam. Over the next few decades, under the guidance of the Prophet’s successors – a series of able and ambitious caliphs – these Muslim Arabs proved to be an almost unstoppable force. Their incredible martial dynamism was married to a seemingly insatiable appetite for conquest – a hunger sustained by the Qur’an’s explicit demand for the Muslim faith and the rule of Islamic law to be
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Not surprisingly, modern scholarship has set out to test the validity of this neat narrative arc and the explanation it offers for the Arab conquests. Holes have been punched into the traditional reconstruction of events, sometimes leaving behind disconcerting voids. Uncomfortable questions have been asked: can we actually recover the historical lives of Muhammad and his successors with any accuracy? And were the Arab conquests directly inspired and empowered by Muhammad and Islam, or was this an essentially secular phenomenon, cloaked beneath a thin veil of faith?
Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword draws upon and reflects this wellestablished strand of academic enquiry. His book is a brave and valuable attempt to train the lens of popular history upon an exceptionally contentious field of study. Holland is patently aware that, in departing from the more familiar territory of his earlier work on the ancient world, and even his most recent foray into early medieval Europe, he has marched onto dangerous, potentially inflammatory, terrain. Thus, his book begins with a sixty-page critique of the sources for early Islamic history, an elegant and entertaining – if somewhat circuitous – overview, that rightly leads Holland to question the historicity of the hadith (the sayings and deeds attributed to Muhammad), and the medieval biographies of the Prophet, because these texts were written many decades, even centuries, after the events they describe.
Later we are treated to some forty pages on the provenance of the Qur’an itself, with Holland eventually concluding that this sacred work can be traced back to the time of Muhammad’s own life, albeit only in oral form. Here at last, in the author’s view, are some authentic traces of the earliest moments in Muslim history, although it must be noted that there is a hint of desperation in his reasoning. Having demolished the other surviving strands of internal evidence, without the Qur’an Holland would have left himself almost no history to write.
When dealing with his central theme of early Islamic history, Holland seems at pains to present himself as a careful, diligent and respectful scholar, but also will have the patience to wade through this material to reach the pay-off of Holland’s main theme.
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as a commentator willing to confront the most difficult and controversial issues. Regarding the extent and influence of Muhammad’s own achievements, Holland argues that, by the mid-seventh century, Arab elites had marginalised the Prophet’s memory and that his status as the father of Islam was only later reinstated. Holland also suggests – somewhat less convincingly – that Muhammad did not experience his revelations in Mecca, but in a lost settlement in the hinterland between the Arabian Peninsula and Palestine. His explanation for the stunning rapidity of the Arab conquests is more traditional. He emphasises the exhaustion of the Arabs’ Roman and Persian opponents after centuries of struggle between their two empires, and stresses the massive damage wrought by plague to the established social, political and commercial fabric of the Mediterranean region in the late sixth century.
And this issue of readership is also potentially affected by writing style and approach. In the Shadow of the Sword lacks the drive and engagement of some of Holland’s earlier work. His prose is still fluent, and he is more than capable of deploying entertaining, almost jaunty, turns of phrase to enliven his text, but the world he seeks to recreate rarely comes alive with human drama or colour. Many central protagonists – from the Persian ruler Khusrow, to the Roman Emperor Constantine – appear as little more than half-formed thumbnail sketches, and we are left with a story of ‘great powers’ and high politics told by a distant observer.
In the end, Holland’s book offers only a brisk hundred-page overview of the first century of Muslim history, leaving little room for the discussion of critical themes, such as the role of the Arabic language as a unifying force, or the relationship between faith and violence in Islam. Nonetheless, In the Shadow of the Sword stands as a useful, and sometimes provocative, starting point for anyone interested in approaching the birth of Islam from a historical, rather than devotional, perspective.
At a fundamental level, however, this book is beset by two interconnected problems. First, it suffers from a significant identity crisis. Holland seems unsure of the book he wants to write (or, perhaps, is capable of writing given the surviving sources). His introduction makes it clear that In the Shadow of the Sword will seek to explore the life of Muhammad, the Arab conquests and the emergence of Islam. But, in order to set the context for these themes, he then devotes no fewer than 235 pages – more than half of his text – to a broad and often unfocused survey of the Persian and Roman Empires in late antiquity. His substantive point – that the seventh century has to be understood as the product of earlier history – just about shines through, but one has to wonder whether every general reader
In the Shadow of the Sword deserves to be admired for its ambition and for the light it shines upon early Islamic history and the decline of the ancient world. It remains to be seen whether it can find, and then hold, the wide audience its subject matter deserves. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 47
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