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In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire

3.91 of 5 stars 3.91  ·  rating details  ·  1,065 ratings  ·  144 reviews
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 d
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Hardcover, 560 pages
Published May 15th 2012 by Doubleday (first published 2012)
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(showing 1-30 of 2,736)
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Tariq Mahmood
What a controversially exciting book for the Muslims of the world. Its an
honour to get a serious scholar like Tom Holland actually researching the
history of the Muslims and presenting theories that help fill out many gaps in
the known Muslim history. Read on if you are slightly concerned about the
various claims put together by the Ulema about the authenticity of the Quran
guaranteed by Allah; read on if you want to know why there is a period of
almost 200 years of literacy silence after the death o
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Karla
A more apt title would be A Chronological Recitation of The History of the Abrahamic Religions, With Multitudinous Minutiae Relating To Christianity and Judaism, With Perhaps An Eventual Arrival At the Religion Mentioned in the Title (But Not Guaranteed).

Get to the effin' point already.

My patience couldn't bear it out beyond the halfway point.

Other nit to pick: Holland loves parenthetical expressions and he diagrams his sentences in a way that doesn't trip off the tongue (or the brain). The sect
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Steve Love
After hearing an interview with the author, I decided to read this, not out of any particular interest in Islam, but because of my curiosity for the origins of things. In that respect, In the Shadow of the Sword did not disappoint. As best I can tell, Tom Holland deserves to be commended for his research. His writing, on the other hand, leaves a little to be desired.

The book spans thousands of years, and in presenting his history, Holland often weaves together events that occurred many, many yea
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Paul Pessolano
“In the Shadow of the Sword” by Tom Holland, published by Doubleday.

Category – History

Tom Holland takes on a daunting task of tracing the rise of Islam. He traces the beginning from antiquity to the present. It is far reaching in scope and gives new insight into present day politics and religion.

The book starts with the founding of Rome and how it was able to rule the known world to the how and why Rome failed. It takes on the rise of the Muslim world with the teachings of Muhammad to its presen
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Simon Jones
A book of two halves, both equally compelling. The opening chapters give us the overview of the Roman and Persian worlds in the closing centuries of antiquity, told with Tom Holland's usual flamboyant narrative style which few history writers can match. It seemlessly blends big picture analysis with fascinating detail to give a highly enjoyable romp through the period. The conventional history of Islam's origins is laid out in similar style along with a valuable insight into the Jewish experienc ...more
Daniel
I think the marketing for this book was a little misleading, I was expecting the focus to be on the collapse of Roman and Persian power in the near east in the face of the Arabs, but the book actually focuses little on this event. Instead the book focuses on the interplay between religion and empire and how it shaped the events we now mark as the end of antiquity, as well as their aftermath.

There is also tantalising and very well researched scholarship in here about the historicity of the Koran,
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Paul Pensom
I've read all of Tom Holland's books to date, but this one has proved the most controversial by far. It recounts the birth of the three great Abrahamic religions in late-antiquity, but predictably, given the current intellectual climate, it's his musings on the third, Islam, that has attracted the most ire. I read one review in particular, from a distinguished scholar that derided Holland's book in such excoriating terms as to make me take particular notice.

That review struck me at the time as h
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Mankey

Popular histories of Christianity and Jesus have been abundant and accessible for decades now, modern scholarship dealing with the origins of Islam and its prophet Muhammad, not so much. Holland remedies that with this exhaustive look at the forces that helped to create modern Islam. Holland focuses much of his attention on the Roman and Persian empires, but also writes about the development of Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, and their role in the brew that would create Islam.

