In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland. Published by Anchor in 201
I bought this book because I was blown away by Dan Snow’s interview of Tom Holland about this book, which can be found on HistoryHits. The two observations discussed in the interview that struck me were Holland’s claim that the Quran’s Christianity equivalent isn’t the Bible, but Jesus Christ and the idea that the foundation for our modern religions was built at least a hundred years after the events of Christ and Muhammad. I know it seems dumb, but I had always assumed that things fell into place for these religions immediately aftet the deaths of their leaders. Holland’s argument intrigued me, so I bought his book and I’m so glad I did.
When I bought the book, I thought I was going to learn the story of Islam, starting with Muhammad. Instead, I learned so much more. The book isn’t about Muhammad, it’s about Muhammad’s legacy and how that morphed into modern Islam, but it’s also about Christ’s legacy, Moses’ legacy, and Zoroaster’s legacy and how they were morphed and changed over time. It’s a book about all religions, how they bled into each other, how they were created to oppose each other, and how various entities contributed to the creation these religions.
The book starts with the Persian and Roman Empires during late antiquity. It argues that, during the last gasp of these great empires, various religion and political figures grabbed onto the scrapes of Christianity and Zoroastrianism and morphed them into full fledged religions that empowered the throne and provided desperately needed support beams for failing powers. While these two empires fought each other (and internal disputes), they employed Arab mercenaries to serve in their armies and it is through this competition that Islam is born. Initially, the Arabs served their client states well, but as Persian and Rome crumbled, the Arabs grew stronger and overtook both empires. Holland argues that this sudden success needed an explanation and thus certain Arab rulers went back to the days of Muhammad and used his words to justify their massive conquest, creating Hadiths when the Quran failed to provide an explanation. Holland doesn’t directly argue this, but it is implied that Muhammad may have disappeared had it not been for the Umayyad’s need to justify their rule over the other Arab tribes.
Which, interestingly, could have also been Christ’s fate. Holland only briefly mentions the creation and codification of Judaism and focuses more on how much early Christian priests took from that religion. I always knew that Christianity and Judaism fed into each other, but the book starkly illustrated how difficult it was for the Christians to build off of the Old Testament while maintaining their claim that Christ marked a truly new age for man. The more similar the two religions became, the more paranoid the priests and Roman rulers became, the more harshly they treated their Jewish subjects, and they louder they proclaim the differences between the two religions. There were Christians and Jewish people who interacted with each other and there seems to have been a moment in time where the two religions almost merged, most likely demoting Christ to another prophet, but maybe one more special then the others while not being the son of god. This moment did not last, because of Justinian and the orthodox priests, but it is an interesting thought exercise.
It is risky to write about the creation of religions, but Holland undertook the task masterfully. His analysis provided a fascinating story of how modern-day religions morphed from struggling, fractional, beliefs into the unified, confident religions. What I found particularly fascinating about this book was how Holland placed the religions within the grander geo-strategic struggle. While it never doubts or dismisses the various priest’s and religious leader’s sincerities and beliefs, it also makes it clear that these religions were not created in a vacuum. Religion and politics have always gone hand in hand and these religions were shaped as much by what the priests chose to preserve from the days of Christ and Muhammad as they were by what the various empires needed from them-whether that empire be Roman, Persian, or Umayyad.
I am an agonistic, so I found the discussion more fascinating then disturbing, but it should be noted that Holland’s narrative highlights how fragile the foundation of Christian and Islam is. The Bible was crafted by a group of individuals who decided to leave gospels out for religious as well as political reasons and the fact that there was a struggle over how to differentiate themselves form Judaism while still using Judaism as a foundation for their religion should highlight how uncertain they were of their own course of action. Even the Islamic scholars struggled over the fact that many of the hadith, sayings attributed to Muhammad himself, were forged or misdated. There was a very cold realization that the gap between the age of the Umayyads and the age of Muhammad was cavernous and the bridge connecting the two was more tenuous then they thought.
God may be beyond the influence of empires, but humans are not, especially humans of a religious sect that needed a great patron to thrive. The Romans embraced Christianity out of a sense of, not only piety, but also survival, just as the Persians embraced Zoroastrianism and the Umayyads embraced Islam. That doesn’t make the religions any less sacred or sincere, but it starkly highlights the dangers of preserving a religion during a tumultuous period of history.
Pros: A startling insightful look at a period of history often ignored and at a subject rarely discussed.
Easy prose that makes it a quick read.
Provides political, social, and historical context for the three major religions.
Provides a balanced look at the origins of Islam, an important topic especially for Americans to learn more about.
It treats all the religions with deep respect while keeping a detached and scholar tone.
It is a thought provoking book that makes one think about the nature of the three major religions and why we believe what we believe.
Provokes an in depth look at the decline of the Persian and Roman Empires
Often times, it seems that scholars and non-experts alike talk about the Middle East as a place that has always been ungovernable and full of bloodthirsty tribes. This book spends at least half of its pages discussing the creation of the Umayyad dynasty, one of the Arab’s greatest dynasties, and allows their accomplishments to shine without being overly praising nor dismissive.
In case you can’t tell, I love this book.
Cons: My one critique (and, really, it’s not that much of a critique, but I found it fascinating) is that it takes about half of the book before we start discussing the Umayyad dynasty and the birth of Islam. Holland does this to provide the necessary context and to help us understand what kind of world created Islam, but it may annoy some readers that they spend the first two hundred pages learning about the Persians and Romans.
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