The subtitle of this book is The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. It focuses on the story of the Middle East in the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the establishment of Islam, considering the historical development of the two major faiths, and the political and military events of the period. The rise of Islam is seen as a consequence of the power vacuum caused by the decline of Roman and Persian empires.
I have read 3 other books by Tom Holland – Persian Fire, Rubicon and Millennium: I enjoyed all of these, and especially the first two, which were about two periods that I was quite familiar with. Not everyone is as impressed – some claiming that the books are overburdened with unnecessary facts. I could see this criticism as valid with respect to In the Shadow of the Sword: Holland ranges widely, dealing with the conflicts between Persia and Rome, as well as the historical background of the Arab world, and offers detailed analysis of the two faiths, considering the development of both the Christianity and Islam as determined by history rather than God.
Holland is brave in his account of the development of Islam, claiming that the links between Mohammed and the final version of Islam codified over a hundred years later, during the early part of the Islamic empire, are tenuous and undocumented. This proved controversial, with Islamists claiming Holland had only studied western texts, that he had not considered all the historical documents available in the Middle East: that he was biased. A private showing of the accompanying film, Islam, the Untold Story by Channel 4, was cancelled due to security concerns.
As a Christian it’s interesting, and also a little confusing, to read about the historical development of faith. He claims the dominance of one form of belief is merely a consequence of history. Sometimes the distinctions seem small, yet complicated: I had to re-read the sections about monophysites whenever the phrase recurred in the text, just to get the idea clear in my head.
In the end I suppose the theology left me quite confused, but the story of the development of the Islamic empire and of the decline of Rome and Persia is full of battles, of heroes and villains, of all the stuff of great historical narrative. For this reason it’s worth reading.