The most
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Dinah Küng
Absolutely brilliant and highly recommended reading for anyone interested in Islam and its true origins. One quibble, I wish the author wouldn't introduce really important characters by backing into them, so to speak, so only after three paragraphs, do you get an aha! moment when you recognize the historical figure entering the scene.
Otherwise, clear writing, entertaining presentation of complicated historical material and rich depiction of a place (post-Roman Near East) and centuries (7th and 8
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Endre Fodstad
Holland is really good with his narrative, but just as in Millenium (I have not read his other books so far) I think this book shows that he struggles slightly with "the big picture". The scope of this book is very broad - Holland attempts to show the links early Islam has with the other religions it came into contact with: Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity in particular, and how these religions influenced the hadith and the Qu'ran itself. It works well...but not perfectly. He builds up w ...more
Elgin
Not what I expected but I enjoyed it very much, even though, (because of work needs) it took me five weeks to get through it. I expected the book to focus on the history of Islam from its inception, then get into how the religion and Muslims have come to be what they are in the twenty first century. However, most of the book was a detailed history of Christianity, Judeaism, and some other minor religions from about 100 AD through the 8th or 9th centuries, a few hundred years after the time of Mo ...more
Alice Meloy
This book has an unfortunate title, and I would not have picked it up unless someone had recommended it to me. My fear was that it was some diatribe by a right-wing Orientalist, but it isn’t that at all. It is, in fact, a very readable survey of the Middle East and Fertile Crescent in the first eight centuries A.D. Holland’s ability to juxtapose the political, religious, and cultural milieus of the several empires that existed simultaneously in the area gives readers a broad picture of their int ...more
Sven Nomadsson
The mists of history leave a lot of questions unanswered for those brave souls who seek the source where everything comes from. Humanity throughout its history has left bits of information scattered across the world through all sorts of environments and in a variety of forms and mediums. Within the last 2000-3000+ years the written word has become as ubiquitous as the wheel, but that doesn’t mean that there are still large swathes of history that are with record.

The time of Muhammad, Prophet of
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Martin Lake
Per Ardua ad Astra: 'In the Shadow of the Sword' by Tom Holland

The RAF's motto is Per Ardua ad Astra, 'Through struggle to the stars' and I have chosen this as the title for the review for two reasons. One is that it may well have been on the lips of RAF crew as they bombed the descendents of the people Tom Holland writes about in his newest book. The second is that Holland has engaged in a five year struggle to bring this complex and epic story to fruition.
Interestingly there are two titles to
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Richard Thomas
I found this an invaluable account in a single volume of how the monotheistic religions on the Middle East developed and inter-related. Each influenced the others but each retained and retain their own view as being the right passage to eternity. Theologians and ancient history specialists may quibble about the book or parts of it but this general reader liked and likes it.
Patrick
A very readable account of what Holland describes as the end of the 'Classical' world: the collapse of the Persian Empire and the relative marginalisation of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Woven into this is the story of the emergence of Islam as the religion of the Arab conquerors of Persia and much of the old Roman Empire. I'm aware that Holland's version of events has not been universally accepted by scholars of the period, but unless he has been systematically ignoring large chunks of available e
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Tellus
¡Qué ganas tenía de echarle el guante al último libro del señor Tom Holland!

Desde que cayó en mis manos, hace años, aquel brillante y rompedor ensayo sobre el fin de la República Romana que tituló Rubicón, he sido fiel seguidor de este historiador y novelista inglés.

En A la Sombra de las Espadas, Holland se centra principalmente en los siglos V, VI y VII de nuestra era, es decir aquellos siglos un tanto indefinidos que quedan a caballo de la Edad Antigua y la Edad Media, como si de una especie d
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Matt Brady
I've always found Tom Holland's writing very entertaining and readable. He has the ability to take long and complicated pieces of history and explain them in an engaging narrative manner. In the Shadow of the Sword is at it's best when Holland does just that, taking the reader through the history of Late Antiquity, specifically of the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia and leading up to the birth of Muhammad. His close investigation of the Quran, and various speculations about the true birthplace/h ...more
Kate
I wish Tom Holland had written the book peeking tantalisingly out of this one -- a history of ideas about the birth of 'religion' as a modern concept in late antiquity's melting pot. Instead, the zomgsotopical! focus on Islam felt forced (a drinking game could be played with the number of anachronistic buzzwords chucked in -- a C9th 'terrorist nation', really?!), and Holland's approach often wincingly (and unavoidably, given his academic and linguistic background) orientalist. The humour (anothe ...more
Justin
Holland is here addressing a basic conundrum of Islamic history—despite the massive amount of writing (eventually) produced by a very literary people (ultimately leading to a body of hadiths regulating almost every conceivable facet of human existence), none of that writing, except the Qur’an, was written within 150 years of Muhammad’s death. Left without primary sources, Holland goes backward instead of forward.

