Book Review: Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword

Further to my twitter discussion with Tom Holland regarding his controversial C4 documentary ‘Islam: The Untold Story’ last month, I decided purchase his book ‘In The Shadow of the Sword’. Tom had said to me that he necessarily had to condense his arguments to fit in with the running time for the TV documentary, but was able to make a much fuller presentation in his book. So I took the time to read the book and then re-read it and here is what I thought of it…

At the outset of his book, in the first chapter, Holland makes clear that he is embarked on a search for historical truth. How much of the traditional Muslim narrative about the rise of Islam can we actually place any reliance on? Or as Holland puts it ‘…where is solid bedrock to be found?’ (p46). This is not an ignoble question by any means. Any genuine endeavour to understand what actually happened in 7th century Arabia that so transformed the world should be welcomed.

Holland’s language regarding the data we possess about Islam’s origins is quite dramatic. Let’s take the example of Holland’s views concerning the Qur’an itself. Holland asks:

“…how can we know for sure that the Qur’an dates from the time of Muhammad? How can we know who compiled it, from what sources, for what motives? Can we even be sure that its origins lay in Arabia? In short, do we really know anything at all about the birth of Islam?” (p43)

The questions Holland poses are not unreasonable ones even if phrased perhaps a tad severely. A few pages further on Holland emphasises the importance of these questions again:

“Does the Qur’an really date from the Prophet’s lifetime? Where, if not in Mecca, might he have lived? Why are the references to him in the early Caliphate so sparse, so enigmatic, and so late?” (p55)

You might, therefore, be forgiven for thinking that Holland is hinting, not too subtly, that he has unearthed some really major discovery that will surely set the infidel cat amongst the Muslim pigeons. So, what is it that Holland did uncover about the Qur’an? Well, you have to read through another 250 pages of Holland’s book to find out.

“…the text of the Qur’an itself does seem to derive authentically from the Prophet’s lifetime…Such a resource is, in consequence, beyond compare: one that positively demands to be sifted for clues to the Prophet’s career and background. Identify these, and it may then be possible to find reflected in the Qur’an glimpses, not merely of the Prophet’s personal circumstances but of something even more suggestive: the broader context of the age.” (p310)

So, after all the momentous build up, Holland’s research uncovers that the Qur’an does indeed date from the time of the Prophet – as the mainstream Islamic narrative has always maintained.

And what about the dating of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s prophethood (held by Muslims to be 610 – 632 CE) – did the Muslims manage to get that right?

“…it is true, the Qur’an records a very specific moment in history: a moment that internal evidence, as well as tradition, identifies with the early decades of the seventh Christian century.” (314-5)

Oh – so, the Muslims got that right too. Well, what about the theories of John Wansbrough and his disciples Patricia Crone and Michael Cook who in the 1970s had so loudly and boldly claimed that the Qur’an had evolved over many decades and that it took around two hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad to attain the form we now recognise? Holland’s copious (and very readable) footnotes show that he has studied what other scholars have written about the claims of the Wansbrough school and acknowledges that the Qur’an ‘clearly…attained something like its final form early in the seventh Christian century…’ (p317).

Holland unsurprisingly decides not to follow Crone et al in their more fanciful claims about the alleged later dating of the Qur’an – especially as both Crone and Cook have in the intervening decades since the 1970s themselves abandoned that particular thesis as being nothing more than youthful foolishness.

In my review of Tom Holland’s C4 documentary ‘Islam: The Untold Story’ I observed that ‘Remarkably, Holland does not seem to deal at all with the historicity of the Qur’an itself.’ Well, now we know why. There clearly was nothing ‘untold’ about the history of the Qur’an. The text of the Qur’an is well-known and well-attested to as Holland found. Furthermore, dwelling on the historicity of the Qur’an would have rather undermined Holland’s very odd contention in the C4 documentary regarding the Muslim historical evidence for Islam’s origins.

“There’s nothing there. I can’t find anything,” Holland bizarrely claimed in the C4 documentary. We now know that he was being perhaps just a little economical with the actualité.

