Wednesday, July 22, 2015

In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland (Book Review #56 of 2015)


In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire
I started writing a review of this book and realized that my notes as well as the additional history I needed to look up and read more on were so long that it would take days to write it, so I will summarize. I learned much from this thought-provoking book. I have read Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples and will now need to lower my rating of it, one realizes that author left out so much of religious and cultural importance in the centuries both before and after Mohammed. I have read other histories of Islam and the Middle East but all omitted the details that this book includes, and the devil truly is in the details. The author is tying together multiple strands of Middle Eastern history to help the reader understand the historical context that a historical Prophet Muhammed would have lived in and Islam took root in. He also details what we know about the history of early Islam and the never-ending wars between adherents of Islam for power.

Although not its objective, this book does a great job helping a Westerner understand that the inter-Islamic war we see raging in the Middle East and North Africa today is neither new nor unusual in history. (By this I mean Saudi-backed Sunnis fighting Iranian-backed Shia in Yemen, multiple Sunni states fighting ISIL in Syria, Fatah fighting the PLA in Palestine, etc. The book also provides many historical reminders that Christians throughout the ages have tried to interpret biblical prophecy/eschatology through the lens of events around them. Who was the fourth beast of Daniel? Was it Rome? Was Constantine's conversion the foretold fall of the fourth beast? When Rome crumbled and fell speculation about the Beast shifted to the followers of Mohammed. When Arab tribes fought wars amongst themselves, the certainty about the prophecies became more uncertain. I enjoyed the citation of so many ancient sources by the author.

Holland points out that there is no well-preserved history of early Islam. No complete history was compiled until the 9th century, no writings exist prior to two centuries after the Prophet. Even the battles that Muhammed fought in the Koran cannot be verified. There is one Jewish record of a "false prophet" invading Palestine dating around two years after Muhammed's reported death. Ibn Is Sham's biography circa 800 AD is about the most authoritative that can be found.

The author attempts to investigate the roots of Islam-- what can we piece together about the Prophet and the Koran? Is it possible to provide the historical/critical analysis of the Koran that is so popular with the Bible today? (Ans: No) Where was Muhammad from? Where was the Koran written, and when? He presents surprising evidence that the Koran and sayings of Muhammad were not important to early Islamic chieftans who conquered, and warred with one another, in the name of Islam. The Koran was later declared eternal and uncreated, hadiths recorded were eventually examined and narrowed, while still containing various contradictions and historical problems.

More interestingly is the author's hypotheses of various verses in the Koran being inspired by or copied from the religions present around Mecca at the time, including gnostic Christianity, Judaized Christianity, Jews and Samaritans, Greco-Roman pagans, Arab pagans, and Zoroastrians. This explains why it contains stories of Jesus found in Gnostic gospels like Thomas, creeds from Zoroastrianism, etc. Biblical texts are always being discovered and compared to one another, thousands of manuscripts exist and are endlessly studied and compared. In contrast, supposedly the earlist Korans were recently discovered in Yemen, and while two scholars were invited to examine the texts access was barred after one claimed it contained differences from the accepted, authoritative (eternal and uncreated) Koran.

One story found in the Koran but appearing to have ancient Christian roots is that of the Seven Sleepers. Holland writes that the legend originates around Ephesus, but this appears to be quite uncertain and controversial in reality. Nonetheless, it was widely-known enough that it found its way into the reported words of the Prophet.

In Part II of the book, the author explains the history of Persia as well as the Sassanians, the role of the "Shah of Shas" which long predates Islam or Christianity. I found the explanation of Zoroastrianism and the Shah's role as "protector of the true religion" interesting. Priests had to make up a story to go with the "mathra" of Zoroastrianism. Early adherance to Islam took on a decidedly Zorastrian style in Persia, and much of how Sharia law is administered owed itself more to the religions around the area than to anything in the Koran itself.

A brief history of the Jews is explained, from the exile in Babylon and the formal writing of the Torah and the first commentary on the text, to the Jews initial hailing of Muhammad as a liberator of Jerusalem from the Romans to their eventual disappointment.

We moderners forget that ancient communities were not as segregated as we like to imagine. Jews and Parthians converted to Christianity and retained aspects of their former lives. Samaritans battling Justinian's soldiers fled to Persia and took their religious beliefs with them. There were Christians living like Jews in Mesopotamia, and Christians fell into conflict with Zoroastrians. The author cites records that Zoroastrian communities sometimes accepted or embraced Christianity, or at least tolerated Christians, because they performed miracles-- healings, exorcisms, etc. that modern Christian cessationists would be uncomfortable thinking about. In any case, Christianity of 600-800 A.D. was a "kaleidescope" of theology and practice. It was this world that Muhammad would have traveled and interacted in.

Holland includes the history of the Roman Empire's entrance into Palestine and Syria and its conflicts with the Persians among others. Probably 1/3 of the book focuses on the time of Justinian, his codex, his interpretation of Christianity, the fight to renew the wide borders of the Empire, and the Plague which wiped out much of Christendom's population and set the stage for Islamic conquest through Anatolia and into Europe. I recommend Justinian's Flea as another detailed account of this period.

In all, I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. There are some points where he retells a story (like the Seven Sleepers) for dramatic effect without explaining that he is telling perhaps one disputed version of the story. But his hypotheses are worth examining. I read an article recently by another historian saying that perhaps Islam is popular because the Koran has not been subject to the same textual analysis and criticism that the Bible and other religious texts have been subjected to. I think that is ultimately the unspoken conclusion the reader gleans from Shadow of the Sword. Legends often come from actual events but are embellished to fit the needs of the storyteller. The early adhererents of Islam put together a story to maintain unity among warring factions to make war on other "incorrect" factions and fill the void left by the dying Roman empire. Disagreements about the story still remain and factions are still fighting for power and control in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman and British Empires (outside the scope of this book), so 2015 looks a lot like 715.

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