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December 06, 2012

Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword is a great story, bravely told, but it leaves Richard D. North longing for old fashioned academic pedantry: In The Shadow Of The Sword - Tom Holland

Posted by Richard D. North

In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World
by Tom Holland
Pp. 544. London: Little, Brown, 2012
Hardback, 25

Tom Holland's account of the fall and rise of empires and imperial religions in Late Antiquity is really rather wonderful. It is big and bountiful. It remembers to celebrate the remoteness and glamour of the peoples of the Near East in the first three-quarters of the first millennium. In my ignorance, this was my first encounter with Himyarites and Hephthalites and with Jewish kings who hammered Christians and Saracens who converted to Christianity, and I am grateful that Holland largely fulfils his claim to bring us their stories from the evidence of their contemporaries.

So here we have a grand narrative: the eastern Roman Empire follows its western cousin into decline; Persia's immemorial greatness crumbles; and all sorts of marauding types on the fringes of the ordered world they are more or less scruffy and uncivilised find themselves rather ahead of the game. But one lot, the Arabs, do far, far better than anyone had any right to expect. So far, so exhilarating, and even larky: the prose is by turns occasionally demotic and Gibbonesque). But Tom Holland succeeds on a much higher plane, and also fails there.

As well as exotic, this very courageous book aims to be intellectual. It has three great themes. Theme #1 is the role of monotheism. Holland says that it is important that the empires of Late Antiquity, whether on the way down or the way up, embraced the idea of a single, universal god who allies himself with the powers-that-be and in particular the monarch and his imperialism. Theme #2 is the Arab embrace of this habit, caught as it were, from Zoroastrians, Christians and (less comprehensively) Jews. Theme #3 is the wider, continuing Muslim self-deception as generation upon generation fails to notice that the story of their religion is importantly and maybe mostly an ordinary 9th Century invention and that it imitated other Abrahamic religions of the book.

I have laid the themes out in that way because that is the way they are laid out in Tom Holland's introduction. But it is the last claim which grabs one's attention; which takes up most space in the introduction; and which Channel 4 made more famous when they had Holland make a documentary.

It is, on the face of it, a spectacular claim. To repeat it: as to the life of the Prophet there is no Arab evidence from his own time and precious little from any other sources. Indeed, we know nothing beyond anecdote about his revelations or his role in leading the military, religious or political developments of his time. We do know a good deal about the process by which later Caliphs caused a narrative to be built, and their work seems to have plenty of expediency mixed in with devotion to the faith or truth. There may, though, be something in the remarks of Richard Miles in his Financial Times review of the Holland book to the effect that the Islamic tradition may be more squarely built on a 7th and 8th Century oral tradition than In the Shadow of the Sword allows.

All Tom Holland's themes are of huge interest and it is important to note that he does at scattered points write sentences to the effect that he is "standing on the shoulders of giants" (about whom he can be quite sneery at times); that he is noting a modern "revolution" in the discussion of monotheism in Late Antiquity; and that, in effect, all serious modern historians one or two of them Muslim - agree that Islam's very early history is shadowy. And it is true that if one assiduously dives into his references, one can piece together a sense of the work of these various historians, and name them. (By the way, he lists as "primary sources" modern printed translations of old texts: surely in stricter times the term implied a historian's fusty investigations of original material, often as the first modern eye to see them?)

I have ended up far more irritated than charmed by this big book and its clever and bold author. I came to feel that every exciting anecdote was a distraction from the book's great deficiency: that here was a fine story-teller who like Scheherazade was directing our attention away from something. Here, one felt, was a book which was masquerading as an investigation by a real historian when really it was a regurgitation of the spadework of others by an intellectual journalist with a novelist's genes.

This impression may be both true and false. It may be that Tom Holland's technique is disguising his real genius. It may be that he is not only master of a great tale but also of the grand historical narrative. It may be that his understanding of the power and uses of the monotheistic narrative - its use by elites all those centuries ago is truly the insight of a modern master of the post-modern. It may be that Tom Holland has taken us well beyond what other, more pedestrian historians had seen. But he gives us little of the nuts and bolts of the historiography which lies behind his book and this means we cannot see where the border lies between what he has learned from others and what only he can now teach us.

Curiously, Tom Holland's rather long-winded and breathy TV documentary, Islam: The untold story, was in one sense better than the book. At least some of the historians who have pioneered the historical investigation of Islam's origins were given their own space and voice. And it is surely true, as Nick Cohen says in his Standpoint review of the show, that this was perhaps the first time that television has showed any journalistic courage in the matter.

Tom Holland seems quite careful to resist any political dimension to his work. He leaves well alone anything of the "clash of civilisations" sort. He is no Elie Kedourie, Ephraim Karsh or Bernard Lewis (whose new Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian is great reading on the history of Islamic historicism).

If he avoids moral or political judgement, Holland was clearly right to stress that the spiritual value and power of a narrative does not depend on its being true.

Tom Holland is right to mention that Christianity has faced much of the same difficulties as to its history as are now confronting Islam. It is perhaps right to underplay - though Holland's book rightly mentions that the stress Islam lays on the factual accuracy of its holy book's divine and prophetic origins makes historical doubt more challenging for that faith than for Christianity. So I am tempted to emphasise that the whole point of faith is that it goes beyond the ordinarily factual.

In short, for the faithful who are also intelligent, this side of the grave there is no evidence as to a religion's origin, or lack of it, which can seriously enforce or demolish its spiritual merit. Islam may face a bigger crunch than Christianity as it follows older religions in absorbing these facts, and it may be galling to its adherents to have come late to its version of the Protestant Reformation (and is perhaps getting a surprising wallop of fundamentalism alongside some humanism), but it is hard for a westerner to avoid thinking that this looks like terrain which is familiar as well as unavoidable.

Richard D. North is the author of The Right-wing Guide to Nearly Everything.

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