Tom Holland’s “Islam”, Disappointing Documentary from a Brilliant Writer.

I was very much looking forward to reading The Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland’s latest book. In it, he looks at how it was that the Islamic Empire sprang up from the sands to replace the Roman and Persian ones to the West and East.

I still am. But there’s no getting away from it, the documentary he made to accompany the book for Channel Four was very disappointing. Quite simply, its thesis just wasn’t compelling enough.

Essentially, his argument was, that in the absence of any documentation it was impossible to say for certain what had happened during the 100 years or so after the death of Mohammed in 632. That is to say, there’s no actual record of how and in what way Islam developed in its first few years.

But, and as some of the Muslim scholars interviewed explained a tad wearily, the culture that Mohammed grew up in was an oral one. And he, like almost all of his countrymen, was illiterate. So a dearth of documentation was hardly surprising. 

You don’t have to adhere to the strictures of western academia to be able to see the staggering speed with which the new Empire exploded into life to hungrily devour everything it could. Or to realize that the engine that powered that extraordinary expansion was the faith that bound them all together and drove them on.

So what if we’ve no written evidence? We’ve absolutely none for Pythagoras for that matter, but it doesn’t stop us forming a picture of the disciples who followed him or the groups they splintered off into.

In point of fact, Nietzsche says that the only thing we can say about Pythagoras is that we can say nothing for certain about him whatsoever. Whether he was a vegetarian, a mystic or could even count. But that doesn’t stop us placing him in the Greek world that he lived in, or in forming a picture of the effect he had on those around him.

A flawed thesis is less of a problem when it comes to a book. The best books are about the journey that the author takes you on as much as they are about the destination that they lead you to. And Holland is so easy going, companionable and effortlessly erudite a guide that spending any time in his company is always a pleasure whatever his purpose.

And, as last year’s BBC4 programme Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters showed, he’s clearly as comfortable on television as he in print.

But Islam: the Untold Story promised, well, an untold story. And the fact that there’s a dearth of written evidence to bolster the story of Islam really isn’t terribly surprising. So as a television programme, it just didn’t work.

If you want to appreciate why it is the Holland is held in such high regard by so many people, read his 2003 book, Rubicon. There he takes the events that led to the dissolution of the Roman Republic under Julius Caesar and the creation of the Empire under his nephew Augustus, and imagines what it was that the principal players were driven by.

It is at once exhaustively researched and breathlessly compelling. Imagine if Tom Wolfe had been educated at Oxford instead of on the streets of New York, and had employed a team of the most brilliant researchers he could find there to help him with a book.

And I’m still looking forward to reading Holland’s account, however tangential, on the birth of Islam in The Shadow of the Sword.

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  1. I’ll give you something better than that:

    Tom Holland’s work is one of praise for the “civilized world”, and is from that mindset of Greco-Roman elitism. If you too feel civilized compared to those backward barbarians all over the world, then you’ll enjoy The Shadow of the Sword.

    • I haven’t read The Shadow of the Sword yet, so I can’t comment on it. But judging from Tom Holland’s previous work, but I should be very surprised if, as your comment seems to suggest, he praises the Greek or Roman Empires at the expense of the Islamic one. But thank you for taking the time to comment!

  2. Evidence—the oral traditions were written down(long afterwards)—so these are not “lost”. Yes, they have probably been embellished over time—but myth and fact should not be that difficult to sort out—especially if serious research continues…..Much of the work of researching, sorting and validating has been done by Muslim Scholars from very early on in Islamic history…..

    If one likes creative “revisionist history”…then Fred Donner has more interesting arguments about the development of Islam—-though as a Muslim I would not agree with all of them….

    • I don’t think Holland was being revisionist, I just think he was being un-necessarily sceptical. He was being too Western in terms of the methodology he was employing, I would suggest. But thanks for taking the time to comment!

  3. Asking questions are in fact nice thing if you are not understanding something entirely,
    but this post provides good understanding even.

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