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In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire [Kindle Edition]

Tom Holland
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $17.00
Kindle Price: $10.99
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Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

The acclaimed author of Rubicon and other superb works of popular history now produces a thrillingly panoramic (and incredibly timely) account of the rise of Islam.
No less significant than the collapse of the Roman Republic or the Persian invasion of Greece, the evolution of the Arab empire is one of the supreme narratives of ancient history, a story dazzlingly rich in drama, character, and achievement.  Just like the Romans, the Arabs came from nowhere to carve out a stupefyingly vast dominion—except that they achieved their conquests not over the course of centuries as the Romans did but in a matter of decades. Just like the Greeks during the Persian wars, they overcame seemingly insuperable odds to emerge triumphant against the greatest empire of the day—not by standing on the defensive, however, but by hurling themselves against all who lay in their path.

Editorial Reviews


Praise for Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword

“Elegantly written. . . . A veritable tour de force.”
The Wall Street Journal

“A brilliant tour de force of revisionist scholarship and thrilling storytelling with a bloodspattered cast of swashbuckling tyrants, nymphomaniacal empresses and visionary prophets. The book is unputdownable. . . . An important work based on respected scholarship. It takes courage and intellect to confront such complexity and sensitivity. Written with flamboyant elegance and energetic intensity.”
The Times (London) 
“Accessible but delightful . . . as fun to read as any thriller, and with far richer intellectual nutritional content. . . . Those unwilling to struggle through academic texts have long needed a guide to the story of Islam as it’s understood by those with the fullest access to the latest linguistic and archaeological evidence. Now at last in Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword, they finally have it. . . . Holland—author previously of Rubicon and Persian Fire—is about as exciting a stylist as we have writing history today.”
The Daily Beast
“[Holland’s] prose is shot through with wit and empathy. The result is a portrait of a lost world that is complex, contradictory and populated by people in thrall to ideas future generations would dismiss as ridiculous. Much like our own, in other words.”
Dallas Morning News

“[An] elegant study of the roiling era of internecine religious rivalry and epic strife that saw the nation of Islam rise and conquer. . . . Holland confronts questions in the Quranic text head-on, providing a substantive, fluid exegesis on the original documents. Smoothly composed history and fine scholarship.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Tom Holland is a writer of clarity and expertise, who talks us through this unfamiliar and crowded territory with energy and some dry wit. . . . 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.”
The Spectator (London)

“This is a book of extraordinary richness. I found myself amused, diverted and enchanted by turn. For Tom Holland has an enviable gift for summoning up the colour, the individuals and animation of the past, without sacrificing factual integrity. He writes with a contagious conviction that history is not only a fascinating tale in itself but is a well-honed instrument with which we can understand our neighbours and our own times, maybe even ourselves. He is also a divertingly inventive writer with a wicked wit—there’s something of both Gibbon and Tom Wolfe in his writing. In the Shadow of the Sword remains a spell-bindingly brilliant multiple portrait of the triumph of monotheism in the ancient world.”
The Independent (London)

“This is a handsome volume, tackling an important question from a novel perspective.”
Sunday Telegraph (London)

“Holland tells a complex story, dotted with names and places leagues beyond the realm of popular recognition. Yet he makes it unmistakably his own. He is one of the most distinctive prose stylists writing history today, and he drags his tale by the ears, conjuring the half-vanished past with such gusto that characters and places fairly bound from the page. In the Shadow of the Sword may reach provocative conclusions, but it is also a work of impressive sensitivity and scholarship.”
Telegraph (London)

“An exhilarating read because Holland succeeds in capturing much of the excitement, strangeness and importance of a long past age. It is difficult not to be bedazzled.”
Financial Times (London)

“An ambitious and important book. . . . His excellent book will be lauded, as it should be for doing what the best sort of books can do—examining holy cows.”
The Observer (London)

About the Author

Historian Tom Holland is the author of the nonfiction works of history Rubicon, Persian Fire, and The Forge of Christendom. Rubicon was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize and won the 2004 Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History, and Persian Fire won the Anglo-Hellenic League’s 2006 Runciman Award.


Product Details

  • File Size: 30795 KB
  • Print Length: 545 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1408700077
  • Publisher: Anchor (May 15, 2012)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #93,530 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
93 of 107 people found the following review helpful
The book aims to explain Late Antiquity up to 600 AD, and to show how Islam developed from that up to 800 AD. Historians have much better records for Late Antiquity than they have for the first century of Islam - as this book notes and as many other historians have noted (and lamented). The bulk of the book amounts to an introductory overview; the origins of Islam takes up only the last third of it and this part reads more like an argumentary essay.

The prose is florid, yet interspersed with vulgarities. Holland is inordinately fond of the low, cant term "screwed" when discussing... tax extraction. This style felt to me like he was trying too hard to keep my interest. (He's much like Peter Heather here.)

Fortunately the book has marshaled an impressive array of facts behind its narrative. I was impressed that it had stayed so close to the cutting edge, especially in the Persia / Parthia sections.

