Daisy Dunn

Interview: Tom Holland on the origins of Islam

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In the fifth century BC Herodotus of Halicarnassus set out a history of hostilities between the Greeks and the Persians. For all his quirky non-sequiturs (Ethiopians’ skin is black, so must be their semen…) he fulfilled his not-so-modest objective to immortalize the deeds of Greeks and non-Greeks alike, in particular, the reason they warred against one another. Tom Holland (who is, incidentally, in the process of translating Herodotus’ Histories) evokes more than a little of this spirit in his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword, an intrepid history of the evolution of the Arab Empire.

From Rubicon to Persian Fire and Millennium Holland has hurtled through ancient history like a runaway horse on a hippodrome. The new book, which has taken five years to complete, was apparently just the next, inevitable hurdle, ‘There was an obvious gap, having written about the Persian Empire and about the transformation from the Roman world to the Medieval world in Europe, to look at what had happened in the East — the collapse of the Persian Empire there, the truncation of the Roman Empire, and to treat the coming of Islam as the falling of the Roman Empire in the East, I thought, would be an interesting take.’ He suggests in his book that Islam’s evolution and final construction as an orthodoxy was part of a long process; that, far from springing up in isolation, it developed out of a melting pot of cultures — the kind of pot that subsequently shattered into a pile of glue-repellent shards, ‘It’s become very fashionable to speak about Abrahamic faiths, and historically it’s tended to be Muslims who’ve been keen on that idea because it gets them into the Judeo-Christian private members’ club, but I think that if you try to look at where Islam might have come from as part of an evolutionary process, and you set aside the notion that it somehow evolved spontaneously in the middle of the desert, it’s actually clear that it’s very much part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that all these religions are really products of the same cultural milieu’.

Holland doesn’t treat the Qur’an as pure history ‘since it seems to me to be very clearly a product of Late Antiquity, I think that there is a more obvious explanation for its composition than the fact that it came from God.’ But while rejecting some of the explosive claims proffered by other historians, among them the idea that the Qur’an evolved over a long period after the time of Muhammad, he can’t be oblivious to the kind of reaction a book handling this material could evoke in the current climate, ‘I think being a religious believer requires you to take a leap of faith, and I think there’s a degree to which Muslims, far more than Christians, have felt that the foundation myths of their religion are somehow historical fact, and it seems to me that they’re clearly not. There must be a bedrock of fact, but it is more sacred history than it is history, and your ability to believe in sacred history must ultimately come down to faith, so I suspect that Muslims who read the book will maybe have their faith tested, but I’m sure will emerge triumphant from the test.’

That’s not to say that religion is written out of his history. Holland, who has previously also written vampire novels, told me later that he has ‘always been interested in the supernatural…In a sense writing about what people believe about angels and what people believe about vampires isn’t so incredibly different. They’re both projections. The dimension of the supernatural in medieval times is felt to be as real as anything. Often in translations of Herodotus the gods are written out of it — translators will put ‘fate’ instead of ‘god’, but the supernatural, I think, is something you absolutely have to have a sense of if you’re writing about antiquity.’ Gabriel, Holland notes, crops up in both the Qur’an and the Bible, ‘there’s a sense in which I think as Islam evolves and as, let’s say, Muslims start to realize that they are in competition with Jews and Christians, they need to have their Prophet have a revelation from an angel.’

A glaring absence of sources (‘I assumed there would be some early Muslim equivalent of Cicero. It was a shock to realize that actually the lack of sources is completely yawning’) naturally provides much opportunity for this kind of speculation with regards a common fount, ‘In the Qur’an there seem to be echoes even of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The margins of Palestine, beyond the reach of the bishops and the rabbis is where you expect Jewish-Christians, Christian-Jews, Samaritans — the whole range of religious beliefs which had slowly become more and more homogenized during late antiquity — to go. Although you can’t find hard evidence, you can see how they might have got there and how these elements might have got into the Qur’an.’ The absence of hard evidence is hardly just an accident of time, ‘the problem is that all of the religions ultimately attain a state where their beliefs and structures are the concrete sets and when that moment comes, they somehow have to construct a back story, which explains why they were always like that and they have to write out the alternatives, the counter-factuals out of the story’. And it’s not a phenomenon limited to this history past, either. In light of his work to secure higher royalties for authors when their works become e-books, he said, ‘A bit like the competition in the early days of religion to shape the orthodoxy, you reach the point where you can’t change the orthodoxy because it’s completely set. So at the moment, where the market in e-books is still evolving, it’s incredibly important for all concerned to establish the contours and frameworks which will apply for decades.’

In the Shadow of the Sword is a necessarily masculine, bloody history. The only woman to emerge from its pages with any verve is Theodora, the tightrope-walking trollop wife of Roman Emperor Justinian, later reformed into an alms-giving saint. ‘This is a very masculine world in which men do horrible things to each other, but Christianity does give a role to women that they had not had under paganism and Islam likewise is, I think, best thought of as a response to conditions of anarchy and horror that make recent events in Iraq look like a cakewalk. The horror of the Near East in the seventh century beggers description — it’s a place ravaged by plague, by war, by gangs, by factionalism and of course in such a world women are objects to be stolen and plundered and abused. A lot of the things about Islam which seem retrogressive to us now at the time must have been an absolute blessing to women. One of the reasons why it’s specified that a man can have more than one wife is precisely so women will have a protector. The requirements to keep themselves covered, which seems to us so sexist, actually in a world where a woman’s flesh is a commodity, is something incredibly precious. So I think that looking at it in that light you see, ethically and morally, just how much better the world is for these revolutions. And so it’s so tempting to buy into the notion that everything was great before these miserable Christians with their grey breath and these Muslims with their stern repellent warrior king came along, but I have absolutely no doubt that I’d rather be living in a monotheistic world than a premonotheistic world.’ In spite of everything, there are few who would dispute that. 

In The Shadow of the Sword, by Tom Holland, is published by Little Brown. A film relating to the book will be aired on Channel 4 this summer.