In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland - review

In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World
Tom Holland
Little, Brown, 523pp, £25

Tom Holland writes epic texts on epic ancient history. After dealing with the early Romans in Rubicon and the struggles between Persia and Greece in Persian Fire, he moves on to the origins of Islam. Like his earlier books, In the Shadow of the Sword abridges centuries of history into a grand, riveting narrative. A string of empires – from the Abbasid to the Sasanian – are examined, wars and battles are recounted with relish and “catastrophic eruptions” are described in loving detail. All of which provides a vivid portrait of the Middle East during the early Middle Ages.

Ostensibly, Holland is concerned with the role of God and religion in shaping the history of the region. But the real aim of the book is to examine the validity of “Muslim sources” and to assess the extent of Muslim scholarship down the centuries. Holland raises a number of legitimate questions. What do we know about Muhammad? Are the sayings attributed to him reliable? What is the origin of the Quran? How much of the history produced by Muslims can we trust?
 
His answer is to present a revisionist history based almost exclusively on the work of a largely discredited group of orientalists. In the process, he pours scorn on Muslim scholarship, which is declared unsound, if not totally worthless, and lays into classical Muslim biographers and historians. 
Innocent readers will no doubt conclude that Muslims know nothing about Muhammad or the Quran. Apparently, our historians knew little about objectivity or criticism, which is the sole preserve of Holland and his orien­talist friends!
 
Holland points out that there is a serious problem with the sayings and reported actions, or Hadith, of Muhammad. A vast number were fabricated for political or sectarian reasons. This, however, is hardly news. Muslim scholars knew from the beginning that this was the case and tried to develop a critical methodology to deal with manufactured Hadith. 
 
Admittedly, the collection and criticism of these sayings, monumental though they were, were a human effort and so could never be free from error. But does this mean that we should ditch the vast corpus of Hadith in its entirety and that Muslim scholars, who knew more about criticism than Holland, preserved nothing meaningful or sensible?
 
Holland makes similar proclamations about the first biography of Muhammad, Ibn Ishaq’s The Life of Muhammad, written about a century after his death. In his description of the battle of Badr, a decisive moment in Islamic history, Ibn Ishaq says that the battle was won with the help of God and his angels. Holland pounces on this to argue that Ibn Ishaq cannot be regarded as objective and nothing that he says can be trusted. Since much of what we know about Muhammad is based on Ibn Ishaq’s work, the conclusion that follows is that we know next to nothing about Muhammad.
 
So did Muhammad actually exist? Or is he a figment of the Muslim imagination? Thankfully, Holland is not foolish enough to deny his existence. But he has a problem: “the total absence of any early Muslim reference to Muh­ammad”. His name on public monuments only appears in 690, around 58 years after his death. This is enough to cast doubt. 
 
Perhaps Holland should have considered that Muhammad did not want to be depicted on monuments and that Muslims were not keen on depicting their Prophet. This is why there are no Muslim monuments anywhere in the world depicting him.
 
However, we are told later, there is strong evidence of his existence from his own time: the “constitution of Medina”, a treaty between Muhammad and the Muslim and Jewish tribes of Medina, which has survived as “a single lump of magma sufficiently calcified to have stood proof against all erosion” and is “accepted even by the most suspicious of scholars”. So what’s the argument?
 
What can we say about Holland’s sources? He is besotted by his guru, the Danish orientalist Patricia Crone. It has to be said that the very mention of her name generates hysterical laugh­ter in some scholarly circles. With many Muslim intellectuals, her reputation is similar to that enjoyed by the disgraced historian David Irving in western academia. Yet Holland cites her and her colleagues and fellow travellers, such as Michael Cook and G R Hawting, copiously. 
 
Thus we have Holland’s laughable treatment of the Quran. If it wasn’t revealed in Syria, as Crone once absurdly suggested, perhaps it was Palestine. Mecca was not on any trade routes, so maybe it was portrayed as a “booming town” by Muslim historians to glorify the city of Muhammad’s birth. Holland is not concerned with how this revisionist history, the work of “suspicious scholars”, has been thoroughly demolished and debunked by both orientalist and Muslim scholars.
 
Although some work critical of the revisionist school is cited in the bibliography – notably Mustafa al-Azami’s brilliant defence of Hadith and the history of the Quran – it is clear that Holland has either not read them or has chosen to ignore them completely.
 
I have great respect for Holland and for his work. But the title of In the Shadow of the Sword, which contrasts so sharply with the neutral titles of his earlier books, conjures up all the demons of colonial orientalism. It is revisionist ideology masquerading as popular history. When you stop being dazzled by the scope and style of the book, you realise that most of Holland’s arguments crumble like dust at the merest hint of scrutiny.
 
There is no doubt that Muslims need to re-examine the historical and social construction of their faith, to be much more critical of Hadith, and more objective and less romantic about their past. But this task does not require us to sweep aside centuries of deep scholar­-ship. We should and do criticise Plato and Aristotle but we don’t dismiss them out of hand. Just as Greece cannot be conceived without its philosophers, so Islamic history has no meaning without the efforts of Ibn Hashim and Hadith scholars such as Muhammad al-Bukhari. In the end, there are no other sources; and even Holland has to rely on the scholars he is trying to rubbish.
 
I find Holland’s total dismissal of Muslim scholarship arrogant (which I know he is not), insulting (which I know he does not mean to be) and based on spurious scholarship (though his scholarship is usually sound). His message is tailor-made for a time when Isla­mophobia is a global fashion, and everything that is labelled “Islamic” or “Muslim” is looked upon with suspicion. Not surprisingly, this book has already been feted in certain right-wing circles.
 
Ziauddin Sardar is co-author of the journal Critical Muslim. His latest book is "Muhammad: all that matters" (Hodder £7.99)
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