Much of that recent material distills Parvaneh Pourshariati, "Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire"; that book came out in 2008. The reader must be warned here that Holland does not challenge Pourshariati where Pourshariati relies on mediaeval Iranian legend. For instance, Holland tells of Sukhrâ of the Parthian house Karin as avenger of the shah Peroz (pp. 83-5). Holland has this from Pourshariati `an Tabari (p. 455 nn. 47-49, 51). This is an in-house legend of the Karin and not history: Arthur Christensen, "Iran sous les Sassanides" (Copenhagen: 1944), p. 296. (Hat-tip to the review by Geoffery Greatrex, 1010.)

Where the book touches Islam, it is careful to contrast classical jargon against the way people (including Arabs) thought during the 600s.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars an elegant read, but be careful of the details July 4, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The reviews that precede me are thorough and point out both the strengths and weaknesses of *The Shadow of the Sword*. I am largely in agreement with their comments. I *do,* however, disagree with the claim that this is poorly written. To the contrary, the writing is elegant and flows rapidly: in the parts of the history that I was acquainted with, I could consume whole pages in seconds.

The problem arises precisely from Holland's fluent prose: as he reconstructs events, his eloquent descriptions can deceive the reader into taking his formulations literally, rather than being what they are--literary reconstructions. It reminded me of a newspaper: if it misrepresents the facts that I *know* about, how can I trust those assertions that I do *not* have personal knowledge about? I want to be clear: I am not accusing Mr. Holland of historical errors. The problem is that he writes so well that the reader can be tempted to take his descriptions at face value.

Here's an example, literally at random (Kindle Loc 3333): "In 527, five years before work began on Hagia Sophia, a small boy named Simeon had trotted through the bazaars and shanty-towns of Antioch, out through the olive groves that stretched southwards of the city, and up the slopes of a nearby mountain. Its rugged heights were no place for a child, nor for anyone with a care for comfort." There are 3 facts in those sentences: that Simeon became a stylite in 527, he was a child at the time, and that he came from Antioch. Everything else is in Holland's very vivid imagination.

Much in this work I already knew about: the Jewish and Christian history, and the contemporary skeptical reconstructions of Islamic origins and history. Unfortunately, when he poses the crucial questions about Islamic origins (ch.
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56 of 65 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A long and winding road June 4, 2012
If you didn't know the author, the title of this book and its cover illustration - a fallen helmet with vacant staring eye-sockets lying in the desert sand - give the impression of an epic historical novel. Distribution too; I bought a soft cover "airport edition" - a channel better known for promoting the latest books by best-selling authors. Although in its style and structure it reads like a novel - somewhat florid prose, and dramatic interruptions in the narrative to allow the reader to catch up on another part of the plot - anyone who buys the book under this expectation will soon realize that what they actually have is a hardcore history book.

It is essentially an attempt to present a historical account of Mohammed and the early history of Islam, as opposed to the idealized version subsequently enshrined in the religion that was founded in the name of the prophet. In order to achieve this, the author traces the development of the three major religions of antiquity - Christianity, Judaism and the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian Persian empire. This forms the essential context for explaining the rapid spread of Islam on the back of the Arab conquest of the ancient east early in the seventh century. He describes how some form of monotheism was by this time already pervasive in most of what we call the middle east. And this did not exclude the Arabs; thousands had moved north, where they could make a profitable living, policing the borders of both Byzantine and Sassanian empires as mercenaries, and where at the same time they were likely to have been influenced by the winds of monotheism.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth it
I enjoyed reading it. It is not anti Islamic but gives a neutral interpretation of how Islam rose. Though it offers a historical view, so the religious fanatics won't like it. Read more
Published 7 hours ago by David Delfini
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 24 days ago by Mishal
4.0 out of 5 stars did not subjugate in order to exterminate all non-believers like Islam...
Tom Holland's book is clearly written and engaging. Furthermore, Mr. Holland provides substantial evidence for his innovative thesis that Islam arose out of the Saudi peninsula... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Dennis
1.0 out of 5 stars Written by an author who obviously did not do enough ...
Written by an author who obviously did not do enough historical research and certainly does not understand the Islamic scriptures.
Published 2 months ago by Sajjad Rizvi
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Brilliant history writing.
Published 2 months ago by Amateur Biologist
1.0 out of 5 stars A rambling, difficult read
I can't believe this is the same author who wrote Persian Fire and Rubicon.
This book requires an investment of time and patience to work through the mass (mess) of factual... Read more
Published 2 months ago by CK
5.0 out of 5 stars Romping good read
Rambling through history, myth and superstition this author leads the reader on a journey worth taking. The language is evocative and superb. Read more
Published 2 months ago by A. Mulholland
5.0 out of 5 stars Giving meaning and coherence to ancient history and distant cultures
Tom Holland gives meaning and coherency to long stretches of history, wide spans of culture and seemingly conflicting religious beliefs. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Stein Ørnhaug
1.0 out of 5 stars Very shallow knowledge of Arabian culture during the late antiquity...
I bought the book believing the title: it will inform me about how a group of so called barbarians built this big empire in such a short time. Read more
Published 3 months ago by khandaker Islam
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
Covers the birth and development of Islam in great detail. For anyone interested in this history I would recommend this book
Published 4 months ago by David
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