In The Shadow Of The Sword

For a period that had such important consequences, very little has been written about the wars between the Roman, Persian and Arab empires in the sixth and seventh centuries. I’m sure there have been lots of academic papers but not much has appeared that is accessible to a wider audience.

Tom Holland’s book In The Shadow Of The Sword filled that gap last year and it’s a cracking read.

For western Europeans, this period is known as the Dark Ages. For us, it is the story of the development of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, of the rise of the Frankish Empire,  of the coming of Christianity and literacy, of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. By then, for western Europe, the Roman Empire was a distant memory. But, while this is all relevant to the development of Britain, France, Germany and other European nations, it was very much on the periphery of world events at the time. The important news was being made elsewhere.

Although it had lost its possessions in Western Europe, the Roman Empire had hung on to its most populous, prosperous and taxable provinces in the East. Here, re-centred on its new capital in Constantinople, it was still a formidable power. A new religion, Christianity, had replaced the old Roman gods. It was being enthusiastically promoted by the emperors, not out of piety but for its power as a unifying force. This was particularly useful when taxes and warriors were needed for wars against the old enemy, Persia.

The Roman and Persian Empires spent centuries fighting each other in the Middle East for relatively small gains in territory. The border between the two roughly corresponded to modern one between Syria and Iraq for most of the period. Massive resources and countless lives were expended shifting the boundary by a few hundred miles, only for it to shift back again when the other empire got the upper hand. Then, towards the end of the period, Arab armies burst out of their peninsula and, within a few decades, conquered the whole of the Middle East and North Africa from the Romans and completely overran the Persian Empire.

The consequences of this were world-changing. The Mediterranean polity, for centuries under Roman rule, was torn in half. The Levant and North Africa were detached from Europe and fused with Arabia and the Middle-East. A new religion appeared which came to dominate these regions and still does today. With the fall of its early heartlands to Islam, Christianity became a predominantly European religion and evolved in line with European traditions. Our modern sense of what it means to be European, Middle-Eastern, Christian and Muslim began to take shape during this period.

So much, then, for what happened. As ever, why it happened is more controversial. How did a collection of nomadic Arab tribes take on the two superpowers of the day, beat them and, within a few decades, create a new empire in their place?

Muslim historians were pretty clear about this. Muhammad converted all the Arabs to Islam and with God on their side they were bound to be victorious. Non-Muslim historians, while disagreeing about the divine intervention, have generally accepted the story of religious fervour providing the cohesion and motivation for the Arabs’ lightning conquests. The religion came first, then the conquest.

Tom Holland is not so sure though. There is, he argues, very little contemporary evidence  about the life of Muhammad. It is almost certain that he existed because there are Roman writers who mention him but beyond that, and the few references in the Quran, there is very little contemporary evidence. Most of the stories about his life were not written down until over a century after his death. If he had unified the whole of Arabia under the banner of a new religion, wouldn’t the Roman and Persian authorities have mentioned it? Both empires took a keen interest in Arabia and subsidised the tribes on their frontiers to keep them on side. They would surely have noticed if a large and potentially hostile tribal coalition was forming in Arabia. Yet the contemporary sources provide very little to corroborate the story of Muhammad’s rise to power.

Holland also questions the site of Muhammad’s birth. It could not, he argues, possibly have been where the current city is located. Mecca is too far away from trade routes to have been a trading city. It is also too far from Syria where members of Muhammad’s tribe were said to have property. The Mecca of the Quran, he says, must therefore have been considerably further north than the current site.

He isn’t even convinced that the Arab armies which trounced the Romans and Persians were led by Muslims. During the early years of the Arab Empire, there is little evidence of Islam being a prominent religion. It was only later, he argues, under the Umayyad dynasty, that Islam became central to the Empire and its rulers.

The conversion of the Arab Empire to Islam, says Holland, came some time after its creation and for similar reasons to the Roman Emperors’ enthusiasm for Christianity. Religion was a useful way of binding an empire together. It was during the rule of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphs, the chapters of the Quran were collated, the sayings of Muhammad were documented, great mosques were built and the tradition of pilgrimage to Mecca established. What we now know as Islam, argues Holland, was not the catalyst for the Arab conquest of the Middle-East but the means by which those conquests were turned into a centralised empire.

