Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

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

by tom holland
doubleday, 526 pages, $29.95

Islam is widely understood by both Western and Islamic scholars to have substantially engaged with the intellectual traditions of the late antique Near East’s generative mix of Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian religious communities. Yet the degree to which those cultures and traditions influenced the sophisticated religious civilization of Islam that emerged between the ninth and thirteenth centuries is a matter of dispute.

Islamic sources take for granted that the emergence of Islam was a coherent and divinely orchestrated religious movement, initiated by a series of revelations received by Muhammad ibn `Abd Allah, a merchant from the Arabian city of Mecca, distinguished by his adherence to a monotheistic perspective that was neither Jewish nor Christian in expression. Traditional Islamic scholarship assumes that the history and teachings of the Prophet and his early community were sufficiently (if imperfectly) conveyed through communal oral transmission, and that these teachings constitute an essentially complete understanding of the religion’s founding principles. Thus, when Muslim Arabs emerged from the desert and into the imperial civilizations to the north, they were believed to have done so with an internally consistent religious perspective, based upon a single scripture and a shared sense of their own sacred history.

For Tom Holland, and the particular scholars and historians upon whom he relies, this history is largely an elaborate fiction, promoted by the Arab dynasts who eventually came to control the Islamic state. It was a way of giving religious legitimacy to a series of accidentally successful Arab raids that poured out of the Arabian desert at a time when the great empires of Persia and Byzantium had been rendered bankrupt and prostrate by a series of natural and man-made calamities.

That these desert warriors represented the historical beginnings of a highly literate, scientifically advanced, and prosperous Islamic civilization seems unlikely, and historical skeptics like Holland are not convinced that this dramatic transformation can be attributed to a new divine revelation and the religious and intellectual energies it released. For them, it is better explained by the Arabs’ adoption of the culture, literature, and habits of the sophisticated populations they eventually subjugated—with the Arabs’ largely unformed religious and chauvinistic fervor serving merely as a catalyst for these ambitions.

In his attempt to render this complex, revisionist history in a more popularly readable form, Tom Holland, a distinguished historian of the ancient world and winner of the Classical Association prize, has indeed written a lively and engaging account that is highly accessible to the educated reader. He displays a clear penchant for colorful, graphic, and often salacious details, although many are mentioned without providing any source. He also spends a good deal of time speculating about the motivations and religious and political attitudes of the key figures in this history, which adds personal and interpersonal drama to his imaginative retelling of Islamic antiquity.

Scholars of the subject may be troubled, however, by the degree to which he fills in the gaps in the written sources with suggestion and innuendo—gaps that have been partly created by his nearly complete dismissal of Islamic sources as a reliable basis for this history. In doing this, he has carved out a large space within which to reimagine this history.

After presenting an overview of Islam’s understanding of its own foundational history, Holland explains—somewhat disingenuously, perhaps—that he was shocked to discover that the earliest accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s life and the history of the early Islamic community date from the ninth century, nearly two centuries after these events were believed to have occurred. While this is a fact well known to all who study early Islam, several important scholars, most notably Harald Motzki, have argued persuasively that these later texts show evidence of having been based upon authentic earlier sources that were both written and oral in nature. Holland insists, however, that only written, extant histories can be relied upon, therefore leaving many “unknowns” in this early history.

In setting forth his alternative history of Islamic origins, Holland agrees that Islam began as a genuine movement, led by Muhammad. He assumes, contra some earlier revisionist readings, that Muhammad was a real historical person whose movement embodied some general, and probably vague, religious ideas.

He argues that these ideas were written down in a scriptural text, the Qur’an, that had taken its canonical status and form by the late seventh century, thus predating all other extant Islamic literature. This makes it a nearly contemporary record of Islam’s origins—and thus perhaps the only indigenous source, according to Holland, that can be taken as a reliable, if enigmatic, guide to the true history of Islam’s origins.

Holland analyzes the Qur’an strictly as a contemporaneous, if also mysterious, piece of historical documentation, independent of the heavy cloak of Islamic interpretative tradition that has typically served to embed it within Islam’s own narratives of origin. Reading the text in this way, Holland seeks to make the Qur’an yield new clues about the rise of Islam.

He begins his radical retelling of Islamic origins by concentrating on two strange passages in the Qur’an: a reference to a holy sanctuary at an otherwise unknown site called “Bakka” and an oblique reference to the Persian defeat of the Byzantines (the “Romans”) in the early seventh century. Muslim exegetes had been similarly perplexed by the reference to Bakka (rather than Mecca) as the site of a sacred sanctuary and put forward several theories about the term, although the interpretative consensus was that “Bakka” was simply an alternative reference to Mecca itself.

Holland proposes that Bakka was the actual site of the origin of the Islamic movement, but that it refers not to Mecca in central Arabia, but to a sacred shrine site much further north, nearer the border of the Byzantine Empire—perhaps in the region of Mamre, a site biblically connected to Abraham and his visitation by three angelic figures. According to Byzantine sources, this site was popular not only among Jews and Christians but also among pagan denizens of Arabia.

