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In the Shadow of the Sword
Cover of In the Shadow of the Sword
In the Shadow of the Sword
The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire
Borrow Borrow
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.
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.
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One 1

    Known Unknowns



    Between Two Worlds

    Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar, an Arab king celebrated for his long hair, his piety and his utter ruthlessness, had been brought to defeat. Leaving the reek of the battlefield, he rode his blood-flecked white charger down to the very edge of the Red Sea. Behind him, he knew, Christian outliers would already be advancing against his palace—to seize his treasury, to capture his queen. Certainly, his conquerors had no cause to show him mercy. Few were more notorious among the Christians than Yusuf. Two years previously, looking to secure the south-west of Arabia for his own faith, he had captured their regional stronghold of Najran. What had happened next was a matter of shock and horror to Christians far beyond the limits of Himyar, the kingdom on the Red Sea that Yusuf had ruled, on and off, for just under a decade. The local church, with the bishop and a great multitude of his followers locked inside, had been put to the torch. A group of virgins, hurrying to join them, had hurled themselves on to the flames, crying defiantly as they did so how sweet it was to breathe in "the scent of burning priests!"1 Another woman, "whose face no one had ever seen outside the door of her house and who had never walked during the day in the city,"2 had torn off her headscarf, the better to reproach the king. Yusuf, in his fury, had ordered her daughter and granddaughter killed before her, their blood poured down her throat, and then her own head to be sent flying.

    Martyrdoms such as these, feted though they were by the Church, could not readily be forgiven. A great army, crossing from the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, had duly landed in Himyar. The defenders had been cornered, engaged and routed. Now, with the shallows of the Red Sea lapping at his horse's hooves, Yusuf had come to the end of the road. Not all his obedience to the laws granted to God's chosen prophet had been sufficient to save him from ruin. Slowly, he urged his horse forwards, breasting the water, until at last, weighed down by his armour, he disappeared beneath the waves. So perished Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar: the last Jewish king ever to rule in Arabia.



    The collapse of the kingdom of the Himyarites in ad 525 is not, it is fair to say, one of the more celebrated episodes of ancient history. Himyar itself, despite having prospered for some six centuries until its final overthrow under Yusuf, lacks the ready brand recognition today of a Babylon, or an Athens, or a Rome. Unsurprisingly so, perhaps: for southern Arabia, then as now, was firmly peripheral to the major centres of civilisation. Even the Arabs themselves, whom the peoples of more settled lands tended to dismiss as notorious brutes—"of all the nations of the earth, the most despised and insignificant"3—might look askance at the presumed barbarities of the region. The Himyarites, so one Arab poet reported in shocked tones, left their women uncircumcised, "and do not think it disgusting to eat locusts."4 Behaviour that clearly branded them as beyond the pale.

    Yet, it is not only in terms of its geography that Himyar seems to lie in shadow. Similarly obscure is the period in which the death of Yusuf occurred. The sixth century ad defies precise categorisation. It seems to stand between two ages. If it looks back to the world of classical civilisation, then so also does it look forward to the world of the Crusades. Historians categorise it, and the centuries either side of it, as "late antiquity": a phrase that conveys a sense of lengthening shadows, and the Middle Ages soon to come.

    For anyone accustomed to thinking of history as a succession of neatly defined and...
About the Author-
  • Tom Holland is a historian of the ancient world and a translator. His books include Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman RepublicPersian FireIn the Shadow of the Sword and The Forge of Christendom. He has adapted Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and Virgil for the BBC. In 2007, he was the winner of the Classical Association prize, awarded to “the individual who has done most to promote the study of the language, literature and civilization of Ancient Greece and Rome.” He lives in London with his family.
    Visit the author's website at www.tom-holland.org.

Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    April 1, 2012
    Elegant study of the roiling era of internecine religious rivalry and epic strife that saw the nation of Islam rise and conquer. British historian Holland (The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West, 2009, etc.) first tells the tortuously involved tale of the rise and fall Persia, or what he calls Iranshahr, an empire imbued by the spirit of the prophet Zoroaster, who believed that a terminal confrontation between good and evil was imminent; it was also heavily influenced by the Jews, natives of Judah in diaspora to Mesopotamia, who were at work transcribing the written record of their rabbis and looking forward to a Messiah who would offer redemption from suffering. Meanwhile, Rome, whose own Virgil had broadcast its glorious mission statement, "a dominion without limit," in the Aeneid, was besieged by barbarian tribes and on its knees by the first centuries CE, threatened by an implacable rebellious heresy, Christianity. Yet another current began to swell, similarly foretold in the Old Testament scriptures, such as in the account of Abraham's begetting a son by the Egyptian maid Hagar, who would become Ishmael, heir to a great people, and Daniel's terrifying apocalyptic vision of four beasts ruling in succession over mankind. So what was this new nation rising from the feral wanderings of "the wolves of Arabia," seemingly portended in the bubonic plague decimating the Fertile Crescent in the sixth century? Holland portrays the age as ripe for the revolutionary visions of the Prophet, who certainly drew most self-consciously from tenets of previous People of the Book. Holland confronts questions in the Quranic text head-on, providing a substantive, fluent exegesis on the original documents. Smoothly composed history and fine scholarship.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    May 1, 2012
    Undertaking the delicate task of describing the origins of Islam, Holland notes Western scholarship that is skeptical about Islamic scholarship's narratives concerning the life of the prophet Muhammad, the compilation of the Qur'an, and even how Mecca became the geographical focus of Islamic worship. So the refuge Holland seeks in the evidentiary desert is the geopolitical world of the time. It was dominated by the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanian Persian Empire, whose political conflicts and religious doctrines (Catholicism and Zoroastrianism, respectively) reverberated mutedly but apparently audibly among the pagan tribes of Arabia. Holland allows that his narratives of these dynamics constitute provisional answers in his inquiry into the rise of Islam, but he writes them in an exuberantly ornate style that captures late antiquity's prevalent belief that nothing on the lowly earth occurred but by the will of God. God's will, though, was, as ever, difficult to divine, and Holland's interpretations of debates among clerics and revelations by prophets before Muhammad carry the reader toward Holland's plausible thesis for Islam's success in toppling the Sassanians and humbling the Romans.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2012, American Library Association.)

  • Malise Ruthven, Wall Street Journal "[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."
  • David Frum, Daily Beast "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 delightful...as fun to read as any thriller, and with far richer intellectual nutritional content."
  • Anthony Sattin, Guardian Observer (London)
    "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."
  • Kirkus Reviews
    "[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."
  • Barnaby Rogerson, the Independent (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... [and] he possesses a falcon eye for detail.... [A] spell-bindingly brilliant multiple portrait of the triumph of monotheism in the ancient world."
  • Christopher Hart, Sunday Times (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
    ."
  • Michael Bywater, The Week (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."
  • Philip Hensher, The Spectator (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."
  • The Wall Street Journal "An entertaining account of the f
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The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire
Tom Holland
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