Islamic studies is one of the more peculiar subjects of academic study and discourse. Given the post-911 realities, many refrain from overt criticism or new historical research onto Islam and its early history. In contemporary Islamic studies, there are two prevailing camps: revisionists and ecumenicists. Both are new developments in Islamic studies seeking to do away with the old “Oriental” stereotype of Western hegemonic academic imperialism famously written about, but poorly received by the educational establishment, by Edward Said in his infamous work Orientalism. In short these two schools argue as such: We know very little about Muhammad other than he existed and died in 632 AD in Medina, he claimed a vision from God transmitted by the angel Gabriel and became associated as the figurehead of the Arab Conquests of the Christian Levant and Persian Middle East but the cloud of mystery and lack of information concerning Muhammad and early Islam demand new theories and research (revisionist); Muhammad was a merchant in Arabia who preached a message of unity and tolerance which united the disparate pagan tribes in the Arabian desert and included small Jewish and Christian groups (especially those condemned as heretics) and launched a comparatively egalitarian and progressive revolution that would forever transform the face of the Middle East (ecumenicist).
As someone who studied Islamic history as part of my undergrad work in history (B.A), the prevailing spirit at large tends to veer in favor of the ecumenist school of Islamic studies. Taking a few verses from the Qur’an about the “people of the book” and the Constitution of Medina as their starting evidence, the ecumenist school argues that the force and success of the early Islamic conquest was owed to their broadly tolerant and ecumenical origins; only later, principally under the Umayyad Dynasty and suffering from several fitnas (civil wars) did the more “repressive” style of submissive Islam emerge in order to create a distinct Arab-Islamic identity in contrast to the Christian West and the fickle Jewish isolationists scattered through Iraq and Palestine. (An implicit argument guiding the ecumenist school is for Islam to “return” to that tolerant early origin.) The revisionist school, largely centered in places like Princeton (in the US) and Oxford (in the UK) got little attention in my education, the other contrast was the late nineteenth century and mid-twentieth century style “Orientalism” which, as one could guess, was usually used a straw man to the ecumenical school portraying Islam and the Arabs as “The Other,” “savage,” and “obscure” (not to mention less sophisticated to the Western World).
Tom Holland, one of the Britain’s foremost popular historians and television presenters, entered this ongoing dialectical debate with his work In the Shadow of the Sword. Holland treads familiar territory to those who have some background in Islamic studies. He quotes the early Orientalists, like Edward Gibbon, who fawned over the notion that—contra Christianity—Islam was born “in the full light of history” and that we pretty much know its origin story. As he says, “the coming of Islam was one of the supreme revolutions in world history” (agreeing with the Orientalist tradition) but, in contrast to the Gibbonite and Enlightenment portrait of an early Islam treasured with historical evidence, “the only [evidence] we possess are either the barest shreds of shreds, or else the delusory shimmering of mirages.” In short, Holland eschews the old Orientalist panorama of an Islam that we know and brings the reader into the muddied waters of skepticism and shadows—the actual reality about early Islam and its origins.
We would expect, then, Holland to provide a cursory introduction into the two prevailing camps of contemporary Near Eastern and Islamic studies. Instead, he diverts our attention to the world in conflagration three centuries before the rise of the Arab Empire. Detouring us through Zoroastrian Persia and the post-Constantinian Christian Roman Empire, Holland’s thesis starts to take shape: God and Empire move the great civilizations that occupied the Middle East before Muhammad and Islam, and Empire often enforced an image of God to solidify its rule.
After detailing the conflicts that brought the two great empires to near exhaustion, Holland returns us to origins of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Returning us to the reality that we know very little about Islam’s origins, he entirely swims in the revisionist school’s leading contentions: the Islam we know today is far removed from the “Islam of history.” Moreover, the Muhammad we know today is also unlikely to have been the Muhammad we hear about.
The Muhammad we hear about is something the ecumenist school takes for granted. Muhammad was a merchant trader operating in Mecca and the Arabian Deserts because pagan Arabia, especially Mecca, was a hub of trade because of the Ka’ba. Muhammad received his revelations in a cave outside the city and excoriated the Arabs for their idolatry and preached a message of human fraternity under submission to God. The pagan Arabs drove him out, Muhammad took flight to Medina, only to return in victorious glory to smash the idols and begin “one of the supreme revolutions in world history.”
