In the Shadow of the Sword (book)

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In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World
In The Shadow Of The Sword, The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.jpeg
AuthorTom Holland
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherLittle, Brown
Publication date

In the Shadow of the Sword is a history book charting the origins of Islam. The author, Tom Holland, had previously written two works on ancient history: Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic, which charted the fall of the Roman Republic, and Persian Fire, which is an account of the Greco-Persian Wars during the 5th century BC.[1] According to Holland, "To understand the origins of Islam, and why it evolved in the way that it did, we must explore the empires and religions of late antiquity".[2]

In this book, following the research by scholars of Oriental studies such as John Wansbrough and Fred Donner, Holland suggests that Islam, rather than originating in the arid deserts of Arabia, was born further north, "in the borders of Syria-Palestine, a region that had long been devastated by plagues and wars — the usual precursors of apocalyptic scenarios and millennial hopes."[3]

While researching the book, Holland found that the oldest extant biography of Mohammed was written nearly two hundred years after he had died, and that scholars were unsure on how much early Islamic history could be considered accurate.[4] "The challenge with adopting this [historical] approach", says the author, "by looking at Qur'an in its historical context – which in any other field of history would be wholly uncontroversial – is that Muslim accounts of its composition, all of them written long after the lifetime of Muhammad, and often in direct contradiction of the Quran itself, are the only accounts we possess."[5]


The book sharply divided critics, with some lauding Holland's take on the subject matter and others accusing him of dismissing centuries of Muslim scholarship.

Favorable reviews[edit]

Dan Jones, writing for the Telegraph, praised Holland for "a work of impressive sensitivity and scholarship". He described Holland as "one of the most distinctive prose stylists writing history today, and he drags his tale by the ears, conjuring the half-vanished past with such gusto that characters and places fairly bound from the page." Jones finished his review by asking, "Is this Satanic Verses territory?" Holland quotes Salman Rushdie at the very beginning of the book, acknowledging, wryly, another British author who ventured onto the sticky wicket of Islam’s origin myths."[2]

Anthony Sattin, writing in The Guardian, called Holland a "skilful and energetic narrator" and said "The lives of some people who have dared to question the historicity of the prophet Muhammad and the Qur'an have been ruined, even ended. We must hope that Holland is spared their wrath and that his excellent book will be lauded, as it should be, for doing what the best sort of books can do – examining holy cows."[1]

Barnaby Rogerson, writing for The Independent, said that though the book had a few "slight flaws" it remained "a spell-bindingly brilliant multiple portrait of the triumph of monotheism in the ancient world."[6]

Negative reviews[edit]

Ziauddin Sardar, writing for the New Statesman, said that the book is "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!...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." He finished his critique with, "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)." [7]

Historian Glen Bowersock, writing in The Guardian, called the book "irresponsible and unreliable" and said that 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." He criticized the work for ignoring "many of the most important recent discoveries," such as "the large number of inscriptions from late antique south Arabia" and "early Qur'an manuscripts" dated to the 7th century.[8]

Holland responded to Bowersock's review by writing, "Bowersock is a formidable scholar for whom I have great admiration – and his most recent work on ancient Ethiopia shows him to be as on the ball as ever. But this review, which is targeted not just at me but at an entire efflorescence in contemporary scholarship, is unworthy of him. Far from it being inappropriate to place the rise of Islam in the context of 'languages and ideas floating around in the Near East', the truly inappropriate thing, I would suggest, is to veil an important trend in scholarship from the gaze of the general public, and to scold those who would seek to lift it."[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sattin, Anthony (5 April 2012). "In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland – review". The Guardian.
  2. ^ a b Jones, Dan (5 April 2012). "In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland: review". The Telegraph.
  3. ^ Ruthven, Malise. "Voltaire's Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet: A New Translation". Preface: Voltaire and Islam. Litwin Books, LLC.
  4. ^ Kalder, Daniel (6 July 2012). "Book review: 'In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire' examines the roots of Islam". The Dallas Morning News.
  5. ^ a b Holland, Tom (7 May 2012). "Tom Holland responds to Glen Bowersock's review of In the Shadow of the Sword". The Guardian.
  6. ^ Rogerson, Barnaby (30 March 2012). "In The Shadow of the Sword, By Tom Holland". The Independent.
  7. ^ Sardar, Ziauddin (25 April 2012). "In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland - review". The New Statesman.
  8. ^ Bowersock, Glen (4 May 2012). "In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland – review". The Guardian.

External links[edit]

  • In The Shadow of the Sword (paperback). Great Britain: Little, Brown Book Group. 2013. ISBN 9781408700075.
    About the book: In the 6th century AD, the Near East was divided between two great empires: the Persian and the Roman. A hundred years on, and one had vanished forever, while the other was a dismembered, bleeding trunk. In their place, a new superpower had arisen: the empire of the Arabs. So profound was this upheaval that it spelled, in effect, the end of the ancient world.