Proposing a site for the origin of Islam on the southern edges of the Syrian desert seems far more plausible to Holland, given the clear references one finds in the Qur’an itself to Christian, Jewish, and even Greek ideas, figures, and narratives, from stories of Moses and Jesus to elliptical accounts of the story of Alexander the Great and the seven sleepers of Ephesus. Absent divine agency, it is difficult to see how all of these detailed narratives would have made their way to an illiterate man residing in an isolated town in the midst of one of Arabia’s most forbidding deserts.

If Holland’s thesis about Bakka places the geographical origin of the Islamic movement closer to Byzantine territory, his focus on the Qur’an’s reference to the Persian defeat of the Byzantines gives him not only a temporal marker, but also a possible catalyst for the origin of the movement. Since this is the only independently corroborated historical event mentioned in the Qur’an, Holland argues that it must be integrally significant to the early Arab-Islamic movement.

Holland suggests that the Arabs drawn to Muhammad’s movement were tribesmen who had been part of a federation (shirkah , or shirkat , as Holland renders it) of Arabs allied with the Byzantines and working to secure its southern border. He speculates that these Arab “confederates” were likely paid handsomely for their service to the Byzantines, but when the Persians overran substantial portions of the Byzantine Empire in the early seventh century, the confederates lost this valuable income and were ripe for new, more profitable modes of association, which Muhammad offered them with his movement.

Holland argues that those tribesmen who were initially reluctant to abandon the confederation were none other than the mushrikun, Muhammad’s most implacable religious opponents in the Qur’an, where they are identified with the pagan and polytheistic Arabs of Mecca. The Arabs who were persuaded to abandon their prior allegiances and “migrate” to the Prophet’s new community in Bakka—wherever that might be—are those referred to in the Qur’an as the muhajirun (“emigrants”), a term Islamic sources use to refer to Muhammad’s followers who emigrated with him from Mecca to Medina in 622, but which for Holland refers to the initial band of Arab warriors loyal to Muhammad.

There is, and long has been, a lively debate in Islamic studies about the extent to which the Islamic sources can be taken to be reliable guides to their own foundational history. These sources tell a largely consistent story, but with a great deal of variation as to the details of the events during and for a few centuries after the time of Muhammad. The sources collectively amount to something like a salvation history, to be sure, but it is hardly a consistently grand and untroubled one.

These traditional accounts betray deep schisms—sometimes between respected figures in early Islamic history—and give evidence of variant sectarian shaping. And yet a basic and internally coherent narrative does emerge. Is the relative coherence of this narrative evidence of an earlier official shaping, thereby rendering the whole Islamic historiographical enterprise suspect or even useless, or does it suggest the presence of a “kernel of truth,” which can be discerned through rigorous, critical source analysis?

Holland is clearly in the first camp, and after dismissing the Islamic sources, he turns to contemporaneous Byzantine sources, as well as speculative philology and Qur’anic interpretation, to fill in the rest of the story. His approach invites criticism. To assume that only written sources can convey reliable historical truth, and that Byzantine authors were more likely to write objective and factually based histories than Arab Muslims, displays a bias that is not entirely defensible. It is true that Byzantine historians would have no motivation to produce a history that provided religious legitimacy to the Arab conquests, but as outsiders their accounts might well have been distorted by both ignorance and an animus toward their Arab conquerors.

The question of how to treat indigenous Muslim sources regarding their own history is a legitimate one that lies at the heart of a complex and rigorous debate, but it is one to which Holland only has access from the outside. Despite the self-assurance with which he dismisses the Islamic textual tradition, he cannot read the Arabic sources that constitute this heritage in their original language—a limitation he freely admits. But when one seeks to make substantial revisionist claims based on what can be gleaned from the secondary literature, one can miss the wider forest for a few unusual and interesting trees.

Holland’s philological association of the mushrikun of the Qur’an with the Arab tribes who served as Roman foederati, for example, has no real basis in the Qur’an, where the word shirkat (or shirkah ) as such never appears. The related term shirk —usually translated as polytheism—seems to have little to do with Arabs serving as Roman confederates. The term muhajirun (“emigrants”) is rarely juxtaposed in Qur’anic rhetoric with the mushrikun, as it is in Holland’s analysis.

Holland argues that the Qur’an is our best contemporary source for the rise of Islam, but he focuses on a few anomalies in the text while ignoring the Qur’an’s own internally consistent and remarkably coherent rhetoric. Quite a number of small inaccuracies further attest to his less-than-complete familiarity with the Islamic tradition: The second caliph Umar was not a brother-in-law of the Prophet, for example; though important, the Islamic religious genre of tafsir, commentary on the Qur’an, hardly qualified as “the most praiseworthy activity known to [Islamic] scholarship”; and the idea that different readings of the Qur’an amounted to “different versions of the holy text” is misleading, as these refer to slightly different vowelings of the text with no real divergence in meaning.

Holland does indeed succeed in telling an engaging and dramatic story about the origins of Islam that is accessible to most readers. While highly speculative and problematic in places, it may well generate further interest in some of the genuinely difficult problems in early Islamic history. As a historical study, however, his book lacks methodological rigor and care, and the reliability of his revisionist conclusions is significantly undermined by his uneven treatment of the historical sources, his lack of access to original sources in Arabic, and some clear biases and assumptions about Islam as a religion that seem to run deeper than any single academic dispute.

Maria Massi Dakake is associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University.

Editor’s note: This review was revised on February 8, 2013, to correct an error.