Holland points out that this story of Muhammad is crafted largely from biographers written centuries after his death, not even akin to Christ whose biographies by the Gospel writers were written by people who actually knew him and were composed roughly 30-50 years after his crucifixion (notwithstanding that the references and depictions of Christ by the Apostle Paul in his authentic letters date to roughly 20 years after Jesus’s death). Moreover, if we turn to the Qur’an, the Qur’an doesn’t seem to confirm this received oral to written history of Muhammad. As anyone who has read the Qur’an knows, there isn’t much in it about the Jahiliyyah (Age of Ignorance) but there is a lot that mirrors the Bible.
The Qur’an is a book that seems to know very much the religious and theological debates between Christianity and Judaism, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Qur’an includes almost all the famous Old Testament stories and patriarchs (with a few revisions and spins, of course): Adam, Eve, Abraham, Ishmael (rather than Isaac), Moses, David, Solomon, the expulsion from the Garden, it also has a lot to say about Jesus: Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah, he is coming again to defeat the Antichrist, he will judge the living and dead—however, unlike what Christians say, he is not the Son of God, was not incarnate in the virgin Mary (though he was indeed born of the virgin Mary), and did not die on the Cross (arguments that are similar to Docetism in early Christian history).
When trying to piece together a new historical portrait, Holland argues that the geographic descriptions given to us in the Qur’an of farmers, shepherds, and olive trees doesn’t suggest desert Arabia but the fringes of the Christian Roman Levant: Mamre, along the Dead Sea, or the fertile plains of the Jordan. Furthermore, with all the knowledge of Jewish and Christian history and theology, Muhammad was not illiterate (as is claimed) but probably very literate and he most certainly had relations with peripheral Christians and Jews living outside the major Roman cities and monastic communities. Holland then implies that the “people of the book” (the key ecumenist cornerstone) was the result of an undeveloped theology; Muhammad, in short, didn’t create Islam as we know it but preached a monotheistic god that appealed to dissident and outcast Christian, Jew, and Arab communities on the fringe of Christian Roman society in the Levant.
After Muhammad’s death, Arab armies stormed out of the desert and in just over a decade conquered the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Persia. This was the great startling shock and “great revolution” of the Arab Empire and Islam—or so the traditional story goes. Pointing out that the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” and the “Community of Believers” didn’t make references to “Muslim” or “Islam” or even Muhammad but to be followers of “The One God and our father Abraham,” Holland returns to his thesis of God and Empire.
The Arab conquest fragmented very quickly as we know. Divisions erupted between those who believed Ali should lead the community and those who backed the Quraysh tribal leaders. In a disastrous bloodletting that has eternally scarred Sunni and Shia, the Quraysh leaders eventually seized power and began the Umayyad Caliphate. But continuous revolutions and rebellions continued until Ibn al-Zubayr and Abd al-Malik began invoking Muhammad instead of Abraham as their inspirational authority: “Bismallah Muhammad rasul Allah” (In the name of God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God). Abd al-Malik eventually consolidated power and built the Dome of the Rock, forever changing the face of the Arab community from a seemingly inclusive movement that included monotheistic Jews and Christians along with Abrahamic-Ishmaelite Arab monotheistic identity to the rigid and strict Islam we know today. In order to consolidate and legitimate his rule—just as the Caesars or Rome and the Shahs of Persia had done beforehand—Abd al-Malik created the universal Islamic religion and retrogressively retrospectively created the Muhammad and Islam story we now know and consider to be historical fact.
As always, Holland is a talented and energetic writer who weaves a good tell in an easy-to-read history. It is captivating and mystifying, its mystifying allure is probably why we would like to believe it even though his own evidence of constructing a literate Palestinian-Jordanian Muhammad intimately engaged in the theological debates of his Christian and Jewish neighbors who retroactively became the Prophet of Islam only after the Meccan-born Quraysh tribal leaders ascended to the Caliphate is also built on “the barest shreds of shreds, or else the delusory shimmering of mirages.” Holland seems to know this, so he stops short of actually saying what he is, in fact, saying by way of insinuation and implication. Nevertheless, In the Shadow of the Sword is a captivating work and undoubtedly the finest popular read in the revisionist school of Islamic studies. One might, however, take Holland’s thesis with a grain of a salt lest you turn into Lot’s wife.
The finest popular introduction to the ecumenist school is Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam.
The landmark academic study that brought the revisionist school into the forefront of neo-Islamic studies is Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World.
The paradigm shifting work criticizing Western “Orientalist” scholarship is Edward Said’s Orientalism.