Category Archives: Holland: Shadow of the Sword


2013-07-09

Origins of Islam: Most Recent Interview with Tom Holland

by Neil Godfrey
Holland & Adams

Holland & Adams

Historian and author of In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, Tom Holland, was interviewed last night on Late Night Live, an Australian “Radio National” program hosted by Phillip Adams.

I’ve posted twice before on Holland’s controversial view that Islam as we recognize it arose after the Arab conquests. Holland does not deny the historicity of Muhammad (though the evidence he cites seems flimsy to me) or that there was a form of “Islam” founded by the Prophet before the Arab conquests. It was only after the Arabs found that the empires of Rome and Persia had fallen so easily into their grasp (having been savagely ravaged by bubonic plague and war) that divine explanations were called for.

The conquered peoples, in particular the massive influx of slaves, fed their own beliefs and interpretations into the “hadiths”, sayings attributed to the Prophet, and — not without Caliphate dictates — forged what has become the Islam we recognize today. The Caliph most responsible, Islam’s equivalent of Saint Paul and Constantine combined according to Holland, was Abdul Malik (see Islam, the Untold Story).

If you haven’t caught up with Holland’s view yet, the interview is worth a listen: The Origins of Islam. read more »


2013-03-30

Islam’s Origins, the Historical Problem — notes on the reading Tom Holland’s “In the Shadow of the Sword”

by Neil Godfrey

shadowA few weeks ago I posted Islam – the Untold Story as a response to my introduction (through a radio program and an online video) to narrative historian Tom Holland’s controversial book on the rise of the Arab empire and the origins of Islam. I was interested in some of the comments expressing Muslim viewpoints but not having read the book, and not having studied Islamic history in any depth, there was not much I could say in response.

Now I can at least make a few comments on Tom Holland’s approach to the question after having read his 58 page introduction.

(Coincidentally today I heard another radio interview with Tom Holland, one in which he discusses the way he writes history, the modern relevance of his other historical works, Millennium and Rubicon, as well as further comments on In the Shadow of the Sword.)

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But first, let me confess my bias: I believe the most reliable way for any historian to work is to begin with data that can be tested for its genre (hence likely authorial intent), its provenance, and the independent verification of its content. As a result I have come to lean towards the views of those scholars who are derisively labelled “minimalists” and who question the authenticity of the Bible’s account of Israel’s origins and the course of its kingdoms of Israel and Judah. I have also been persuaded by the view of at least one of those “minimalists” who — again via the same touchstone questions concerning sources — has come to think the Gospel narratives of Jesus are as fictitious as the the Old Testament’s narrative of Israel.

I approach the origins of Islam with the same set of questions about sources.

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Tom Holland knows how to surprise a western reader who has been fed a diet of Islamophobia. In the front pages we read words attributed to Mohammad from which the title is drawn:

Do not look for a fight with the enemy. Beg God for peace and security. But if you do end up facing the enemy, then show endurance, and remember that the gates of Paradise lie in the shadow of the sword.

Another quotation, this one at the beginning of the Introduction, is by Salman Rushdie. It will strike a chord with anyone interested in what we know of Christian origins, but it serves the cause of irony — and a warning that the nature of historical evidence is not always what it seems — since we know that the wealth of detail taken for granted about the life of Muhammad will soon be shown to be nothing more than a facade.

The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time.

Two Voices

Tom Holland writes with two voices, as he explains in his latest Radio National interview, and together they make for gripping reading. He writes as the historical researcher of cause and effect, commenting on the degree of certainty or less so of our knowledge, guiding readers to the raw materials and current scholarship upon which his narrative is built. At the same time he writes as a novelist, entering into the experiences of the actants, named and anonymous alike, drawing the reader into their world as inevitably as a Spielberg movie.

He knows how to write history for both popular and informed audiences.

Two Worlds

Historians don’t write history the way they used to. read more »


2013-03-10

Islam, the Untold Story

by Neil Godfrey

In_The_Shadow_Of_The_Sword,_The_Battle_for_Global_Empire_and_the_End_of_the_Ancient_World.jpegUpdated about 4 hours after first posting — especially in the opening paragraphs of “The Arab conquests are FOLLOWED by the rise of Islam“.

Historian and novelist Tom Holland raises some fascinating questions about the evidence pertaining to the origins of the Muslim religion. Is it possible that all three “religions of the book” will go down in history as having their foundations exposed as mythic in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries?

I have not yet read Holland’s book In the Shadow of the Sword [link is to Wikipedia article] but yesterday I listened to an extended radio interview with him (see/hear Tom Holland At Adelaide Writer’s Week) and watched UK’s Channel 4 documentary about Holland’s thesis, Islam, the Untold Story, on vimeo. (The audio interview is by far superior to the video documentary: the interview covers more detail and explanation of the thesis in its first 30 minutes than is broached in the entire doco.)

The traditional account

Muhammad is an illiterate merchant in the city of Mecca.

Mecca is a great pagan cult centre — no Jews or Christians there.

When 40 years old Muhammad hears voice of an angel giving directions from God.

Muhammad is last of the prophets. His teaching of monotheism offends the pagans who exile him to Medina.

Muhammad wins over the Arabs and regains Mecca. All Arabia becomes Muslim.

The teachings are all oral. Nothing written at this stage, but the Arabs converted to the Muslim religion as it is known today.

Arabs are inspired by his teaching to spread the word. That God is with them is evident from the miracle that they are able to overthrow both the Roman and then the Persian empires.

Their empire is proof that the Muhammad was the prophet of God.

Holland’s challenge

Holland, however, says that the evidence informs us of Arab conquests, not Muslim conquests, in the seventh century.

The earliest sources for Muhammad’s life are from around 800 CE. — almost 200 years after he existed. There are no lives of the prophet, no histories, no accounts of the conquests written by the Arabs, no commentaries on the Qur’an — then suddenly around 800 there is a great explosion of all of these.

Another “conspiracy of silence” and other problems

How to explain this silence? read more »