In the Shadow of the Sword
by Tom Holland
Persian Fire, also by Tom Holland was one of my earlier reviews, my third one actually. I hope this review is a little more in-depth then that one. Let me start by talking about Tom Holland the writer. Mr. Holland is a English born writer, born near Oxford and educated in Cambridge (receiving a double first in Latin and English, which means graduating with honors for us Americans). He lives in London with his wife and daughters, and is known for being an avid Cricket fan. Mr. Holland is a prolific writer with over 11 books to his credit, a play, 2 documentaries and a translation of Herodotus: The Historians (and I was proud of hitting 60 reviews). One of those documentaries “Islam: the Untold Story” is roughly based on this book. When it was shown in England it provoked over 1000 complaints to the channel that showed it and a number of death threats against Mr. Holland. Now I'm not going to pretend that death threats are a Muslim only thing. A brief google search of Christian death threats makes that embarrassing clear (As a Christian, guys don't send in death threats because someone said something you didn't like, not only it is wrong but it frankly makes me wonder if you even read the New Testament). That said, if you're going to be part of the 21st century you're going to have to get used to people believing and saying things you don't like, well at least if you want in on the good parts of the 21st century. I think I'll leave the discussion on death threats at that. Let's get to the book, you know, the reason we're all here right?
In the Shadow of the Sword starts with a very basic thesis. See, the standard history about the formation of Islam is that Muhammad, a merchant from Mecca received a visitation from the angel Gabriel in a cave and as a result began having visions. Those visions became the basis for the Quran, the holy book of Islam which he would recite to his companions who wrote it down (or passed it on to people who did). The basic agreement is that the Quran was received whole and unchanged from Gabriel as the final revelation of God and has been unchanged since that time. It's one of the things that makes Muhammad unique among holy figures. Unlike Jesus or Buddha, who despite being the founders of their faiths were dead, or at least no longer among the living, when the holy texts of their faiths were written, Muhammad or at least his companions were still alive. Mr. Holland argues that may not actually be the case. He argues that the traditions and stories that have grown up around the Quran and the Hadiths might actually not stretch back to the founder of Islam. Additionally he goes so far as to suggest that the Quran was not written as early as we've all been led to think. In fact, much like the New Testament it might have been assembled by scholars who only really begun the project once the events of Muhammad's life had passed beyond living memory.
First however, Mr. Holland takes us on a tour of the world that would develop Muhammad and followers. This means of course taking look at the middle of late antiquity, when the middle east was divided between two great, but today nearly forgotten superpowers: the Persian Empire and the Byzantine (or Roman if you prefer) Empire. On one side the Christianized Roman Empire, having lost the western half of the Empire but still one of the greatest powers in the world. It was a centralized, bureaucratic state with a state army. Of course in the early days of Christianity, what it meant to be a Christian was up for negotiation. The nature of Jesus, the trinity, what books were going to be in the New Testament. Whether or not there was going to be a New Testament, all of these things had to be hashed out and often it was a messy and at times violent process. On top of this already complicated and muddled process was the working of the Roman state, whose Emperors were determined to exercise some control over this process and ensure that whatever came out of the other side of it was something that would mesh with the Roman government be of use to them. This wasn't always a process dominated by political goals however, the vast majority of the men (and back then I am sorry to say it was a discussion where only male voices were really welcomed) involved did hold an honest and deep belief in the doctrines they were arguing for. Many of them were willing to die or face life long exile rather than believe anything else. Frankly that is one of the reasons that the process was so complicated and bloody in the first place. Now, because this isn't complicated and layered enough, everyone involved was also trying to hash out what makes a Christian not a Jew. Today that seems a silly question, as it takes but a few minutes to outline the border between the two deeply related but very different faiths. Back then however, there were Christian Jews and Jewish Christians and that's not two ways of saying the same thing. Not that the Christian Bishops were the only ones involved here, the Jewish Rabbis were fully part of the project of creating a clear distinct border between the two faiths and ensuring that they would stay separate. Honestly I feel this is a subject that merits a book all on it's own but moving on.
We also have the Persian Empire, which at the time was dominated by Zoroastrian faith. I've always had a low-level fascination with that religion, which amazingly still exists in Northern India and eastern Iran even today. Like in Rome, the Persian Monarchs had identified themselves with a single faith and were more than willing to use it shore up royal authority. That authority is something they might have needed more then the Romans, because their empire was feudal in nature with great families able to raise their own empires ensuring that a cycle of civil wars would dominate Persian politics. The Zoroastrian priests would preach that the Persian Empire itself was a religious object, an expression of the order of the universe, uniquely blessed by God to uphold the divine order. Stop me when I get to something you haven't heard before. The Romans would do the same of course and like the Romans, the Persians were surrounded by hostile barbarians constantly testing the strength of the empire's defenses, hungry for a chance at the wealth behind those defenses.
