Book review/recommendation

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Sword

Though we do not recommend the book reviewed here, this review by an Arabist from SOAS gives us an interesting insight into how historians can spin yarns about Islamic history which fit very comfortably into their Western orientalist mindset.

In today’s London Evening Standard:

In the Shadow of the Sword: the battle for global empire and the end of the ancient world 
by Tom Holland
(Little, Brown, £25)

Memory is a double-edged sword in the human consciousness. We relish, and even idolise, memories of the past, but we often overlook memory’s enduring partner: forgetfulness. Our memories are rife with deliberate amnesia, and history, at best, is a selective remembrance. Historians edit and repackage the past, sometimes invidiously omitting those “inconvenient truths” which could upset their preferred interpretations. Memory’s imperfect fabric is the platform from which Tom Holland plunges into the story of the rise of Islam in his latest book, In the Shadow of the Sword.

Ostensibly, Islam was born “in the light of history” — the details of Islam’s origins and rapid expansion in the Near East purportedly have been faithfully remembered by the Muslim tradition. But Holland questions whether Islam’s version of history can be trusted: after all, most Arabic primary sources were written some centuries after Muhammad and naturally were subject to the selective biases of Muslim historians and theologians. In a direct challenge to the tradition’s authenticity, Holland marshals alternative sources, principally Byzantine and Persian, to explore how others saw Islam’s rise and he weaves a complex historical critique into a dramatic narrative.

He deftly navigates the vast array of unfamiliar names, sects and languages of the Near East between AD 400 and 750, and strikes a narrative course towards startling conclusions. Holland argues that Muhammad did not originate from Mecca, the first generations of Muslims were not called Muslims at all, and the entire enterprise of Islam emerged from a particular mix of ethnic, religious and historical conditions in that specific time and space. For Holland, Islam was a logical response to the zeitgeist, far from a miraculous spiritual revelation in Arabia.

Given Islam’s central position in the current political limelight, revisionist historians will eagerly consume this bold foray into its origins, but readers must be cautious when drawing conclusions. Holland is not so cautious in his writing. He commences with the usual historian’s caveat that his interpretations are only tentative, but his tenacious style and judicious selection of evidence radically revise history with the self-assurance and inspiring logic of a barrister in closing argument.

Absent, however, is the case of opposing counsel. Over the past century, the Muslim tradition has been challenged by many academics and it has proven remarkably resilient in its own defence. It is an imperfect record, but the Muslim account of history, the textual integrity of the Koran and the mnemonic capacity of oral traditions are more robust than Holland gives them credit. The Muslim narrative is biased towards its particular version of history but few scholars today would claim it was entirely fabricated. Holland would have done better to adopt a cautious and sensitive approach to the Arabic sources, rather than abandoning them in favour of a sensational rewriting of history.

Ultimately, Holland’s work is another selective recollection of the past, carefully constructed according to his own revisionist agenda. To demonstrate his thesis of Islam’s organic development, he deliberately crafts a vision of Late Antiquity into which Islam fits as the perfect jigsaw piece, smoothly caressing all the contours of the contemporary intellectual, spiritual, economic and political circumstances. His story requires wholesale creative reinterpretation (he curiously imagines the pre-Islamic Ghassanid Arabs as Christian holy warriors), as well as various omissions of inconvenient truths which gainsay his historical reconstruction (in denying Mecca’s initial importance, he overlooks the fifth Caliph Mu’awiya’s early inscription near Mecca).

Holland’s alternative explanation of the “real” origins of Islam falls short of its objective. A prodigiously lucid historical narrative, such as Holland’s, which boldly claims to recover the true past, constructs a bridge too far. Once elapsed, the events of history survive in memory only as kernels of recollection, relentlessly eroded by the ravages of time and endlessly reinterpreted as tastes and agendas of historians change.

Holland’s book is entertaining reading and interesting food for thought, but does not cogently unearth a hitherto concealed cachet of truth. To paraphrase an old warning, “Beware of historians bearing the truth”! They are but forgetful storytellers, spinning yarns of bygone times.

Peter Webb teaches Arabic and classical Arabic literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

5 replies »

  1. Rather interesting interview with Tom Holland in this weeks ‘New Statesman’ magazine where he is thoroughly (but politely) embarrassed on his assumptions about Islam’s origins.

    He also admits to seeing Patricia Crohn as a ‘giant’ in the field and borrowing from her extensively. Methinks he has overstepped his limited area of expertise and has engaged in a little ‘Neo – Orientalism’.

  2. Just another attempt to discredit this great religion, with the only holy book to hold the test of time, read it for yourself don’t let others tell you!!!

    • Rashid claims the Qu’ran is “the only holy book to hold the test of time…” . Paul Williams sees no value in recommending what he presumably perceives as a challenge to his convictions. I feel sure the reviewer Peter Webb, being an educator, wouldn’t condone either form of vanity. What else is the test of time but a slow ongoing argument with oneself conducted with an open mind?

      I can see no inherent virtue in being enslaved by an immovable unchanging object Rashid, but then I am not in thrall to a supernatural concept of perfection. To me perfection is in the end boring, human frailties are what makes life interesting. I accept my share of ignorance because I am human and welcome the opportunity to chip away at its edges when I have the time and inclination. I ‘ll read ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’, in my imperfect way and come to my imperfect conclusions, but I won’t bore you with them, I promise.

      • Well said Gabriel, can’t agree more. Too much of anything, for instance, certainty about anything, let us say, is the road sign that says “you have just started….”

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