"To understand the origins of Islam,” writes Tom Holland, “and why it evolved in the way that it did, we must… explore the empires and religions of late antiquity”. Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=38385
In the Shadow of the Sword works very precisely to this brief. Beating a path from the height of the Persian Empire established in AD 224 to the rise of the Abbasid caliphate in 750, Holland’s new book traces the process by which the world of the first millennium came to be dominated by one God, three religions and an innumerable succession of emperors.
In a book that challenges most of the first principles of Islamic exceptionalism, Holland portrays the vast Arab empire that was amassed between the River Oxus and the Pyrenees during the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries as “the last, the climactic and the most enduring” in a series of religious and political superstates that came to dominate the world of the Mediterranean and Middle East following the chaotic collapse of the western Roman Empire.
Islam, Holland argues, was not born fully formed with the Prophet as he received God’s revelation in a cave in 610, or when he fled Mecca for Medina around 622. In fact, the religion took nearly two centuries to assume its present form: a strict monotheism supremely loyal to the memory and teachings of its founder, Mohammed, governed by the words of its sacred text, the Koran, and overseen by an alliance of zealous princes and powerful priests.
During those two centuries, Islam and the caliphs took on board almost everything that had been integral to the success of the other emerging faiths and empires of the age: Persian Zoroastrianism, the Christianity of the eastern Romans and Judaism, which lacked a territorial empire but endured by the potency of its teaching throughout Palestine, Arabia and beyond.
From these old models, the Arab conquerors who rode out of the desert to seize North Africa, most of the Iberian Peninsula, the Holy Land, the fertile crescent and virtually everything between the Aral and Arabian seas, gleaned the means by which they, too, could rule the world.
Theologically, this meant the potency of submission to a single God; the doctrinal power of a single, perfect messenger to whom God had revealed himself; the relentless persecution of deviant or cultish forms of religious belief; and, most importantly of all, the enduring reach of a sacred text.
Practically, it suggested other methods to control a wide and variegated people: a legal code in which believers held privileged status; the exultation of warriors who fought in the name of the Almighty; spectacular buildings raised to the glory of God; and the conscious mythologising of great cities as the central hubs of both political power and pilgrimage. (Jerusalem and Constantinople pre-empted Mecca, Medina and Baghdad.)
Countless other aspects of early Islamic power were also borrowed directly from the empires that preceded the caliphates. Whereas the Christian Roman Empire of Justinian had imposed heavy taxes on those who did not worship God, so the Arabs imposed a poll tax (known as the jizya) on Jews and Christians who fell under their rule. The jizya was ascribed to a decree of the Koran. But “the supreme theme of the age,” Holland writes, was “the raising of a new order upon the ruins of the old.”
Holland tells a complex story, dotted with names and places leagues beyond the realm of popular recognition. Yet he makes it unmistakably his own. He is one of the most distinctive prose stylists writing history today, and he drags his tale by the ears, conjuring the half-vanished past with such gusto that characters and places fairly bound from the page. The nuances of ancient theological debate are not glossed over; but they are placed into the context of smelly marketplaces, shimmering palaces and bloodstained battlefields.
Holland is writing, however, about a touchy subject. Among his arguments is that the prevailing notion of Mecca in the age of Mohammed is almost certainly not historically authentic, that our knowledge of the Prophet is uncertain, since nearly all of the information we have concerning his life derives from accounts written centuries after his death and that there were probably variations in early texts of the Koran.
Is this Satanic Verses territory? Holland quotes Salman Rushdie at the very beginning of the book, acknowledging, wryly, another British author who ventured onto the sticky wicket of Islam’s origin myths. But I should be surprised if Holland lands himself in trouble. In the Shadow of the Sword may reach provocative conclusions, but it is also a work of impressive sensitivity and scholarship. Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=38385
* Tom Holland is speaking about his book at the Telegraph Hay Festival.