Thursday, 12 April 2012

Tom Holland on Islam, Christianity and empire

Tom Holland is the author of bestselling histories of the ancient and medieval world - Persian Fire (on the Greeks and the Persians), Rubicon (on the fall of the Roman republic), and Millennium (on what used to be called 'the Dark Ages'). His narratives manage to distil the best current scholarship while being compulsively readable.

His latest book is his most ambitious yet. Entitled In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World, it situates the rise of Islam in the 7th century against the backdrop of plague, war and the dramatic emergence of an Arab empire. Instead of depicting a militaristic religion driving Arab expansion, Holland shows a new empire forging Islam in order to bolster its own authority. The result is a thoroughly revisionist take on early Islamic history, one that draws on specialist scholarship to undercut the official story.

Holland begins his book with a striking quotation from Salman Rushdie: 'The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammed, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time'.

Yet as Holland points out, the earliest surviving biography of Muhammed dates from the early 9th century, almost two centuries after his lifetime (traditionally dated AD 570-632). By contrast, our sources for the life of Jesus are much closer to the events in question. Paul's letters were largely written in the 50s, while the synoptic Gospels are usually dated to between the late 60s and the 80s of the first century. Indeed, a raft of recent scholarship, by figures like Richard Bauckham, James Dunn, Craig Evans, Craig Keener, J.P. Meier and N.T. Wright has made a compelling case for the historical credibility of the Gospel accounts. Rushdie may have got things the wrong way round.

Besides raising questions of historicity, Holland's book reflects the current vogue for studying the relationship between religion and empire. He suggests that Christianity and Islam were both powerfully shaped (or reshaped) by mighty emperors: Constantine (306-37) and Abd al-Malik (685-705). Indeed, on his account, the emperors emerge almost as the real founders of the two religions, putting Jesus and Muhammed 'in the shadow of the sword'. In the case of Christianity, at least, there is an irony here, since some recent New Testament scholars have been keen to uncover the allegedly anti-imperial thrust of early Christianity (e.g. N.T. Wright, J.D. Crossan and Kavin Rowe). Holland's point, however, is a persuasive one: late antiquity was not the exhausted fag end of the ancient world, it was an extraordinarily creative and formative era in which empire and monotheism were fused together. For good and ill, we are still living with the consequences. And in the end, he suggests, the greatest shapers of the future were not the emperors and caliphs, but the bishops who forged Christian doctrine, the rabbis who compiled the Talmud, and the scholars who established the Islamic tradition. As he concludes, 'the pen, it seems, is indeed mightier than the sword'.

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