In The Shadow of the Sword – Book Review 28 August 2012
It is rare that a book on religion in Late Antiquity grabs the headlines, but Tom Holland’s latest work – “In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” is one such book. Evidence of its popular appeal is the recent Channel 4 documentary ‘Islam: The Untold Story’ which followed Holland as he explored the ideas in his work.
Holland’s thesis is controversial – that Islam emerged out of a melting pot of monotheism in the Middle East during antiquity, a melting pot that included Christianity and Judaism. It was only after orthodoxies were set, that a back story was created to give Islam a unique, revolutionary and divine origin. This thesis casts doubt on the established biography of the Prophet Muhammad, recasts the Quran as Judeo-Christian in origin and questions the established history of Islam according to reverential believers.
This revisionist approach to history, particularly the Quran, isn’t new. It follows, to some extent, in the tradition of a previous headline-grabbing study, The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, published by Luxenberg in 2000 (with an English edition released in 2007). It is an attempt to answer the same question posed by Holland; what is the origin of the Quran? Luxenberg’s answer is that the Quran was initially a Christian liturgical text used to evangelise the Arabs of the Hijaz. The argument continues that this originally Syro-Aramaic text was then crudely and amateurishly translated into Arabic, leading to multiple mistranslations. The Syro-Aramaic thesis didn’t get too far in academia however. Even revisionist historians such as Patricia Crone, who herself re-examined the established narratives on early Islam, were scornful of the ‘amateurism’ of the final work.
Holland’s work however is more considered than Luxenberg’s, and notably the Orientalist tropes are absent. Holland is self-aware and critical of his own subjectivity as a historian – a refreshing change from the sometimes positivist approach of historical works for a general audience. The author’s experience and familiarity with fictional novels is also a strength; he understands the power of a good story well told. Weaving history and narrative together, he creates a picture of the pre-medieval world that is intriguing, vivid and engaging. The same talent is visible in the aforementioned documentary, he isn’t shy to recognise the magnetism of a mystery and grand scale of his questions.
In The Shadow of the Sword is not without its faults however.
The old maxim that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence comes to mind. Absence of evidence is a strong theme in Holland’s thesis – an absence that only emerges when oral histories and Muslim sources are disregarded wholesale.
Within this new vast historical vacuum carved out by Holland, he begins to theorise about what may have taken place, and his conclusions are born out of this theorising.
The sign of good study is preciseness and a narrow focus, being able to examine a single point in all its possible conjugations and manifestations before reaching a reliable conclusion. In The Shadow of the Sword is epic in its breadth but is frantic in its pace. This lack of detail leads to an unsatisfactory end, especially considering the sheer scale of his conclusions.
This, to some extent, is expected. Holland’s strength lies in writing history and religion in a way that is accessible to the general public. He is not a specialist, and this allows him to present a big picture, a wide view of history that is more engaging than the nuanced and often mundane focus of academic journals and research papers.
While reading a piece of work written by a generalist, much can be forgiven. The problem however with Holland’s book is that the conclusions are too dramatic to be justified by the level of scholarship. The methodological basis of the work lacks the rigour and comprehensiveness to be convincing. To establish Holland’s thesis securely would require decades of work from dozens of scholars in several fields, each of whom are specialists and established experts.
In many ways, it is akin to Stephen Hawking publishing A Brief History of Time without the preceding groundwork to justify his claims. It doesn’t mean Hawking is wrong about his conclusions, but how could anyone have accepted his discoveries and theories without the supporting journals, papers and years of painstaking work by the many scientists, including Hawking himself, that preceded his final conclusions.
The study of Islamic history has seen many revisionists, but none have significantly changed the way historians have viewed the sixth and seventh centuries. In The Shade of the Sword is unlikely to break ranks in this regard.