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Glen Bowersock: In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland–Review

Books and articles on Islam are pretty good business these days, just ask Robert Spencer.

Tom Holland’s most recent book takes aim at the Meccan origins of Islam, but as Glen Bowersock writes it is one of the most “irresponsible” books on Arabia in recent memory.

Books that take minority revisionist positions appeal to an anti-Muslim culture that is contemptuous of Islam. As one commenter on Bowersock’s review noted,

Commercially-driven bandwagon jumping of the most risible kind is not restricted to popular writings, clearly. Interesting that, today, I struggled to buy a copy of Alexander Kynsh’s readable and erudite Islam in Historical Perspective, a book widely respected and admired within academic Islamic Studies, whilst the literary classes of Britain celebrate having this title on their bookshelves because it is written with such literary panache, willfully oblivious to the ugly cultural current that flows beneath this kind of intellectual partisanism.

*Update: I want to add that Tom Holland is not an Islamophobe or anti-Muslim as far as I can tell. Bowersock’s review of Holland’s book highlighted some crucial issues and questions and was generally spot-on in my opinion. I want to emphasize that writing, investigating, and critiquing the “origins of Islam” and the “literal truth” of orthodoxy does not make one a hate-monger, in fact it is necessary. I would recommend everyone read Holland’s book for themselves and decide.

In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland – review

by Glen Browerback (The Guardian)

In his sprawling new book Tom Holland undertakes to explain nothing less than the origin of Islam. This is a subject as relevant to today’s world as it is controversial within it. How Islam began was obscure right from the start, above all to the surprised Christians who first succumbed to the Arab armies that surged out of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century. They had seen themselves as confronting a different threat. After all, the Persians had captured Jerusalem in 614 and soon moved into Egypt. At that moment they appeared to be the principal antagonist of the Byzantine empire based in Constantinople. No one could have imagined that a little over two decades later the Persian empire would be in its death throes and that the Patriarch of Jerusalem would be turning over the city to an Arab caliph.

The beginnings of Islam have always been anchored in Mecca in the northwestern part of the Arabian peninsula. Here Muhammad was believed to have received from the angel Gabriel the earliest revelations that became incorporated in the Muslim scripture, the Qur’an. Scholarly debate about the revelations and about Meccan society has gone on for centuries, but no one before has seriously doubted the conjunction of Muhammad and Mecca. Holland wants us to believe that Muhammad did not come from Mecca at all but from southern Transjordan, and that his revelation was a compound of languages and ideas floating around in the Near East.

Holland came to his work on Islam unencumbered by any prior acquaintance with its fundamental texts or the scholarly literature. He modestly compares himself to Edward Gibbon, whom he can call without the slightest fear of contradiction “an infinitely greater historian than myself”. In the Decline and Fall, at the opening of his magisterial chapter 50 on Muhammad, Gibbon had candidly acknowledged his ignorance of “Oriental tongues”, but he also expressed his gratitude “to the learned interpreters who have transfused their science in the Latin, French, and English languages”. Holland seems to have confined himself largely to interpreters, learned or otherwise, writing in English, but his efforts to inform himself, arduous as they may have been, were manifestly insufficient.

He has written his book in a swashbuckling style that aims more to unsettle his readers than to instruct them. I have not seen a book about Arabia that is so irresponsible and unreliable since Kamal Salibi’s The Bible Came from Arabia (1985). Although that work was depressingly misguided in replacing biblical places with their homonyms in the Arabian peninsula, it at least revealed an accomplished scholar who had gone badly astray. Holland has read widely, but carelessly. He starts out with an irrelevant, though arresting, account of a defeated Jewish king in Arabian Himyar (Yemen) killing himself by riding his horse into the Red Sea. It is typical of Holland’s style to lead off with this fanciful story when an inscription from the time of the king’s death records that the Ethiopians killed him.

Holland explodes with indignation over the traditional term, jahiliyya (age of ignorance), for the time before Muhammad. After a tabloid view of Arab culture in that period, he declares: “The effect of this presumption was to prove incalculable. To this day, even in the west, it continues to inform the way in which the history of the Middle East is interpreted and understood.” This was partially true in Gibbon’s time, but it is quite false today. Research and publication on pre-Islamic history, archaeology, art and languages may be found in many western universities, such as Oxford, as well as in many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria.

