Since the 1990s, when Islamic extremism replaced the Soviet Union as the main geopolitical foe of the West, there has been an explosion in publishing about Islam. Some of those books have been polemics, while others have highlighted the religion’s more appealing aspects.
What perhaps all these volumes have in common is that the authors accept at face value the account of Muhammad’s life as it has been transmitted through Muslim tradition. Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword, does not.
Holland, an English historian and the author of several best-sellers on the ancient world, took five years instead of his usual two to write this book, largely due to his struggles with what is, from a historian’s perspective, immensely unreliable source material.
Upon visiting the British Library in London, he discovered that the world of Islamic studies is in a state of turmoil over just how much of early Islamic history can be believed. His book is probably the first to bring these debates to mainstream attention.
For instance, contrary to Ernest Renan’s claim that “Islam was born … in the clear light of history,” Holland informs us that absolutely zero eyewitness accounts of the prophet’s life or of the early Islamic conquests survive. The oldest biography of Muhammad in our possession dates to nearly two centuries after his death. It is more or less as if historians were only today sitting down to write the first histories of the American Revolution.
Meanwhile, he says, the hadiths — the traditional accounts of Muhammad’s sayings and deeds — were ruthlessly fabricated and-or exploited by jurists of the early caliphates for political and theological purposes. Even if some of the material is true, the original contexts have been completely lost, Holland argues, and so they are more or less useless from a historian’s point of view.
Holland doubts even that Muhammad hailed from Mecca. If the city was a major population center, as tradition claims, then why are there no mentions of it in any sources, Roman, Persian or otherwise, until 741 A.D., 100 years after Muhammad’s death? Holland argues that Islamic scribes placed Muhammad in Mecca to distance him from his Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian sources; his revelation thereby became completely sui generis and miraculous. He argues that Mohammed’s reputed illiteracy serves the same purpose.
That is but to scratch the surface of a book rich in enigmas, riddles, miracles and mysteries. Even so, In the Shadow of the Sword is not just a history of Islam, but rather an account of the birth and development of monotheism — an exploration of how a handful of obscure sects came to outlive the mighty empires of the ancient world and wield a massive influence over billions of people today.
The book teems with erudite rabbis, disputatious Monophysites and Ebionites, Persian and Byzantine emperors, Zoroastrian priests and hermits such as St. Simeon Stylites the Younger, who spent 30 years standing atop a pole in the desert, becoming the most famous man in the world in the process. Refreshingly, Holland is always aware that the subjects of his study lived in a world teeming with the divine and supernatural, and he gives this “heaven-lit and demon-haunted” reality the prominence it deserves.
Holland writes with the skepticism of a secular historian, but his prose is shot through with wit and empathy. The result is a portrait of a lost world that is complex, contradictory and populated by people in thrall to ideas future generations would dismiss as ridiculous. Much like our own, in other words.