Sunday, March 8, 2015

In the Shadow of the Sword

I do love a good history book, and Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword is brilliant. It was recommended by Robin Pierson on his History of Byzantium podcast (I've been reading and listening to a lot about Late Antiquity lately), and is a fantastic look at the birth of Islam. I've read a bit about the traditional view of Islam - as emerging essentially fully formed from a town in Arabia, and exploding onto the world stage due to its own internal force, and the latent power of the Arab people; but this is a very different story of the Arabs and their rise to dominance. They had been largely unharmed by the Black Death (which had repeatedly decimated all the surrounding civilizations), and stepped into the power vacuum created by the mutual destruction of the two great superpowers of the age, Persian and the Byzantine Empire, and then harnessed the infrastructure of those empires to set up their own new superpower, the Caliphate. As they did this, their new religion developed. Archaeological evidence contradicts the traditional view of how Islam developed, showing that early Arab rulers mixed Christian, Jewish, and Muslim symbolism, and what are now considered standard, fixed parts of the religion were in flux for at least the first century, being shaped by an ongoing theological struggle between theologists and the Caliphs.

Holland does a great story of explaining this historical account that has been developed by modern historians in recent years, and in the end it's a much more satisfying account of the emergence of the rich and unique Islamic culture from the melting pot of cultures in the Middle East of late antiquity.

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