Interestingly, Holland sees the early Arab Empire as being in the tradition of Late
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DoctorM
I've given this 4 stars, but I wish my rating could've been a bit more nuanced. The writing is excellent, and there are parts of "In the Shadow of the Sword" that are fascinating--- Holland's account of the controversies about the first century of Islam, the account of the first intrusions by the new Arab power into Byzantine and Persian territory. Holland does highlight how little we actually know about the early 600s in northern and northwest Arabia, and how very, very few contemporary account ...more
Hamid
Well-written but ultimately founded on poor scholarship and shrill tabloid-style faux 'revelations', this is a complete disappointment from Tom Holland, who has, on occasion in his writing, shown brilliance. This is the latest in a raft of 'scholarship' from scholars who neither speak Arabic nor who have a familiar grasp of the entire historiography of the subject and it is a shameful orientalist show. Everything from the existence of Muhammed to the ability of Arabs through the centuries to pre ...more
Marcus
When I picked this up this book to read during my summer vacation I was interested in getting a book about Arab history from the period of antiquity up until the period of the caliphates. I thought it would dovetail nicely with The Arabs by Eugene Rogan (which I'm reading currently) that covers from about 1500 to the present day. And it does in a way, but the focus and style is a bit different from the Rogan book. Holland is more interested in describing the religious and social events that cont ...more
Jeremy
Fills in some important gaps and opens up a few more.
Holland has two outstanding talents- his ability to present the past as a continuum with no beginning and no end is once more brought to the fore, nothing comes of nothing. A Darwinian historian whose second attribute is a style that is contemporary, witheringly pointed and cheeky all at the same time. With a curt phrase, not so much tongue in cheek as needle in balloon,he manages to deflate zeppelin scale bags of hot air without missing his s
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Joe Banks
This book is an elegantly written and vivid popular history of the then nascent religions of Islam and Christianity during late antiquity. Its great strength is that it seeks to place these two faiths in their proper historical and psychological context. The Zoroastrian, Jewish and Pagan roots of many of the practices of the two religions are explored thoroughly and woven into a narrative which covers a daunting sweep of history - approximately from the time of Constantine to the rise of the Abb ...more
Nick
Does a great job of placing the founding of Islam in the context of Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism in late antiquity. Also paints a beautifully vivid picture of the late Roman and Persian empires, and how what happened between those empires so long ago echoes through the surviving religions even to today. It's stunning how many of the problems and tensions we see today in the Middle East began in the seventh century, with very little change over 1300 years.
Mark
I started reading this book shortly after the Charlie Hebdo murders of 2015. Understanding where a faith has come from, the environment and times in which it first took form and was moulded, seemed important. And on the way, I found out more about the history of the other two major "Peoples of the Book", and the arguments for the existence of a fourth.

None of the empires that fall and rise in this book is secular. All use a shared, official faith as part of the glue that holds everything togethe
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Fergal
Awesome... If the prospect of 350 pages on the nature of the ebb and flow of the persian and roman empires in the near east in late antiquity (alone) floats your boat (it floats my boat). Also a surprise was how late the origin of the Torah was (it was passed down orally for centuries before being written down) and sheer number of Christian sects at the start was an eyeopener, as was the way they were declared heretical (Nicea). The book is actually mostly about the political landscape into whic ...more
Tom
This is not the history of the Muslim/Arab conquest of the Middle East and north Africa. If that is what you are looking for please a) go elsewhere and b) let me know what you find. The first half of this book sets the stage for the Middle East in the 600's. The author surveys the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium if you like), the Persian Empire, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism to generate a solid picture of who the major groups where and what their stakes were. After the half-way mark ...more
Mel
A compelling read, though I think it lost its way by the end. The end came abruptly leaving me with a load of questions. As other reviewers have observed, Tom Holland backed off from a full critique of Muhammad or his historicity to be precise. To go from -to paraphrase- "there was little or no written reference to him in his life time" and there wasn't a biography written of Muhammad for 2 centuries" to an overly accepting position of the claim that the Qur'an's words were from Muhammad seemed ...more
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An acclaimed British author. He has written many books, both fiction and non-fiction, on many subjects from vampires to history.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

Holland was born near Oxford and brought up in the village of Broadchalke near Salisbury, England. He obtained a double first in English and Latin at Queens' College, Cambridge, and af
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More about Tom Holland...
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