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The quest to discover the origins of Islam begins

In the Shadow of the Sword
by Tom Holland
Little Brown, £25

Tom Holland, one of the best young historians of recent years, has come to dominate the hotly contested arena of Antiquity, telling epic stories with great flair and authority in Rubicon, Persian Fire and Millennium.

His latest book takes a look at the Near East of the sixth and seventh centuries, when Rome lived on, though speaking Greek and facing a second Persian Empire, which arose in the third century. While old Rome was a ruin, the new capital, Constantinople, was now the largest city in the world, its only rival in the realm being Alexandria, that proudly Greek city whose Patriarch titled himself “judge of the universe”. Constantinople was subject to many of the same ills as the old Rome, including the mob, which from time to time went on violent rampages, often the result of chariot racing (the Byzantines seem to have invented sports hooliganism).

The Empire also faced numerous problems, such as the “Justinian plague”, an epidemic so bad that “never before in history had so much of humanity been united by a common experience of suffering”. Most regions of the Empire lost up to a third of their population in the plague, so that Lombards could walk through deserted, undefended fields in northern Italy, while in the capital the Emperor Justinian made fruitless attempts to restrict the rising wages. Justinian, a towering figure overshadowed only by his consort, Theodora – the subject of more sexual rumours than any figure in history, it seems – had restored much of the Empire to “Rome”, which at its greatest extent included Italy, southern Spain and much of the Maghreb.

Among the most troublesome of the Byzantine provinces was Palestine, where Christian settlement from across the Empire had made the Jews a minority in their homeland by the sixth century, and subject to onerous restrictions. Tourism also brought tension, especially where visitors cast their eyes on the famously beautiful women of Galilee, which was second only to Jerusalem on the early tourist trail. The Byzantines built watchtowers on Mount Berenice, near Tiberias, to keep an eye on the Jews and the even more troublesome Samaritans, who staged uprisings in 484 and 529. In consequence, thousands were forced into baptism and 20,000 Samaritan children sold off to slavers. Others fled across the frontier into Mesopotamia, where the Shahanshah packed them off to work in a gold mine.

The Samaritans were among numerous Abrahamic religions and sects during this period, along with the Nazarenes, and for several centuries the boundary between Judaism and Christianity was blurred. There were Jews who mentioned Jesus in their prayers and Christians who practised Jewish rites. Much of what came to be known as Christianity was defined in opposition to Ioudasimos – Judaism – fostering a narcissism of small differences over the centuries.

Iran itself was Zoroastrian, and its religious authorities could be as intolerant as any other towards Mesopotamia’s ancient Jewish minority or to apostates, for whom death was the punishment. Away from civilisations all manner of heresies and paganisms flourished: Arianism across the Danube, and in the deserts of Arabia even the worship of cubes. Some of these troublesome Arab tribes would convert to Judaism, others to Christianity. Yet most would be swept along as a new community of “believers” who would conquer a great stretch of land from Spain to central Asia.

The third part of Holland’s narrative deals with the mysterious rise of Islam which, for a historian, is problematic. The oldest biographies of Mohammed, as we have them, date back to more than two centuries after his death, and despite the diligent work of al-Bukhari, the ninth-century scholar who is said to have collected 600,000 supposed sayings of the Muslim prophet and dismissed all but 7,225, the religion is as vulnerable to higher criticism as Judaism and Christianity.

That criticism, which began in 1863 when Ernest Renan published a biography of Jesus that treated his subject solely as a man (leading one critic to describe it as a “new crucifixion of Our Lord”), has brought irreversible change to western civilisation. In contrast, Muslim jurists in the 18th century concluded that the “gate of interpretation” was closed because they knew all there was to learn. This view was shared by westerners, one of whom noted: “Islam was born, not amid the mystery which cradles the origins of other religions, but rather in the full light of history.” Except that its origins are incredibly mysterious, and in the late 19th century European scholars also began to ask questions about Islam.

In recent years such analysis has increased, for various mysteries and inconsistencies arise. Mecca, so biographers of Mohammed say, was a pagan city, devoid of any Jewish or Christian presence, in a great desert. In this case the rise of fully-fledged monotheism there, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, is a miracle. Yet it is far more likely that the large number of biblical characters featuring in the Koran is evidence of Jewish and Christian influence.

As with all religions, much of Islam was probably formed in the centuries after the original founder’s death, following the Arab conquests of the Near East. Trying to bring order to a spiritual empire, Muslim jurists constructed much of Islam in the, eighth, ninth and 10th centuries, so that as Holland writes “the Prophet had been made to serve as the mouthpiece for a whole host of rival, and often directly antagonistic, traditions. Many of these, far from deriving from Muhammad, were not even Arab in origin, but originated instead in the laws, the customs, or the superstitions of infidel peoples.”

It may shake their faith, but all rational believers must endure such criticism. It is the difference between a faith based on reason and on fundamentalism. How the Islamic world responds to this criticism will be interesting.

Holland’s latest book is perhaps more academic than his previous adventures, but there is still much room for his signature grand narratives, told with great intelligence and authority. In the Shadow of the Sword leaves one yearning for more.