Monday, September 02, 2013

Tom Holland's account of the origins of Islam: "In the Shadow of the Sword"

Last year, I reviewed Islam: the Untold Story, a television show on the origins of Islam hosted by the author Tom Holland. I thought that Holland’s revisionist thesis didn’t quite convince, although the show was well worth watching. I’ve now gotten around to reading Holland’s book upon which he based the show: In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.

To recap, the traditional story of Mohammad’s life and early Islam, as recounted in many books (not all of which are by Karen Armstrong), is usually presented as strictly factual. Even if we discount the angel Gabriel dictating the Koran, we supposedly know lots about Mohammad’s activities, trade, family and sayings. We know he was born in Mecca, fled to Medina and later returned to Mecca in triumph. Many people imagine that all this information is set out in the Koran itself. But, of course, it isn’t. The Koran is nothing like the Hebrew or Christian scriptures. It contains almost no history or biography. Almost all the facts about Mohammad’s life come from biographies written a couple of hundred years later. Given that Mark’s Gospel was written only 40 years after Jesus’ death and historians have not been able to agree on how much of it is factual, it is odd that there isn’t more scepticism about the activities of Mohammad. When we actually subject the sources to criticism, we find we know almost nothing about him or what he said.

Holland sets out all this background in an exhilarating first chapter. In fact, like a Bond film with a fantastic pre-credits sequence, the rest of In the Shadow of the Sword never quite hits these heights again. That’s not to say the rest of the book isn’t a good read. The last couple of chapters are also excellent. It’s just there does seem to be a lot of padding in between.

The need for padding isn’t Holland’s fault. His aim is to explain the rise of Islam in the context of the clash of the Roman and Persian empires during Late Antiquity. He doesn’t use the later Islamic sources on Mohammad’s life at all: this is history based on contemporary and third-party sources, just like it ought to be. But since Holland is writing for laypeople, he has to present a vast amount of background material in order for his story to make sense. It’s a sad reflection on British education (and the decline of western civilisation in general) that Holland cannot assume his readers will have already read Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in its entirety. He can’t even assume that they’ve read John Julius Norwich’s History of Byzantium. Hence the padding.

Still, there is lots of interesting stuff here. Holland has constructed his narrative with great skill to ensure that we absorb the points that he will bring up again later when he covers the rise of Islam. Thus, we learn about the rabbinical schools of Sura and Pumpedita; the origin of the Zoroastrian scriptures; and the Arab mercenaries of the Caesars and Sassanids. Only then does Holland serve up the main course on how Islam came to be.

The strange thing is that the television show seemed a lot more radical than the book does. Holland’s account of Islam’s rise is revisionist only in the sense that it reads like ordinary history. There’s nothing flaky here. Mohammad existed and he wrote the Koran pretty much as we have it today. He based himself at Medina and won lots of Arabs over to his cause. Then they poured out of Arabia, conquered the Persian Empire and almost destroyed the Byzantines as well. That’s not to say Holland’s account of the formation of Islamic orthodoxy in the ninth century isn’t fascinating stuff. The tensions between the Caliphs and the conquered Zoroastrians, both of whom tried to construct a model of Islam to suit themselves, are beautifully explicated. And if all this sounds like the battles over Trinitarianism in the fourth century, that’s a parallel that Holland is keen to bring out.

Holland’s most striking scepticism is about the location of Mecca. He presents a good deal of circumstantial evidence that Mecca was chosen as the central shrine of Islam by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik in the 690s. This location, we’re told, was well to the south of the House of God identified in the Koran. In other words, Mohammad didn’t come from Mecca and had probably never even heard of the place. The trouble with this thesis is that Holland makes it quite clear that everyone knew perfectly well where the House of God originally was. He doesn’t provide a particularly compelling reason why Abd al-Malik moved it south or any slam-dunk evidence that it was moved at all.

Overall, In the Shadow of the Sword is a book that anyone interested in the origins of Islam must read. It’s enjoyable and well written (although Holland’s rather arch style of prose can be a little tiresome at times). That it is also an outsider’s perspective on a complex subject is one of its strengths as well as a disadvantage. It is a shame there is very little else, outside the specialist academic literature and Islamic apologetics, that we can turn to for an alternative perspective.

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