Let’s go back to Holland’s book. Holland also admits that while questions can be asked of the authenticity of many of the ahadith, all is certainly not lost:

“There has been preserved, embedded within the vast corpus of subsequent writings on the Prophet, at least a single lump of magma sufficiently calcified to have stood proof against all erosion. The ‘Constitution of Medina’, it has been termed: a series of eight brief treaties concluded between the Muhajirun and the natives of Yathrib, and which – not least because they refer to the emigrants as ‘Believers’ rather than ‘Muslims’ – are accepted by even the most suspicious of scholars as deriving from the time of Muhammad. Here in these precious documents, it is possible to glimpse the authentic beginnings of a movement that would succeed in barely two decades, in prostrating both the New Rome and Iranshahr. That the Prophet consciously aimed at state-building; that it was his ambition to forge his own people and the local Arab tribes into a single Umma; that this confederation was to fight ‘in the path of God’: these brief details, the veritable building blocks out of which all the much later stories of Muhammad’s life would be constructed, do authentically seem rock solid.” (p348-9).

As, Ziauddin Sardar observed in his review of Holland’s book, one is, therefore, tempted to ask, “So what’s the argument?”

Well, the central argument that Holland does present revolves around the role of the Umayyad Khalifa ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (685 – 705 CE). Holland contends that the true location of the Prophet Muhammad’s initial preaching was not the Makka that we know today, but much further north on the borders of Palestine. Holland argues that it was under ‘Abd al-Malik that Islam was reshaped and that the birthplace of the Prophet was relocated to its present site.

This is an argument that was also advanced a few decades ago by the Wansbrough school. What do other historians and biographers of the Prophet Muhammad now make of this idea? Here is Barnaby Rogerson – author of The Prophet Muhammad – A Biography:

“Holland’s vivid selection of non-Muslim texts all prove broadly supportive of the traditional narrative of events – even the most remarkable chance find of them all, a humble receipt for sheep paid over to a very early Arab military detachment operating in Egypt. Despite this, Holland keeps rigidly to the deconstructionist interpretation, indeed pushes out the boundaries with some rather wild suggestions, such as placing the original homeland of Islam in a base-camp on the desert borders of Palestine, not to mention the creation of Mecca by an Umayyad Caliph. I was intrigued to read these suggestions, but ultimately unconvinced.”

Note Barnaby Rogerson’s observation that Holland’s thesis that the true birthplace of Islam was hundreds of miles to the north of present day Makka as being a ‘rather wild suggestion’. This is polite language as would be expected of a gentleman. Decoded into the vernacular, Rogerson is saying that Holland’s suggestion is totally bonkers.

Hugh Kennedy, Professor of Middle Eastern History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, is also reported as being underwhelmed by Holland’s arguments:

“Holland’s work is based primarily on a lot of research that was published in the 1970s…It’s interesting and challenging but in the end unconvincing.”

There are also quite a few howlers in Holland’s book including this claim that:

“Muslim commentators invariably equated the phrase ‘the Trustworthy Spirit’ with the angel Gabriel – but the Qur’an never actually states that the Prophet received his revelations from Gabriel.” (p475)

One wonders how on earth Holland missed these verses in Surah al-Baqarah:

“Say: Whoever is an enemy to Gabriel-for he brings down the (revelation) to thy heart by Allah’s will, a confirmation of what went before, and guidance and glad tidings for those who believe. Whoever is an enemy to Allah and His angels and messengers, to Gabriel and Michael,- Lo! Allah is an enemy to those who reject Faith” (2:97-98)

There are a number of similar very basic errors scattered throughout Holland’s book.

It is right that historians should be able to freely examine the origins of any religion. However, it is to be hoped that they also put in the necessary effort and time to deal justly with their chosen field of study. Holland started out with the noble aim of finding ‘bedrock’. Unfortunately, he allowed himself to end up on much less solid terrain.

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3 Responses to Book Review: Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword

  1. Haq Ghani says:

    Thank you for a concise and concrete Analysis of Holland’s Tomfoolery

  2. shabir qadri says:

    There are other childish errors as well. Holland says Umar was prophet’s brother-in-law (he was actually his father-in-law, Umar’s daughter Hafsa was one of prophet’s wives). Third caliph Usman, he says, was married to one of prophet’s daughters. Usman actually married two of prophet’s daughters. If he can’t get these elementary facts right, how can one take his other claims seriously?

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