Little, Brown £25, 527pp. £21.25 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

In The Shadow of the Sword, By Tom Holland


This is a book of extraordinary richness. I found myself amused, diverted and enchanted by turn. For Tom Holland has an enviable gift for summoning up the colour, the individuals and animation of the past, without sacrificing factual integrity. He writes with a contagious conviction that history is not only a fascinating tale in itself but is a well-honed instrument with which we can understand our neighbours and our own times, maybe even ourselves. He is also a divertingly inventive writer with a wicked wit – there's something of both Gibbon and Tom Wolfe in his writing. Thus Theoderic... "for all the sheen of his classical education... had been given to murdering courtiers with his own hands, and sporting a moustache." I also relished the description of a shaman "vomiting up revelations".

He possesses a falcon eye for detail, whether it's the royal Sassanian battle flag as it advances north towards its doom into the steppes of Central Asia, or the reported vision of the Avar Khan who knew Constantinople would survive his assault after he saw its walls defended by the Virgin Mary "a woman alone in decorous dress", or how Rabbinical scholars recommended anointing the scalp with the blood of a dead rooster as a cure against migraine. We catch a glimpse of a workaholic Byzantine Emperor burning the midnight oil in the recesses of his administrative palace just as we witness the repulsive retching death spasms suffered by the victims of the 6th-century bubonic plague. But Holland can also do the far horizons in a few telling brush strokes, skillfully colouring in our mental map of 'barbarian Western Europe' with Ostrogoths, Vandals, Franks and Visigoths.

The ostensible subject at the heart of In the Shadow of the Sword is the sudden and totally unexpected rise of the Arab Empire of the Caliphate in the seventh century. Holland charts its emergence out of the two Empires that preceded it: the Byzantine Empire of the eastern Mediterranean and the Sassanian Empire of Persia and Mesopatamia. To disentangle the nature of these two very particular states, Holland looks back over the centuries to identify their different spiritual legacies and political dynamics. But the core of the narrative starts in 480 AD and takes us on a roller–coaster of an adventure, ending with the mutually assured destruction of each others territory by Heraclius and Khusrow, which allows for the sudden emergence of an Arab Empire in around 650 AD. Over the next hundred years the Caliphate expands its dominions, indulges in civil war and gradually defines itself around a new culture. Holland's end date is around 750 AD – with the failure of the last great Arab attempt to storm Constantinople, the fall of the Ummayad dynasty (centred on Damascus) and the emergence of the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad. This is an understandable end-date for another reason, for this is when paper replaced parchment and when the first great Arab chronicles were penned, not to mention the vast corpus of Hadith sayings and Koranic exegesis by a new class of literate Muslim jurists.

But running like a stream of molten lava beneath the narrative of Holland's history is an even more intriguing story. This is a history of the history as it were, telling how the warrior-dominated Empires of Antiquity were transformed into the first monotheistic states; how the old inclusive conquest states, with their comparatively simple desire for submission and tribute were replaced by states which imposed systems of total belief and demanded exclusive loyalty. As Holland reveals this was a slow, incremental achievement by literate and inventive clerics, teachers and jurists. On the one hand they are heroes, proving to the world that the pen is mightier than the sword, building a world dominated by passionate beliefs, schools, hospices and hospitals (rather than theatres, fora and amphitheatres) but they are also the villains, the crabby, jealous, legalistic men who forge prisons from the bricks of religion. We observe the Eastern Roman Empire morphing itself into Byzantium, first with the closure of the last pagan temples and schools of philosophy, then with a slow tightening of the definitions of Christian Orthodoxy, which will progressively condemn Jews and Samaritans before advancing to exclude the so-called Arian, Monophysite or Nestorian churches. In the same period the Talmudic schools of Mesopotamia create modern Judaism and Sassanian Iran becomes the homeland of a national, priest-ridden Zoroastrian orthodoxy. Many of its rituals, the habit of five daily prayers, of an obsessive dental hygiene and intolerance of dissent (which led to the martyrdom of such a God-loving individual as the prophet Mani) will be grafted into early Islam. This is wonderful, hard-hitting analysis, elegantly tied into the unfolding narrative of events, with each religious establishment exposed in all its glory and treacherous realpolitik.

Holland has also set himself a third task, as judge of the traditional Muslim narrative. He explains that the traditional story of Islamic origins and the life of the Prophet was only written down a hundred years after the events occurred, and was edited by writers whose primary motivation was theological, and who needed to ground their own political and legal innovations by creating retrospective case history. This is true enough, and as he also demonstrates this happened all over the ancient world, but the craft of the historian is to surely sift and winnow, not to throw the baby out with the bath-water. But instead of interpreting the traditions, Holland follows the brilliant, challenging ideas that Patricia Crone threw into the goldfish bowl of Islamic scholarship a few decades ago to stir things. In essence the full deconstructionist interpretation of nascent Islam denies the existence of pre-Islamic Mecca, tries to divide the Prophet Muhammad into two characters (along the obvious fault line of the different tone of the revelations from Mecca and Medina) and imagines early Islam as a Jewish-Christian heresy aspiring to conquer the Holy Land. They also tend to site non-Muslim sources in preference to anything that can be seen to have been composed in Abbasid Baghdad. But interestingly enough, Holland's vivid selection of non-Muslim texts all prove broadly supportive of the traditional narrative of events – even the most remarkable chance find of them all, a humble receipt for sheep paid over to a very early Arab military detachment operating in Egypt.

Despite this, Holland keeps rigidly to the deconstructionist interpretation, indeed pushes out the boundaries with some rather wild suggestions, such as placing the original homeland of Islam in a base-camp on the desert borders of Palestine, not to mention the creation of Mecca by an Ummayyad Caliph. I was intrigued to read these suggestions, but ultimately unconvinced. Take the issue of Mecca as an example. We know that the ritual actions of the Meccan Haj are pagan in origin, and can usefully be compared to the survival of other pagan rituals in this period, such as at Harran. No-one interested in creating a brand new, pure Islamic cult centre in the middle of the Arabian desert would have instituted ritual actions connected with the annual commemoration of the death and rebirth of the great Goddess! And of course the geographical location of Mecca allows us to understand the many Ethiopian and Red Sea influences that have been discerned in the language of the Koran. Even with these slight flaws In the Shadow of the Sword remains a spell-bindingly brilliant multiple portrait of the triumph of monotheism in the ancient world.

Barnaby Rogerson's latest book is 'The Heirs Of The Prophet Muhammad: And The Roots Of The Sunni-Shia Schism'

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