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

3.86 of 5 stars 3.86  ·  rating details  ·  785 ratings  ·  119 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...more
Hardcover, 560 pages
Published May 15th 2012 by Doubleday (first published 2012)
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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 literally silence after the death...more
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...more
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,...more
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...more

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...more
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...more
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
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
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...more
¡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...more
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
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...more
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...more
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...more
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
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
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...more
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
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
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
Jonathan Rowe
This is a magisterial analysis of the birth of Islam amidst the implosion of the Persian and Roman Empires in 'Late Antiquity' - roughly the 6th to 8th centuries CE. Holland explores the dearth of evidence surrounding the figure of Muhammed, the composition of the Qur'an and the beliefs of the first generations of Arab conquerors. His thesis is that Islam emerges from religious trends already taking place within Christianity, Judaism and the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. Holland accepts the hi...more
A fascinating and long-winded account of the religious and political background to the formation of Islam. Holland stretches out in these pages, giving endless political and theological detail to the various political upheavals in the near East during late antiquity, and the religious changes and caused, and in turn were caused, by them.

His main theme is how established political orders are prone to rewrite their own histories in their own favour, and in turn remake the religions they espouse in...more
Jamison Shuck
This book is packed full of information and I really learned a lot. Basically, the main thesis is that the widely known history of Islam is mainly incorrect and was invented centuries after the events depicted by politicians and imams in order to justify their own views and decisions. So, Holland looks at the histories of Rome, the Jews, and the Sassanian Empire in Persia in the years leading up to Muhammad to try and decipher what actually took place and how Islam conquered the East.

I had prev...more
Babak Fakhamzadeh
It's in Holland's first chapter where he sets the stage for the book. There are virtually no contemporary sources on the life of Muhammad, and the few that do exist only give the barest hint of the historical existence of what later became the life of the prophet.
But while the bulk of the book is an extraordinary and immensely interesting walk through of late classical times, using recently uncovered facts to make fascinating if reasonable claims, while grippingly bringing this distant and vast...more
Slim Khezri
Quite impressive read!!! In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World - by Tom Holland

"In the 6th century AD, the Near East was divided between two venerable empires: the Persian and the Roman. A hundred years on, and one had vanished forever, while the other seemed almost finished. Ruling in their place were the Arabs: an upheaval so profound that it spelt, in effect, the end of the ancient world. In The Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland explores how...more
Along with Roger Crowley, Tom Holland is my other current “go-to” ancient historian. I do think Holland’s narrative skills are probably enhanced due to his previous experience as a novelist. In the Shadow of the Sword is somewhat mistitled in that the book is concerned with more than just the birth of Islam. Holland’s eye is fixed on the idea of global empire, particularly their decline and what replaces them. In turn Holland focusses on the role of religious movements in the Roman and Persian e...more
Another excellent work from Tom Holland. I have to say that the initial reviews I read of this lead me to expect that it was all about the rise of Islam but actually what the book does is put the three Abrahamic faiths in context and show how they are interwoven. In terms of proportion the bulk of the book deals with the Christian Roman Empire from Constantine to Justinian, and also the Persian empire and the various other religions & sects that abound in that period. All this is necessary t...more
Tom Holland's recent Channel 4 documentary on the same subject has attracted much attention, opprobrium and criticism. The book, as you might expect, is more detailed, and perhaps more nuanced. A great deal of it is spent painting a vivid picture of how the world looked in late Antiquity, as the Roman empire in Constantinople, and the Persian empire in Iran fell. Holland explains how the monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism) developed in these times, how the affected...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...more
More about Tom Holland...
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“When you encounter the unbelievers, blows to necks it shall be until, once you have routed them, you are to tighten their fetters.” 0 likes
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