We also are shown the other religions of the time. Like the Samaritans; who prayed toward Jerusalem, refused to eat pork, and declared there is no God but God and Moses is his prophet. Or the many prophet lead rebellions within Persia, many of them preaching a utopia where true believers came together and shared their resources and abilities so that no one was hungry or in need. Paganism held on in the corners and forgotten places of the region, despite the best efforts of authorities in both empires. Each of these groups in turn rebels and upon losing scatter into the desert. Mr. Holland also shows us the Arabs in their pre-Islamic state, looked down upon as barbarians but used by both empires as border troops to try and prevent raids on their homes. The two rival federations fought across the centuries and decades with a savagery that would be legendary in it's own right. All the more savage for the religious elements the struggle took on. The Arabs who took Persia's money turned to paganism, to the point of human sacrifice. The Arabs who took Roman coin, converted to Christianity. To put it bluntly the Middle East was seething with religious upheaval and political instability (something I'm sure no one today can envision the Middle East being like) and the wide feeling that an age was coming to an end. Mr. Holland shows us this vivid, brilliant, brutal world that teemed with ideas, faiths and loyalties. Then he shows us the end of that world.
Like most things, it started small. Insect small, as fleas carried by rats on trade ships brought plague to Egypt. From Egypt it spreads across the Roman world and from there into Persia. As many as one out of 3 died. Entire cities are left as ghost towns, whole provinces hollowed out and left barely inhabited. Both empires only held on through the unceasing work of talented and ruthless men determined not let this be the last chapter of their civilizations; even as the empires began to claw their way back from the abyss, ambition, fear and greed combine to throw those civilizations back in. The Emperor of Persia, feeling that his hold on the throne is frail and may be slipping, decided to throw the dice and go for broke. He summoned up his armies and crashed into an exhausted Roman Empire. It looked as if the long feud might finally be over but the Roman Emperor was not a man of small gifts. Having scraped up a tiny army, he lead his men into the heartland of Persia and attacked the temples of Zoroaster, destroying them and attacking at the very heart of the Persian Emperor's power. It's an insane gamble that worked, and Persia fell apart into civil war. The Roman Army staggered home believing that now, at last there is time to heal and rebuild. The End of Days had been averted. Then from the desert come the (now Muslim) Arabs. They hit like a mailed fist through glass, Persia collapsed and Rome was reduced to a rump state fighting to hold on to the provinces in Anatolia. The Arabs had risen from a barbarian people on the margins to the masters of the civilized world.
But how is this world to be governed? What is it that makes a Muslim? What makes a Muslim different from a Christian or a Jew? What is the position of the Commander of the Faithful? Does he speak for God? Who can judge him? These are the problems of victory that the Muslims had to grapple with. Where the Caliphs believed they had the answer (that they clearly were chosen by God to be the ultimate authority) the scholars of Islam had different ideas. On top of this come in the newly converted Persians, Syrians, Egyptians and more, all of whom are pushing for their own rights within this new society. From the bottom come the masses of slaves that the Muslim Arabs took as god-given plunder. They converted and began adding their own input into what Islam should be. It was in this environment that the first written records of Islamic civilization begin to filter out, over a century after Muhammad's death. Tracing those records and discussing the context and conflicts between those records leads Mr. Holland and the scholars whose research he used to a conclusion that the Quran is not quite what we've been led to believe. That instead it was a project that took place over a sustained period of time and was the result of intense debate within the Islamic community over what God’s will actually was.
As I mentioned earlier, I am a Christian, so clearly I don't believe that Muhammad was visited by Gabriel and I don't believe the Quran to be divinely inspired. That said, I am also well aware of the nature of the New Testament's assembly and how intensely debated it was, so frankly I'm very comfortable with the idea of a Holy Text being the result of the work of men. Whether this case would convince a Muslim, I will leave to the actual Muslims. To be honest I can't help but feel this is a conversation that the followers of Islam should be having, not us non-Muslim westerners but let's be honest: this is a conservation that can't be held by most Muslims. Not when voicing such ideas in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran is likely to get you jailed or doing so in Egypt or Jordan will get you murdered. Maybe in the future however. There is always hope for a more open and free world, after all. As I read this book, I was reminded of a saying that has stuck with me. Faith is about God, but religion is and always has been about Man. Mr. Holland certainly argues that case here.
Mr. Holland gives us a grand tour of the world that gave birth to Islam and to the forces in the early Arab empire that struggled to define Islam in the wake of it's great victories. I'm not entirely sure that I can rate Mr. Holland's thesis as proven but he certainly makes a bold case worthy of discussion. If you're interested in the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia; if you're interested in the history of the Middle East; or if you want to know more about the history of Christianity, Judaism, or even about the other religions that roamed across the God Haunted sands of the middle east then this book is for you. I learned a lot and the imagery and thoughts in this book are going to stay with me. For these reasons I give In the Shadow of the Sword an A.
Next week, brace yourselves! For we going to have a clash. Because the report has come in and it's VADER DOWN!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.