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It was all so unimaginably different/ And all so long ago: Tom Holland’s In The Shadow of the Sword

I loved Rubicon and Persian Fire (though I have so far neglected to read Millennium) but think In the Shadow of the Sword is possibly better still.  It’s written with panache, it’s full of pungent detail, and it succeeds in bringing some complex and perhaps comparatively unfamiliar historical events to life. Although it’s got narrative drive in spades, it’s not just telling a story either – there are plenty of ideas in play here, some more clearly displayed on the surface than others perhaps.

Holland’s decision to take Muhammad and the rise of the Islam as his subject has attracted a good deal of attention.  The first review I read, in the Spectator, dwelt on Holland’s bravery in tackling such a controversial topic. (This no longer seems to be available online.) The Guardian’s review, infuriatingly, accused Holland of irresponsibility (a slippery word).  This piece was picked up by Loonwatch, where I was brought to agree in the comment section (it’s nice to agree about something after all) that perhaps the title was a little bit provocative.

Now that I’ve read the book, I’ve changed my mind. The title is fine.  I have my suspicions that those who have picked up the book because they are interested in Islam (whether ’phobes or ’philes) will have read the opening chapter, suddenly realized that Holland has stopped talking about Mohammed, and skipped or skimmed the next 250 pages or so in order to get to Section 3, ‘Hijra’.

I assume the Guardian reviewer wasn’t this slack, but his assertion that the book begins with an ‘irrelevant’ anecdote suggests a failure to engage fully with Holland’s project. This anecdote is a brief account of an Arab King, whose treatment of Christians is summed up in this horrifying account of how he dealt with a woman who challenged him:

[He] ordered her daughter and granddaughter killed before her, their blood poured down her throat, and then her own head to be sent flying.

A few lines later we learn of his dramatic death by drowning. ‘So perished Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar: the last Jewish king ever to rule in Arabia.’

This can reasonably be said to set the tone – or one tone – for the book.  Holland is described as challenging Islamic exceptionalism in the Telegraph review, meaning, I suppose, that he is treating Islam from the point of view of a secular historian.  But he is also challenging another kind of ‘Islamic exceptionalism’, that which sees Islam as a uniquely menacing force, menacing partly because of the way it meshes politics, religion and conquest together.  One of the things Holland seems to be doing, quite deliberately, is challenging that view of Islam, presenting it as more of the same rather than a completely new departure.  (I nearly titled this post ‘432 pages of handwringing and whataboutery: I loved it’. )  Readers who read the final section out of context won’t appreciate this of course.  Holland presents us with waves of invaders, of barbarians – and of barbarians who begin to settle down but are then themselves harried by new barbarians.  And so, an infinitum. ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’ may be a quote from a hadith, but Holland demonstrates that Islam most certainly had no monopoly on aggression in late antiquity.

The reader is encouraged, for example, to remember that as Rome’s power decayed, Saracens weren’t the only scary invaders causing havoc at the borders of the empire.  Up North, Scandinavian Berserkers were creating similar terror. Holland also repeatedly demonstrates that Jews, Christians and Muslims have all used the same strategies to shore up their pretensions – whether that’s rewriting the past (the creation of the Talmud, the selection of the canonical Gospels and the establishment of the Hadiths are described in similar terms) or crushing their enemies with pitiless violence.  Christianity is at times invoked as an alarming, alien force, which treated pagani either with brutality or contempt, as though deliberately echoing the way Islam is so often characterised.

Holland is particularly vigilant about reminding the reader that it was the norm rather than the exception to see temporal and religious power as bound up together, and the boundaries between all three faiths are also shown to have been highly permeable. The discussion of the Arian heresy, for example, could (though I don’t think Holland spells this out) remind us that even some Christians have viewed Christ not so very differently from Muslims.  Other faiths are brought in to muddy the waters further – Holland is, I assume, making a little point when he points out that the Samaritans scorned other faiths because they ‘neglect[ed] the principal duty of humanity: due submission to God’ (p.220). The chapter called ‘Making the deserts bloom’ describes the Arabs’ skill at cultivating oases.  Etc.

Holland’s interrogation of orthodoxy on the subject of Muhammad’s origins, his suggestion that Mecca’s significance in the birth of Islam may be a later fabrication, has troubled some readers. Loonwatch gloomily pointed out that ‘books that take minority revisionist positions appeal to an anti-Muslim culture that is contemptuous of Islam’.  But Loonwatch, always keen to focus on the most benign interpretations of Islam, ought to applaud Holland’s suggestions that the more unwelcome teachings associated with Islam can be ascribed to contamination by Judaism (death sentence for adulterers) and Zoroastriansim (death sentence for apostasy). Even when Holland seems to be painting Islam in a negative light, focusing on the slave trade for example, the subtext is a veiled challenge to Islamophobia.  The suggestion that the Muslims’ slaves started to embrace Islam because it provided them with arguments against slavery seems designed to encourage the reader to draw parallels with the later progress of the relationship between Christianity and slavery.

Although the devoutly religious of any stripe might find something to disturb them here, it is hard to see how anyone who has actually read the book can interpret it as in any way Islamophobic.