Could it be, then, that the Arab conquest was not Muslim-led but the work of a confederation of tribes which included some adherents of Muhammad but also Christians, Jews and followers of other religions? Could a ramshackle coalition of tribes really have defeated two great superpowers at once?

Yes, says Holland, because both superpowers had exhausted themselves. With continuous warfare comes famine. As men are called to fight, fewer are left to farm. War destroys crops and manpower. A population weakened by war and famine then succumbs to plague. By the middle of the seventh century, both the Roman and Persian Empires were on their knees. In some parts, says Holland, it was difficult to distinguish between town and countryside. Fortifications had fallen into ruin and shanty towns of refugees sprawled around the once-proud cities. Both Rome and Persia struggled to raise armies from among their ravaged populations. Both sides had become increasingly reliant on Arab proxies to do their fighting for them. It was, therefore, a short step for the Arabs from acting as mercenaries to setting up on their own. They knew both empires were weak and took the opportunity to seize land. Once pushed, both the rotten superpowers collapsed and the Arabs found themselves with an empire. They didn’t need divine inspiration; their enemies were simply too weak to resist.

Is such a scenario plausible? It is when you look at what else was going on in the Roman Empire. In what probably looked like a sideshow at the time, but was to have far-reaching consequences in the Twentieth Century, Slavic tribes migrated from their homelands in Eastern Europe and overran the Balkans. The Danube had stood as the Roman frontier for half a millennium but the Romans could not stop the ancestors of today’s Serbs, Croats and Bulgarians from crossing it and seizing lands to within a few hundred miles of Constantinople. The Slavs had no centralised leadership and lacked the military capability of the Arabs, yet the Romans were powerless to prevent them setting up on their doorstep. What chance would they have had against a more formidable opponent invading Syria and Palestine? The Roman Empire was close to collapse. It is quite conceivable that a well organised tribal coalition could have conquered its Middle-Eastern territories.

As you might expect, all this has upset a lot of people. Calling into question the history of Islam, the stories of Muhammad’s life, the religious belief of the early Arab leaders and even the location of Mecca was always going to be controversial. A screening of Tom Holland’s film Islam: The Untold Story, based on some of the arguments in his book, was cancelled last year after threats were made. His book was savaged in the Guardian which, being the Guardian, also gave him the chance to replyIn The Shadow Of The Sword continues to be criticised, especially by Muslim writers.

Whatever your view, though, it is a thought-provoking book. If you are at all interested in history and religion, or simply in understanding how Europe, the Middle-East, Christianity and Islam came to be the way they are, this book is a must-read. I find Tom Holland’s arguments quite compelling. You might not. Either way, this book is a good read. I had the weighty hardback version but it’s out in paperback next week. Ideal for the daily commute.

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6 Responses to In The Shadow Of The Sword

  1. John D says:

    I did watch the Channel 4 programme, even though they had removed it from their broadcast schedule. It can still be viewed there now. I will get a copy of the paperback version at £10.99 after April 4th, as I believe it will provide much more permanent detail than can be obtained by watching a TV programme.
    As a humanist, I believe that Moses and Jesus were largely fictitous characters, amd that the contents of the Torah and the Old and New Testaments of the Bible are largely made up.
    Where Mohammad is concerned, however, I believe he – or someone very like him – did exist in historical time. While I consider the Quran and hadith to be largely invented long after he lived – and therefore unreliable – I do believe that Muhammad can be directly linked to the Constitution of Medina – see for details.
    The Constitution reveals that Muhammad was an excellent diplomat and – I believe – was a very good man, who sought to reduce bloodsoaked warfare in the area of Yathrib (later known as Medina) and to initiate a situation where all people of all beliefs could live harmoniously alongside one another. His state protection of all individuals, including women, children and the poor, would be something to aspire towards today.
    I will need to read Tom Holland’s book carefully but I suspect that natural history, not just human social history, may well provide many more answers to the question of the decline of the Roman and Persian empires. I recall seeing a programme some years ago about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, in which it put forward the hypothesis that climate change had caused increasing waves of mosquitoes from Africa, infected with a highly virulent strain of malaria, to migrate into Southern Europe, so that the Roman soldiers became so unwell that they were physically incapable of fighting-off Northern European ‘barbarians’, as well as attackers from the Arabian peninsular and North Africa.
    Many former South American empires disappeared without explanation, though it is now believed that they were affected by the phenomen we now know as El Nino.
    Even in ‘recent’ European natural history terms, the French Revolution has been linked to a change in weather patterns in the years preceding the revolution, which caused widespread crop failures so that ordinary people were left starving and rebellious. The famous (or infamous) story about Marie-Antionette being told that the peasants were revolting and, after asking why and being told that they were starving, said “Give them cake” may not be as flippant as we would believe today. Cake has similar calorific value as bread; if sufficient cake could have been distributed in place of bread, it could have sustained the peasantry and avoided the French Revolution. Which is why Lenin is credited with the saying “The hungry revolution ends at the nearest baker’s shop”.

