David's Book Club: In the Shadow of the Sword

David Frum says Tom Holland's latest book richly and accurately shows how the religion was shaped by the Persian and Roman empires.

Over the past century, modern scholarship has pretty thoroughly debunked the standard story of the birth of Islam.

The Quran was assembled over a century or more, not revealed in one go.

The religion we call Islam coalesced after the Arab Conquest of what is now Syria and Iraq, not before.

We have no reliable biographical details at all of the life of the prophet now known as Muhammad, but if he existed at all, he was likely a native of someplace in what is now Jordan, not the Hijaz, much less Mecca.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Until now, however, if you wanted more than just an "idea," you faced a challenging time. The revisionist scholars of Islam wrote in a style that was at best highly technical and at worst deliberately obscure. Unlike the gleeful debunkers of the self-told histories of Christianity and Judaism, revisionists such as John Wansborough and Patricia Crone have taken enormous pains to tread delicately.

The scrupulosity of these scholars however has left the largest part of the reading public to popularizers like Karen Armstrong, who continue to spread long-exploded versions of Islamic history as if the explosions had never been detonated. Those unwilling to struggle through academic texts have long needed a guide to the story of Islam as it's understood by those with the fullest access to the latest linguistic and archaeological evidence. Now at last in Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword, they finally have it.

Holland—author previously of Rubicon and Persian Fire—is about as exciting a stylist as we have writing history today. He has now taken on a vast subject: three empires (Roman, Persian, and Arab) and four religions (Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, and Judaism). This vast sweep of subject-matter has a grand effect of countering any tendency to polemic or sectarianism. Holland's tale reminds us that it is not only Islam that is a constructed religion, but so too all its neighbors and competitors.

In the 200s and 300s of this era, first the Persian and then the Roman empires overcame internal crises by re-establishing themselves as more centralized monarchies. Both built themselves new capitals, the Persian in Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia; the Romans in Constantinople. And both jettisoned their former easy-going tolerance of local polytheistic cults to commit themselves to new imperial monotheisms. Over the next 300 years, Christianity and Zoroastrianism would evolve into powerful churches, equipped with ritual, theology, and powerful episcopates.

The two great empires drew their border through what is now Syria and Jordan. Even after the loss of its western territories in the 400s of this era, the Eastern half of the Roman empire remained the wealthier of the two. As the Eastern Romans' battlefield advantage over the Persians steadily diminished, they put their wealth to use recruiting allies from the desert nomads who ranged the lands just south of the Fertile Crescent.

Employment by the Romans enhanced the wealth and power of these Arab bands. Association with the Roman Near East raised their cultural level. They began to absorb religious ideas from their Christian and Jewish neighbors. They incorporated myths and legends of nearby people into their own traditions. They gained literacy and began to write down their chants and poems.

Then came the Arabs' great strategic opportunity:

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In the mid-500s, the Near East was devastated by bubonic plague, losing perhaps one-third of its population. Large parts even of the city of Constantinople reverted to farm land. The less urbanized Persian empire recovered first and seized the chance to launch a once-and-for-all war against depleted Rome. By 620, the Persians had taken what is now Syria, Palestine and Egypt, cutting off Constantinople's food supply and wrecking Roman finances. Like a nearly beaten player at the board game Risk, the Romans scraped together their last armies under a new emperor and tried one last throw, arcing through the mountains of Armenia to bypass Syria and strike directly at the Persian empire's richest territories in Mesopotamia. Surprised and defeated, the Persians offered peace. Their cities depopulated and ruined, their treasuries empty, their military manpower exhausted, the two empires presented a delicious double target.

The Arabs rebelled. They seized Palestine first, then Syria, then Egypt: all the contested territories of the just-ended imperial wars. Then they turned upon the last broken remnants of Persian military power and conquered Iraq, finished the ruling dynasty, and asserted overlordship over Persia. Just as the Germanic tribes of the West had founded new kingdoms upon the wreck of one-half the Roman empire, so the Arabs founded another upon the bilateral wreck of Rome and Persia in the East.

And like the Germans, the invading Arabs seem to have felt a certain colonial cringe as they occupied the cities and palaces of their former rulers. Arab conquerers might make prostitutes of Persian princesses and chain Roman captives to work the fields. But it was still the Persians and Romans who provided the Arabs their idea of what an empire should look like. It should have a holy book. It should have a sacred history. In the century after their explosive conquest, the new Arab rulers of the Near East developed both.

Holland energetically describes this process of development, deploying both the generally accepted scholarship and some ingenious surmises of his own.

He shows how the emerging religion of the Arabs borrowed from its Jewish subjects (what is the ulama but an Islamicized rabbinate? what is Muslim sharia if not a variation upon Jewish halakhah?); from the Zoroastrians (the Quran mentions thrice-daily prayers, but modern Islam demands the five-times-daily schedule that was followed in the Persian fire temples); and from Christians (the ritual of pilgrimage and the concept of eternal damnation in hellfire). Because conversion to Islam offered escape from the heaviest taxes imposed by the conquerers, the peoples of the new empire adopted their rulers' religion, most often against those rulers' own wishes.

Holland presents this account more as story than as a laying forth of the evidence, making his book not only accessible but delightful to those who will never work their way through the scholarly debates over the origins of Islam. By joining his account of the invention of Islam to analogous descriptions of the definition of Christian orthodoxy, the rise and fall of Zoroastrianism, and the evolution of rabbinic Judaism, Holland invites greater humility from followers of all faiths.

I've often thought that our human attempts to understand the divine must seem to God like those artworks our children bring to us from kindergarten: bits of dried noodle affixed to construction paper, stick figure representations of home and mother. We love these works because we love the child - and because they show the promise of the full-grown human imagination. But imagine if those kindergarten children began to insist that their noodle art was the absolute, perfect truth! Imagine if they began to quarrel and fight and kill over which piece of noodle art was best! Imagine if the child who killed the most arrived home to tell his mother that he'd done it all for her! If Tom Holland's skeptical retelling of the history of monotheism inoculates any of his readers against that temptation - and in particular if he shakes the murderous conviction that today animates Muslim fundamentalism - than he truly has done the Lord's work. And even if the fundamentalists bypass this book unperturbed and unaware, he has at least provided his general readership with a book that's as fun to read as any thriller, and with far richer intellectual nutritional content.