Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World, Little Brown, 2012.

Tradition holds that Mohamet’s life and works were conducted in the full light of history, by contrast to the degree of authority that can be given to the evangelists about the life of Christ. In the words of  Salman Rushdie, quoted here in the introduction to Tom Holland’s fascinating book, “whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time”.


Mohamet is said to have been born around 570, spent his childhood as an orphan living under the care of his uncle, became a merchant, and was married by the age of 25. But it was only at the age of 40, that he received his first revelations. Three years later he began to preach the kernel of his message that “God was One”; that complete submission-islam-was the only way for mankind to enter into God’s mercy; and that he, Mohamet, was a messenger of God, the last prophet  to mankind and the renovator of the pristine monotheism of the Judeo-Christian tradition–of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and the  prophets.

In the many histories of Mohamet, his life is divided into two: the period from 570 to 622, the pre-hijra (emigration) period from Mecca, and the post-hijra years from 622 to 632, the year of his death. In the year 622, marking the beginning of the Islamic calendar, Mohamet migrated to Medina with some of his followers to escape persecution in Mecca. In Medina, he united the tribes, conquered Mecca, smashed its pagan idols and by the time of his death, had united most of the Arabian peninsula under Islam. Before dying, he initiated the rite of the Great Pilgrimage (hajj) to Medina, and delivered his famous Farewell Sermon at Mount Arafat, east of Mecca.

It was the archangel Gabriel–the same who spoke to Daniel in the Old Testament, and who appeared to the Virgin Mary, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke—who spoke to the prophet in his first revelation (ayah), and who, by tradition, is believed to have revealed the Qur’an to him. The revelations form its verses, and are regarded by Muslims as the word of God. Besides the holy book, the life (sira) of the prophet and the traditions (sunnah) surrounding him are upheld as sources of sharia law, whereby Muslims are enjoined to order their lives.

Many of his sayings (hadith) were originally collated by Aisha, in the Sunni tradition held to be the favourite of Mohamet’s thirteen wives or concubines, and who outlived him by decades. In the 8th and 9th century, the hadiths were extended and came to include the sira. By contrast, theearliest Christian source of the Prophet came from Byzantium two years after his death. In Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati, Mohamet appears as a fraud, “for do prophets come with sword and chariot?”[1]

Why then should Holland chose Salman Rushdie to state the Muslim position on the origins of Islam?  It is not as if Rushdie has not had his problems with Islamic religious authorities, his book being burned in Bradford in 1989, prior to Khomeini delivering a fatwa on his head. The answer is that Holland takes on the form of religions, and talks sometimes in half-lights and shades of grey. Clearly, he choses Rushdie because even an alleged apostate cleaves to the tradition that Mohamet’s life is bathed in the light of history as a known figure to his contemporaries, with his passions, revelations, wives and wars. All the more is the case for the 1.5 billion Muslims alive today.

Religion, though, is about belief and is in part immune to logic. Not so skepticism. Skepticism suggests questioning, the summoning of evidence, and the skirmish of debate at the end of which we are either confirmed in our hypothesis, or we refute it. To skeptics, God is a hypothesis, by definition irrefutable, and only approachable through belief, practice and grace. When God takes human form, or talks to humans via emissaries, he enters human time. Of that, historians require that there be a record, not necessarily on parchment, but some trace that God passed by here.

Yet as Edward Gibbon noted in a discrete footnote in the third volume of his The Decline and fall of The Roman Empire, none of the historians he had consulted for his biography of the Prophet was a writer “of the first century of the Hegira”. [2] There was a record, but where was the source? The Quran itself only mentioned Mohamet four times. So perhaps the hadiths were not genuine? Early Islamic scholars had asked the same question, concluded that many hadiths had been faked, and dedicated their lives to sorting  the true from the false to form an authoritative Sunna.

This was not sufficient for skeptical Western scholars of the 19th century, who went to work on the Bible. Darwin, in his Origin of the Species, which appeared in 1859, had driven a cart and horse through the literal interpretation of the Creation. The origin of the world, it was now revealed, was measured in eons, not thousands of years. The results of these investigations were represented by the conclusion of a German theologian whereby  “the beginnings of Hebrew history (are suspended) not upon the grand creations of Moses, but upon airy nothings”. [3]

The Sunna, too, wentunder the scholars’ loop. What they saw was much creative imagination and a deal of plagiarism. In his groundbreaking study of 1950, Professor Joseph Schacht summarized his findings thus: “We must abandon the gratuitous assumptions that there existed originally an authentic core of information going back to the time of the Prophet”. [4] As Fazhur Rahman, a noted Pakistani liberal declared in 1965, a yawning chasm of 14 centuries separates us contemporaries from Mohamet.

For before the 8th century, there are the barest shreds of evidence about the Arab warriors who transformed the ancient world by subjugating the empires or Persia and Rome and founded a worldwide religion which in the 21st century-long after the passing of caliphs and emperors-boasts 1.5 billion adherents.

