With a cast of characters including communism preaching Persian mystics, pillar-topping stylites and warrior-scholars, it’s hard not to be gripped by the grand narrative in Tom Holland’s study of Late Antiquity, In the Shadow of the Sword. Although the book purports to chart the founding of Islam, it does so much more, dissecting the religious and geopolitical history of the Near East from roughly 480 AD to the founding of Baghdad in 762 AD – the glistening capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate. A few of the key themes and motifs are: the cyclical nature of empire, the intertwining of state and monotheistic religion, and the power of the pen.
The birth and rise of monotheism
In essence, Holland examines how the world came to be shaped by the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and, to a certain extent, Zoroastrianism – the state religion of the Sassanid Empire in Ancient Persia. From the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, to the power afforded to Muslim scholars in regulating laws and customs in the Caliphate, monotheistic religion played an increasing role in state-building towards the back end of antiquity.
Holland does a great job of elucidating the tensions between the Abrahamic religions, such as the fundamental differences in scripture and belief, and also carefully analyses what Christianity and Islam, in particular, may have looked like in the centuries following their inception: discordant, tainted by traces of paganism and lacking a guiding central force. He emphasises how scholars and religious figures – bishops, rabbis, ulama – came to be authoritative figures in the age, entrusted to interpret religious texts and guide their flocks in the shadow of the divine.
This ultimately being a work of revisionist history, the author makes some controversial claims. Rather than corroborating thousands of years of Muslim scholarship, he contends – rather convincingly – that Muhammad did not live and prophesise in Mecca, but further north, on the fringes of Transjordan. By carefully constructing the Near East as a cultural melting pot, he also goes on to implicate that Islam emerged as a hybrid religion, and points towards the Quran’s reliance on a whole host of religious sources – both polytheistic and monotheistic – from the region.
‘The story of how Islam came to define itself, and to invent its own past, is only part of a much broader story: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. No other revolution in human thought, perhaps, has done more to transform the world”
I’m a big fan of maps being used as additional sources in popular history books. They help me to visualise where nations and cities are located, and to gain a greater appreciation of regional tensions. I can gladly write that In the Shadow of the Sword is full of them, with maps of Arabia, Iranshahr and The Holy Land, to name but a few examples. In a book that flickers across the world of Late Antiquity, referencing cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Mesopotamia and the Hijaz, they are essential. The timeline of key events and list of dramatis personae, located at the end, are two more key tools to help readers comprehend a text that spans multiple centuries and empires.
My only partial criticisms would be…
- At times the book can feel slightly disjointed (although given its scope, this is somewhat understandable).
- Holland’s syntax can be difficult, with lots of clauses.
- Clearly symptomatic of popular history in general, but, the language was excessively colourful and dramatic in places.