The past 30 years have seen lively controversies in the scholarship on early Islam, much of it emanating from the revisionist work of John Wansbrough in analysing the text of the Qur’an and its possible links with both Christian and Jewish language and thought. This is catnip for Holland, as is the revisionist work by Wansbrough’s disciple, Andrew Rippin, and, much more idiosyncratically, by the pseudonymous Christoph Luxenberg, who dares not speak his name. Although these debates are all solidly grounded in close textual study, they can do little more than titillate uninitiated readers because the dust has not yet settled.

Holland’s failure to follow Gibbon in examining French scholarship means that he has missed many of the most important recent discoveries, above all the large number of inscriptions from late antique south Arabia that Christian Julien Robin and his associates in Paris have been publishing in a steady stream. We now know much more about the Judaism of Himyar, the conflict with Christian Ethiopia and the Persian occupation of western Arabia. In discussing early Qur’an manuscripts Holland has missed the collaborative manuscript, in five different hands, which François Déroche has dated to the third quarter of the seventh century. It appears to antedate the Qur’anic inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The scattershot nature of Holland’s investigations is particularly apparent in his breezy reference to the Qur’an manuscripts that were found in Sana’a, Yemen, in 1973. He hints darkly at censorship to explain publication delays caused by textual variants in a palimpsest but is unaware that the palimpsest itself and two other manuscripts are actually now with the publisher. He is also unaware that a second cache of Qur’an manuscripts was discovered five years ago in renovations of the Great Mosque in Sana’a and that in February 2010 the Yemeni authorities granted permission for them to be studied.

But Holland is at his most irresponsible when he turns to the Meccan origins of Islam. After reasonably supporting Patricia Crone’s argument against the tradition of Mecca as a mercantile centre, he goes on to ask whether the place itself might not be an invention in the story of Muhammad. He raises the possibility that the Qur’anic pagans, calledmushrikun, might be confederate tribes simply because the word is constructed from the Arabic root for “sharing”. He looks for these tribes in southern Jordan and not only thinks of placing Muhammad among them but proposes that his own Meccan tribe, the Quraysh, took its name from the Syriac word qarisha, which, according to Holland, would have been “duly Arabised”. This jaw-dropping idea depends on Holland’s mistaken view that the Syriac word could allude to a confederation. What it means is to clot or congeal.

For some reason Holland’s book was released in the Netherlands in Dutch before it appeared in English. It had a different title then, The Fourth Beast. A marketing strategy of this kind looks like a conscious effort to profit from recent Dutch anxiety over Muslim immigrants. But Holland’s cavalier treatment of his sources, ignorance of current research and lack of linguistic and historical acumen serve to undermine his provocative narrative. In the Shadow of the Sword seems like an attempt by author, agent and publisher to create a very different account of early Islam, but fortunately the quality of the book stands in the way.

• Glen Bowersock’s From Gibbon to Auden: Essays on the Classical Tradition is published by Oxford.

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  • Michael Elwood

    “. . . .there is reason to be skeptical of the historicity of contemporary and later accounts of those conquests”

    To clarify, I should say aspects of the conquests and not the conqests themselves.

  • Michael Elwood


    “This new skepticism, ‘revisionist’ trend often leaves behind nothing but more black holes and further confusion than whatever ‘original’ historical accounts that they’re supposed to be ‘reviewing’.”

    The problem I have with Holland is that he’s a selective skeptic. He’s skeptical about everything in early Islamic history except CONQUESTS. This is an article of faith for him. He doubts the existence of God. He doubts the existence of Muhammad. But he never doubts the existence of those conquerors and those conquests. That’s where his “skepticism” or solipsism ends. :-) However, as I pointed out to Kunwar, there is reason to be skeptical of the historicity of contemporary and later accounts of those conquests:

    “In his book ‘A New Introduction to Islam’ (under the subtitle ‘The Invisible Conquests’), Dr. Daniel W. Brown says:

    “Archaeological data tell a somewhat different tale. If we look for evidence of the burning, looting, or destruction described by Bishop Sophronius in 635, we find none. No systematic sacking of cities took place, and no destruction of agricultural land occurred. The conquests brought little immediate change to religious and communal life. There were no mass or forced conversions. Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian communities in Syria and Iraq may have felt threatened, but they continued to thrive. New synagogues, churches, and monasteries were still being built into the eight century, and churches or synagogues were not converted to mosques on any noticeable scale. The first urban mosques were not built until after 690, and the urban landscape of the Near East remained largely unaffected by the conquests (Pentz 1992). There was certainly change, but in the same directions and at the same pace as before the conquests (Morony 1984: 507-26). Two key measures offer telling evidence that the conquests brought little immediate disruption to the patterns of religious and social life in Syria and Iraq: production of wine (forbidden in Islamic Law) continued unchanged, and pigs (considered unclean by Muslims) continued to be raised and slaughtered in increasing numbers (Pentz 1992).

