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Prophetic times

Philip Hensher traces the emergence of Islam as a political and cultural force in the crowded world of late antiquity

31 March 2012

11:00 AM

31 March 2012

11:00 AM

In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World Tom Holland

Little, Brown, pp.523, 25

The subject here is colossal, covering a substantial stretch of the later Roman empire, the last years of the Persian empire, the conversion of the Arabs, the spread of Christianity and what happened to Judaism. The time span runs, effectively, from the death of Jesus to the moment in the eighth century when the Abbasids acquired through violence the vast empire of the Umayyads, stretching from the Loire to the Hindu Kush, and founded Baghdad. The title of Tom Holland’s book is rather studiously general, but his central topic is unmistakable: the founding and establishment of Islam and its political and martial setting.

If Holland didn’t want to make a point of this in his title, one couldn’t blame him. The traditional account of the first days of Islam, the revelation of the Qu’ran to the Prophet Mohammed from 610, the unbroken line of authentic hadiths, or sayings, from the Prophet’s time to this, the details of the Prophet’s autobiography — all these are still strenuously upheld by most Islamic scholars.

There may be a reason for this. Scholars in recent years who have raised questions about the Prophet, or who have suggested that the Qu’ran has changed over time, or who have even discussed the sources in detail have found themselves driven into exile, defenestrated, or subjected to death threats. People have said since the 11th century AD that Moses could not possibly be the author of the first five books of the Bible. Suggesting anything remotely similar now about the Qu’ran is to condemn you to an existence where the gendarmerie have to accompany your children to school every day.

Actually, there is much evidence in support of some aspects of the traditional narrative, including for the Prophet’s existence. We know that the Arabs started numbering their years from the moment of revelation from documentary evidence from very soon after the Prophet’s recorded death.

There is internal evidence in the Qu’ran that it was, indeed, composed during the period of the Prophet’s lifetime — sura 30, verse 1 alludes to the loss of Palestine to the Persian emperor Khusrow II in 614. There is some basis for Ernest Renan’s claim in the 19th century that ‘Islam was born, not amid the mystery which cradles the origins of other religions, but rather in the full light of history.’


There are, however, some gaps and uncertainties, which have been energetically suppressed by some of the faithful. The hadiths were only set down many decades — sometimes centuries — later, and grew in number and specificity. The sayings of the Prophet had legal force, so it was tempting to announce that a useful one had just been found. It took centuries to winnow out the real ones from the spurious, and some scholars, such as Joseph Schacht, have declared that the idea that ‘there existed originally an authentic core of information must be abandoned’.

As for the Prophet himself, biographies had a tendency to expand, and the direct link with his life is one, after a certain point, of oral history. As Holland puts it with brave Gibbonian irony:

Fresh evidence — wholly unsuspected by Mohammed’s earliest biographers — would see him revered as a man able to foretell the future, to receive messages from camels, and palm trees, and joints of meat, and to pick up a soldier’s eyeball, reinsert it, and make it work better than before. The result was one yet additional miracle: the further in time from the Prophet a biographer, the more extensive his biography was likely to be.

It was all very much like those mad Gnostic gospels, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, about Jesus turning clay sparrows into real birds in his childhood, like a juvenile magician.

The difficulty is suggested by an interesting archaeological discovery in Yemen. Forty years ago, a stash of old Qu’rans was found preserved in the ceiling of an ancient Sana’a mosque. They turned out to include fragments of the oldest Qu’rans in existence. When a German palaeographer called Puin declared that, after examining them, he had concluded that the text of the Qu’ran had evolved over time like any other text, the authorities in Yemen withdrew all permission to study the fragments further.

For the most part, students of Islam’s earliest period have the tendency to couch their arguments in extremely guarded terms, verging on a sort of code. Holland is to be congratulated on setting out the terms of the argument with clarity. His central point about the emergence of Islam as a political and cultural force is that it does not appear from the desert like a clean wind, as the tradition asserts. Its culture comes through at a specific historical point, and it can be shown to rest on the ruins of previous civilisations. It learnt from the successes and failures of other great movements.

But it does not seem at all appropriate to the Islamic historian to suggest that the spread of Islam owed anything to the hated Roman empire — which had appeared quite happy to have a whore like Theodora as empress in Constantinople. Still less does it seem fitting to mention the way the Umayyads leapt in to fill the gap left by the collapse of the Persian empire, with its love of silk, perfumes and luxury. But, as Holland shows in a grand tour d’horizon of the empires which preceded and rivalled the great Islamic moment, this blazing new civilisation drew on, as much as it obliterated, its rivals, and brightly coloured Persian silks were soon all the rage in the new metropolis of Baghdad.

It was an age of curious spiritual experiments, such as St Simeon Stylites on his pillar in Syria — the column’s still there, in a most romantic spot — and St Helena’s archaeological excavations in Jerusalem. Mortal sins were not always agreed upon — Islamic scholars believed that Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed because of their inhabitants’ habit of farting in public. Different sets of belief fought, then as now, over the same ground — the pre-Islamic Arabs worshipped their pagan gods at the same tree, just south of Jerusalem, that Christians and Jews revered as a favourite of Abraham’s.

Nor were the first Muslims always quite free from the temptation to carry out their own experiments in belief. They imported from Zoroastrianism, for instance, the idea of praying five times a day — the Qu’ran only indicates three times. They changed their mind about their initial idea that the footprint at the Dome of the Rock was God’s, at the beginning of creation, and decided in the 11th century that it must have been Mohammed’s, ‘who was supposedly transported from Mecca to Jerusalem’, Holland says, ‘specifically for the purpose’. An early Caliph like Mu’awiya, later much reviled, was perfectly happy to ‘pray at the site of the crucifixion, or to restore Edessa’s cathedral after it had been toppled by an earthquake, or to have the odd public inscription on a bath-house adorned with a cross.’

Tom Holland is a writer of clarity and expertise, who talks us through this unfamiliar and crowded territory with energy and some dry wit. He should remind himself of the meaning of the word ‘oblivious’, and avoid the expression ‘beg the question’ altogethe. But the emergence of Islam is a notoriously risky subject, so a confident historian who is able to explain where this great religion came from without illusion or dissimulation has us greatly in his debt.


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