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In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire Hardcover – May 15, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for In the Shadow of the Sword:

"[Tom Holland's] conclusions may be tentative, but they are convincing. His book is elegantly written and refreshingly free from specialist jargon. Marshaling its resources with dexterity, it is a veritable tour de force."—Malise Ruthven, Wall Street Journal

"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.... [This book is] accessible but fun to read as any thriller, and with far richer intellectual nutritional content."—David Frum, Daily Beast

"The life of Muhammad and the rise of Islam are boldly re-examined in this brilliantly provocative history.... [An] ambitious and...important book.... Holland is a skilful and energetic narrator, and while he guides us along the more intricate twists and turns of the period, he also keeps our eyes on the bigger story."—Anthony Sattin, Guardian Observer (London)

"[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

"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... [and] he possesses a falcon eye for detail.... [A] spell-bindingly brilliant multiple portrait of the triumph of monotheism in the ancient world."—Barnaby Rogerson, the Independent (London)

"This dramatic investigation of the origins of Islam is both a thrilling narrative history and a compelling piece of detective work.... A compelling detective story of the highest order, In the Shadow of the Sword is also a dazzlingly colourful journey into the world of late antiquity. We encounter brain-eating demons; a caliph with such oral-hygiene problems that he could kill a fly with one breath; and that old favourite, St
Simeon Stylites, rotting away on his pillar but still managing to miraculously cure a man with unfeasibly large testicles, “like a pair of clay jars”. Every bit as thrilling a narrative history as Holland's previous works, In the Shadow of the Sword is also a profoundly important book. It makes public and popular what scholarship has been
discovering for several decades now: and those discoveries suggest a wholesale revision of where Islam came from and what it is
."—Christopher Hart, Sunday Times (London)

"[M]agnificent...and brave....The historian and author of Rubicon and Persian Fire has now, after five years’ work, come up with In the Shadow of the Sword. His story is so compellingly told that it could almost be Dan Brown, except that Holland writes brilliantly, with a simultaneously dashing, meticulous and at times ravishingly camp style, and his tale is true."—Michael Bywater, The Week (London)

"Tom Holland is a writer of clarity and expertise, who talks us through this unfamiliar and crowded territory with energy and some dry wit.... [T]he 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."—Philip Hensher, The Spectator (London)

Praise for The Forge of Christendom

“An entertaining account of the fraught last years of the Dark Ages.”— The Wall Street Journal

“An enjoyable and exuberantly argued book . . . Holland combines sound scholarly credentials with a gift for storytelling on a magisterial scale . . . In a tightly woven and sometimes witty narrative, [Holland demonstrates] the subtle interplay of genuine religious sentiment and cynical power politics.”—The Economist

“[This] is narrative history in the grand manner, written with the panache and confidence we associate with the great historians of the 18th and 19th centuries.”—Allan Massie, The Daily Telegraph

“A superb, fascinating and erudite medieval banquet.”
—Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Evening Standard

Praise for Persian Fire

“Excellent . . . Holland is a cool-headed historian who writes here no less authoritatively and engagingly on classical Greece than he did on ancient Rome in his last book, Rubicon.”—Mary Beard, The Times Literary Supplement

“It is . . . a testament to Holland’s superlative powers as a narrative historian that he brings this tumultuous, epoch-making period dazzlingly to life, and makes the common reader familiar again with one of the most thrilling periods in world history.” —William Napier, The Independent

Praise for Rubicon

“Not since Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution has there been such an original and enlivening piece of Roman history. Tom Holland has the rare gift of making deep scholarship accessible and exciting. A brilliant and completely absorbing study.”—A.N. Wilson

“A book that really held me, in fact, obsessed me . . . Narrative history at its best.” –Ian McEwan, The Guardian, Books of the Year

“Richly resonant. . . . Ancient history lives in this vivid chronicle.”—Booklist (starred review)

About the Author

Historian Tom Holland is the author of the works of history Rubicon, Persian Fire, and The Forge of Christendom.  He reviews regularly for the TLS, and has adapted Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Virgil for BBC Radio. 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.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; First American Edition, 1st Printing edition (May 15, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385531354
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385531351
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.7 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #531,208 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

74 of 80 people found the following review helpful By D. Layman on 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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130 of 149 people found the following review helpful By David Reid Ross on May 20, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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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77 of 90 people found the following review helpful By Max Blackston on June 4, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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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