The method Holland uses to shed light on the crucial missing centuries is twofold.  He writes through the eyes of contemporaries who discerned the forefinger of God shaping history; and he uses the sources of history which were much more abundant in the Roman and Persian contemporary worlds.

The first method, bringing God into the human story, meets with much skepticism from numerous contemporary authors, who downplay religion and are more comfortable dealing with economics and sociology. But that is not Holland’s way. The contemporaries of the ancient world, which the eruption of Islam brought to an end, sought to found their empires on monotheism. One Empire, One God was the maxim for both Christian Rome and Zoroastrian Persia.

The second method is to trace the histories of the two empires, ending in the terrible wars between them, the plagues that decimated their populations and the imperial revenues, and their mutual interest in recruiting Arab warriors from the peninsula. Only two years after the death of Mohamet, the Arabs are in Palestine, capture Jerusalem, invade Egypt, and by the 650s cross the Oxus river, to reach Constantinople by 674.  Within a century, the Arab dominions stretch from the Loire valley to the Hindu Kush, and construction is begun on Baghdad, on the banks of the Tigris.

The collapse of Rome and Persia are not ascribed by Islamic scholars to plague and to war, as they are in non-Islamic sources of the time, but to the revelation of the word of God to his messenger in Mecca.  God’s forefinger in  history is the cause of Islam’s victories.

Islam, Holland argues, is bathed in the light of history in the sense that it is built on the rubble of the two empires.[5] Islam absorbed the practice for instance of praying 5 times a day from the Zoroastrians; in elaborating the hadiths, Islamic scholars followed the trail long blazed by Jewish scholars in their commentaries on the holy texts; in Mecca, Mohamet re-consecrated from pagan usage the granite stone—the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, and in the direction of which Moslems are called to pray.

The four centuries from the founding of Baghdad are reckoned as the glory of historic Islam, the central space within which the intellectual inheritances of the two great empires were exchanged, cherished and developed. But in 1258, God showed his fury at the apostasy, which went under the name of Islam and had Baghdad laid waste by the Mongol armies. Bernard Lewis, in his influential writings on Constantinople and Islam, dates decline from these terrible events. In Lewis’ view, the inquisitive and open minds of Islamic scholars recede for a more textual exegesis of the texts. [6] Islam turns inward, and as the UN Arab report of 2002 records, has had fewer books translated from the rest of the world since 1258, than modern Spain does in one year.

Holland’s book is not just about Islam and its origins. It is also really about the three monotheisms. Islam, the latest, learns from its predecessors the methods of exegesis, the ambition to think of One God, not many; and of a God who appears to human kind, either directly, as in the case of Jesus, or indirectly through archangels and the prophets. It also learnt from the Jewish rabbis and the Christian theologians how to come to grips with explanations—necessarily arduous—of seeking to explain how an eternal God intervenes in human time to announce His Message. For Islam, the process lasted at least 6 centuries. The Caesars, Shahanshahs and Caliphs have gone, writes Holland, but the religions in the last centuries of the ancient world remain with their 3.5 billion adherents in the 21st century.

The pen is mightier than the sword, he concludes. And therein is the dagger underneath the velvet glove of Holland’s prose. The modern world, the last sixty or so years, states that Islam was born in near impenetrable darkness. Such an allegation, many Moslems consider, can only be the act of a hostile West—definitely the position of Say’yid Qutb, the intellectual godfather of the Moslem Brotherhood. Qutb calls for a recreation of a purer Islam, with the Quran as its guide.

But what beckons is much worse., Holland implies. It is the horror that Islam maybe a fairy tale. In a key passage in his excellent book, Holland cities Rahman, the Pakistani liberal, who points to the yawning chasm opening up between us and Mohamet’s time, where de detects “the bleak and ravening skepticism of the West”, opening up before his faith, he sees even “the existence of the Prophet himself (becoming) an unwarranted myth”.[7]

In the extreme forms which Islam sometimes takes, Moslems are tempted, indeed visited, by madness. That was al ‘Qaeda’s way. Since 9/11, the indications are that many Muslims have come to the conclusion that that way spells annihilation. The only way forward is to ensure science and religion are brought together. There is a task, which the experience of the rabbis, the doctors of the Church, and the scholars of Islam should remind us, will surely provide lasting employment for centuries to come.


[1] Walter Emil Kaegi, “Initial Byzantine Reactions to the Arab Conquest”, Church History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jun., 1969), p. 139-149, p. 139-142, quoting from Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati 86-87.

[2]  Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (3 Vols), London, 1994.p. 190. Quoted Holland, p.34.

[3] Wilhelm  M.L. de Wette, quoted by Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Rote the Bible, New York, 1987. p. 25.

[4] The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, Oxford 1950.p.149. quoted Holland, p.36.

[5] Holland, p.301.

[6]  For instance, Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, Oxford University Press, 2002.

[7] Fazhur Rahman, Islamic Methodology in History, Karachi, 1965,pp.70-71.

About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) ( His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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