Book report: In the Shadow of the Sword

As I mentioned in my post On buying books at full price, a few weeks ago, I acquired a copy of Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, and was having fun with it.

It continued to be great fun, all the way through. I recommend it highly. But not casual fun, I would say, so be ready.

An earlier book of his, Persian Fire, for example, was a coherent, dramatic story, about the attempted Persian conquest of Greece, and the failure of that attempt. Shadow is, by contrast, the story of a gigantic historic turning point, one whose origins have been obscured, both deliberately and accidentally: the end of Persian and Roman/Hellenistic culture in the eastern Mediterranean and the emergence of the Islamic civilization that has dominated that region ever since. Be ready for a wide variety of Roman Emperors, Persian Shahs, rebellious Parthian noblemen, Jewish exegetes, and caliphs, most of whom have one reason or another for modifying history in support of their own legitimacy. Holland's ability to organize vast masses of contradictory and incomplete material and form it into a structure that is both fun to read and clear about what is known and what isn't is phenomenal.

This period, the fifth and sixth centuries, has become interestingly popular to write about lately.  Late Antiquity is hot. I'm not sure whether this says anything about our historical moment or not. In the early seventh century the Romans finally defeated their great opponent, the Persian Empire, only to have a third force burst out of the southern wastelands, annihilate the remnants of Persia completely, and come close to destroying the Roman Empire as well. Maybe Americans, having knocked out their own great opponent in the Soviet Union, ar looking around nervously for who might pop up unexpectedly to challenge them, and so become interested in another historical example. Or it might just be the result of the great amount of useful work in archeology, epigraphy, and a range of other disciplines that seems to be redrawing the intellectual map of this period.

Holland does use a similar structure to Persian Fire for this book, starting with a description of the crux situation, then going back to show how each of the players came to be in that decisive situation, and finally showing what the aftermath was. First he deals with one monotheistic bureaucratic empire, that of Persia, then he shows you the other monotheistic bureaucratic empire, the Roman (with its capital now in Constantinople, since the western part of the empire fell away in the fifth century), then he tells you something about Jewish intellectual developments. Then he shows you who those Arabs were, and how they came to challenge both those great powers.

And, all the way, he shows you how dicey, contradictory, and purely fictional the historical documents we have are. Relatively new temples and practices quickly develop a supposedly long pedigree. We should always be tentative in accepting our sources at face value.

Some of this is because the creators of a religion are not the ones who codify it. How much do you want an individual achieve? You want Jesus to both die for your sins and decide what to do with Gentiles who want to join the church? You want Mohammed to simultaneously bring a new revelation and give rules for managing the vast empire that spreads after his death? Transformative revelation and day-to-day life rules sit uncomfortably together, and the person who provides the first is seldom the one who codifies the latter. So someone comes along later, cleans up a few contradictory documents, grabs some useful practices from the conquered, retrospectively creates a tradition, and makes it all a neat package, useful for export. So it was with the new Islamic state religion. It turns out that there is little evidence of what the first centuries of Muslims actually believed, but plenty of things from later that claim to reflect what had been originally believed. There are a lot of interesting signs of where various early Islamic beliefs and practices came from, and it wasn't from Mohammed. No one seems to have issued a fatwa against Holland, however.

Holland takes a complex and difficult subject and untangles the strands so that you can examine each one individually before seeing how they all fit together. And impressive and intellectually satisfying accomplishment. Just be ready to do your work.