I somehow got to hear of Tom Holland by reputation a while ago, and started following him on Twitter and reading some articles online. I liked what I read (he produced a really good piece on why we shouldn’t deny that ISIS has religious roots for the New Statesman back in March), so it was with interest that I picked up a copy of his book, In the Shadow of the Sword, without having read any of his previous books which include studies on Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic.
In this book, Holland takes the reader to the Middle East of what historians call ‘late antiquity’ – a time when the Roman Empire continued to exist, albeit centred around Constantinople (Rome itself having fallen to the barbarians); its struggle with the Persians is superseded by the rise of the Arabs and, with them, a new religion. The main focus of this book is the origins of Islam, and it has as a result attracted some controversy by way of pointing out (for example) that no biography of the prophet Mohammed existed until a couple of centuries after his death.
This book is well-written, well-researched and (I’d say) needs to be read given what is currently happening in the areas described therein; for a look at where Islam – and indeed, where Christianity – comes from (and there is quite a bit about the origins of these faiths that’s open to debate), this is an excellent guide; while much attention was drawn on the book’s publication to the way Holland questions the traditional accounts of Islam’s origins, it’s worth pointing out that he takes the same approach with Christianity and indeed Judaism. This is a forensic and fearless examination of the evidence available from the time – or, of course, the lack thereof. I will definitely be looking to read more books by this author.