    “Neither do we find evidence of dramatic change in the law or political institutions of conquered territories in the years immediately following the conquests. What did change was the ruling class. The new rulers spoke Arabic, represented a different ethnicity, and kept aloof from their conquered subjects. But for all the differences change came slowly even at the highest levels of political affairs. The new rulers continued to use Greek and Persian in administrative documents. They continued to mint Byzantine-style coins complete with the image of the emperor holding a cross, and Sassanian-style coins bearing Zoroastrian symbols and Sassanian dates (Morony 1985: 38-51). They were dependent on the old Persian and Greek bureaucrats and institutions. Major reform of the language of administration or of coinage did not take place until 695 — sixty years into Arab rule. Earlier attempts at reform reportedly failed in the face of stiff popular resistance. The Arab rulers also continued the same patterns of taxation. The conquests replaced the top rung of the Byzantine and Sassanian ruling class with Arabs, but they did not immediately or violently alter the administrative, religious, economic, or cultural landscape of the Near East.”

    “But funny isn’t how the ‘western’ accounts version of history, even when the history is concerning other people and their cultures, doesn’t even consider that other’s own version to be worthy of consideration to include THEIR own narrative? is as if Mr Holland is saying to Muslims as a whole, you know, me that was born 1350+ years after you being within your own history?”

    The implication is that Muslims are incapable of objectively telling their own history (unlike Westerners who are capable of objectively telling their own history. . . and other peoples history too). What’s equally funny is the taboo these revisionists have about mentioning that Muslims (both scholar and layman) are also skeptical about some aspects of Muslim history. Muslims often debate aspects of their history. . . including on LoonWatch:

    “Too often we become embroiled in arguments over hadith and sunnah with their advocates before considering the disparate assumptions underlying our opposing viewpoints. The debate that ensues often becomes little more than a game, debate for the sake of debate, or a contest to determine the better debater rather than the truth. This complicates discussions. Perhaps while we are occupied in pointless debate, there are others who sincerely wish to know the truth but who are currently deprived of our insight because our time and energy are being consumed by people who have no interest in the truth.

    “The assumptions that underlie the respective positions of proponents and opponents of hadith and sunnah generally revolve around what is meant by ‘discarding’ them. The opponents of hadith and sunnah are concerned only with the question of sanctity [of upholding God’s word], their proponents, on the other hand, are concerned with the prescriptive vacuum that they fear would be created if all the world’s Muslims suddenly do away with their volumes of Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi and the rest of the transcribers of the oral traditions of the early Islamic era. In a given debate, therefore, the Submitter [the advocate of following the Quran alone] may think that ‘discarding’ hadith and sunnah means merely resisting the belief that they could serve as a source of divine guidance, while the advocate of hadith and sunnah may think it means doing away with information valuable for providing insight into certain aspects of early Islamic history. In such a debate, the debaters could reach a consensus if each realizes what the other assumes is understood from the outset.

    “In order to carry on more rational debates and, more importantly, to determine whether our prospective opponents in debate are interested in the truth or merely the debate itself, we ought to clarify what our main concern is before we start. Do we wish to debate the ostensibly divine origins of the oral traditions or merely their historical or philological merit? Do we wish to debate the accuracy of their content? Do we wish to discuss the reliability of oral tradition in general, of which the hadith and sunnah are merely transcriptions? To many Submitters the oral traditions are as intriguing as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some may hold hadith philology in the same regard as many of us hold non-religious hobbies. Being Submitters, however, they do not confuse their academic interests with their worship. We should be careful not to encourage an exaggerated fear of the oral traditions, just as the advocates of hadith and sunnah should have sense enough not to forment an irrational fear of the consequences of carrying on discussions without them.”

    However, admitting the existence of Muslims who are/were skeptical of aspects of Islamic history means admitting that these non-Muslims are not some type of pioneers. It also means admitting that Muslims are capable of objectively telling their own history and don’t need the officious services of non-Muslims like Holland and Spencer.

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