Monday, 2 July 2012

Review of In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire

You might liken Tom Holland’s book to a great canvas of dark landscapes on which great swathes of lightning reveal grim images of slaughter; here, 10,000 corpses butchered in Samaria and 20,000 dead at another place and yet another time, 50,000; a bishop burns in a fire of martyrs’ bones; a Persian king humiliates a Roman emperor, using him as a mounting block before despatching him; elsewhere the newly slaughtered are covered with carpet to serve as a gruesome banqueting table. It is painted, this portrait, in blood for these are the convulsions of two nations. The Western Roman Empire, in barbarian hands, is ailing though the world still bears such wonderful cities as Alexandria and Antioch, Damascus and Constantinople.

But if the two great empires, the Persian and the Roman, had made their mark on the Ancient World they were by the 7th century tired out by incessant warring, by famine, by plague.

And why all this war? Was it all about belief? About the worship of pagan gods? Or the Jewish god? Or that strange god who was his own father, his own son, and at the same time a joint Holy Spirit? Oh, the struggles in the various communities to work out the nature of their god. The scholars, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, arguing, cajoling, persuading and the emperors knew not what to make of it until Constantine came along.

Emperor Constantine could not make up his mind about whom to acknowledge as the true god – should it be Apollo or the god of the Christians? – until he had a vision (or did he toss a coin?) At a stroke, Rome – centred now in Constantinople - was declared a Christian state. Not that the declaration was accepted universally.  It took more years and another emperor to brutally enforce the state religion upon the diverse peoples of the declining empire.

And then along came Mohammed and his followers, quite out of the blue it seems. And within half a dozen decades the Arabs, many of whom who had learned their trade as mercenaries in the armies of Rome or Persia, had conquered vast territories. And it seems as if in no time they came out of their deserts and had shed their pagan gods in favour of a new monotheistic belief. But it does seem at times to have been borrowed in part from the old Greek myths as well as from the writings of the Jews and the Christians. Holland points out how little is known of Mohammed until almost two hundred years after his death and certainly there is little of Islam’s early years to help the historian unravel its development. Here, the author is asking the pertinent question: how much are we to believe of what we are told about that period, those crucial missing years?

What a hotch-potch. What a difficult story to tame with its roots in rumour mills and propaganda, in unsubstantiated declarations and self-serving claims. Yet Tom Holland keeps the tale going, interpreting and of course guessing as all historians must when faced with such variety of not always reliable evidence. It’s great read but one that is not easy for the detail at times is both overwhelming and vague. There are gaps, not of the author’s making, but because of history’s silence.

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