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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