Faith that moved mountains

In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World by Tom Holland, Little, Brown, RRP£25, 526 pages

Tom Holland, author of Rubicon (2004) and Persian Fire (2006), is perhaps the only writer of popular ancient history to whom the adjective “bestselling” can be accurately applied. His modus operandi is big juicy topics with a strong whiff of contemporary relevance. A new book from Holland is a big event for publishers and booksellers alike, particularly when its subject is the thorny issue of the origins of Islam.

In fact, despite the publicity hype that has sought to clad this book in the lucrative cloak of controversy, Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword is a characteristically eloquent and necessarily broad-brush study of the rise of monotheism in the eastern Mediterranean and Near-East from the third to seventh centuries AD. It is the epic saga of how the Christianity, Judaism and Islam we know today were all products of a radical re-ordering of the religious landscape of the ancient world – a revolution predicated on the existence of one universal all-powerful deity. This was an epoch marked by seismic religious, cultural and political changes as the old world order of the warring empires of Persia and Constantinople found themselves swept aside by the seemingly unstoppable new force of Islam.

Holland introduces us to the agents of this revolution: often brilliant minds whose weapon of choice was the pen rather than the sword. In a whirlwind tour, we meet Jewish scholars heroically toiling to preserve the very existence of their community in its Babylonian exile through the creation of the Talmud, a written record of rabbinic learning on an extraordinarily wide range of issues (including a cure for migraines that required the pouring of the blood of a dead rooster over the sufferer’s scalp). In Persia, we are introduced to the fire-worshipping Zoroastrian priesthood opportunistically using the first-ever transcription of the mathra, the word of God, to promote themselves as the equal partners, rather than subordinates, of the previously all-powerful king. Finally, in the Roman empire, we witness ingenious Christian theologians bringing the interests of the earthly and celestial kingdoms into perfect alignment, and presenting increasingly acquiescent emperors with the seductive mantra of “One Emperor, One God”.

Yet, as Holland points out, the flipside of the longed-for certainties that all this brilliance and inventiveness engendered was an irreversible diminution in the religious horizons of both the Roman and Persian worlds. In the Roman empire, those whose beliefs did not fit into the increasingly rigid parameters of what constituted orthodox imperial Christianity found themselves on the receiving end of increasing intolerance and persecution. In the sixth centuries AD this depressing inability to accommodate any religious dissent, real or imagined, was further exacerbated by decades of resource-sapping, futile on/off warfare between the Roman and Persian empires.

A new and potent force, that to many contemporaries appeared to have sprung from nowhere, would ruthlessly exploit the resultant power vacuum. To the cultivated Roman or Persian eye, the Arabs were indeed from nowhere: the howling deserts and wildernesses that sat brooding on the fringes of the civilised world. Yet within a century or so their armies had managed to conquer much of the eastern Roman empire, bringing about the total collapse of Persia – a vast area that included Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and the Levant. What was the secret of their success? The Arab scholars who two centuries later picked over these tumultuous events knew the answer. It lay in the teaching of the great prophet Mohammed whose divine revelations had given the Arabs “the courage and sheer self-confidence to go eyeball-to-eyeball with their former masters”.

For Holland, however, the story of Islam’s emergence in the isolation of the deserts around Mecca, hermeneutically sealed and unsullied by all previous religious experience, will simply not do. Taking his cue from the sceptical scholarship that has long predominated in some academic circles, Holland argues that the extensive body of exegetical, legal and historical texts written by Islamic scholars under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad in the 8th and 9th centuries AD – the main traditional sources for early Islam – reflect the concerns and agendas of the period in which they were written, rather than the earlier times they claim to faithfully record. “History, unlike faith,” Holland states perhaps a little too piously, “cannot be built upon foundations of sand.”

Yet once the blinkers of revisionism and hindsight are thrown off, the author has little difficulty finding the good solid bedrock on which a history of early Islam can be constructed. He argues that the Romans and Persians would have found much that was familiar in the theocratic pronouncements of the Arab invaders. For what they were listening to were their own words and ideas, reworked and repackaged for a different age and audience. The relationship between the nascent Islam and the empires that it overran was never a simple case of the supplanting of the old with the new. For Holland, early Islam was forged in a religious and cultural melting pot where Persian Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism and Gnosticism were all common currency, all which it liberally borrowed from.

In the Shadow of the Sword is an exhilarating read because Holland succeeds in capturing much of the excitement, strangeness and importance of a long past age – albeit one with a very contemporary resonance. It is difficult not to be bedazzled by a cast that includes ulcerated Christian holy men, Zoroastrian priests obsessed with dental hygiene, demonic emperors, barbarians with self-inflicted cranial deformities, perfumed Persian monarchs and Arab ambassadors stinking of camel.

At times, Holland’s ultra-sceptical line on the genesis of Islam means that he undercuts his own argument. Take, for example, his thesis that Islam hailed from what is now Jordan, rather than the desert fastness of Mecca. Good evidence exists from pre-Islamic texts that Mecca was already a holy site. And if much of the history of early Islam is fabricated, then how to explain the consensus that exists across a range of texts from bitterly opposed sectarian communities (Sunni, Shia, etc)? Do we really believe that an entire community invested in this vast lie about the prophet, and that somehow some shadowy force was able to control all dissenting opinion within Arab circles?

One of the most striking lessons to emerge from Holland’s study is the power of the written word to transform communities and foster dialogue. My fear is that in taking such a sceptical and confrontational approach there is a danger that In the Shadow of the Sword will merely end up preaching to the converted and that its important message about the shared roots of three of the great world religions will otherwise fall on deaf ears.

Richard Miles is author of ‘Ancient Worlds: The Search for the Origins of Western Civilization’ (Penguin)

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