  2. If you’re interested in a less religiose (and more academic) history of the period, I’d recommend Chris Whickham’s “Framing the early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400–800”, which was published in 2005. This is a panoptic survey covering the entire Mediterranean region and Northern Europe.

    The Roman Empire was no more a distant memory in Western Europe than it was in the East during this period, despite the superficial changes in state authority. Most “barbarian invasions” were coup d’etats, supplanting one military caste with another, often at the expense of previous employers. There was a lot of continuity beneath the surface.

    Most historians agree that the mutual exhaustion of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires in the mid-7th century gave the Arabs their opportunity for conquest, but the consolidation of their power was largely down to the capture and retention of Egypt, the bread basket of the Med, rather than the inspiration of Islam. This gave them the power to consolidate their hold on the Levant.

    The end of grain shipments (the annonae) from Egypt was the final straw for Rome, already battered during the Gothic War and Lombard invasion of the 6th century. Constantinople was able to shift to other sources of grain in Thrace and Thessaly.

    History is driven by bread, not books.

  3. John D says:

    Snap !

  4. Rick says:


    Not sure I’d entirely agree with this. To an extent, belief and religious fervour can keep people motivated even through lean times. That’s why leaders are so keen on it. (The executive’s enthusiasm for ‘strong corporate culture’ is just a modern manifestation of this.) Of course you need to feed people, but getting them to believe God is with them helps persuade them to fight harder, accept less and do as they are told.

    • Indeed belief can be powerful as a motivator, but it tends to be marginal to major historical shifts. To put it in microscopic terms, a zealot with a sword is no match for a non-beliver with a gun (just ask as Indiana Jones).

      Belief of any sort, including loyalty to a corporate culture, is superstructural, so it tends to ebb and flow in response to changes down below. When circumstances favour us, we assume God has looked upon our works and been pleased. When patients die in hospitals, we assume (or at least Jeremy Hunt does) that the culture of the NHS must rotten to the core: “the normalisation of cruelty”. This is just a diversion from the lack of bread, maaan.

      Ironically, once of the finest examples of this was the Emperor Constantine at the battle of the Milvian Bridge: In Hoc Signo. For some reason, banners with IHS on them proved a poor defence against the Arab conquest of Egypt.

  5. anon says:

    the reason why many historians accept the “muslim version” is because moving the Quran and/or Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) to a different geographical setting and time period creates more problems than it solves. Holland’s “alternative theory” is not new—its been proposed before by some historians—who got nowhere with it. To move Quran/Prophet away from 7th century Mecca/Medina—means to come up with an alternative author or group that could have written the Quran and to come up with another figure/person for the Prophet(pbuh). Not only do they need to come up with these—they also need to explain away some facts—such as the “Uthmani Codex” and how it is that todays Quran match it—because this was compiled only about a dozen yrs after the death of the Prophet(pbuh).
    Also—paper making came into Islamic territories around the middle of the 8th century and that is when the “Golden age” of Islam began—and there was an explosion in the pursuit of knowledge. (First paper-making factory began in Samarkand at this time)
    —-so if anyone is moving the Prophet(pbuh) and/or the Quran in this time period or later—then there is absolutely no excuse for not finding evidence to back up their theories…….and that evidence is simply not there……
    —the other alternative is to move the Quran and or Prophet to an earlier period such as 5th or 6th century. Finding evidence is less problematic because writing materials were scarce then. However, this would mean that Islam was an already established religion by the time the territorial expansions happened—which defeats the purpose of moving the Quran/Prophet outside of the 7th century Mecca/Medina location and time.

    That is why historians who do not have an “agenda” stick to the “muslim version”……….

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