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In this brilliant volume, Holland aims to understand the origins of Islam and how it evolved into its current form from the purported revelations of Muhammed by exploring the empires and religions of Late Antiquity. The book traces events from the establishment of the Persian Empire in AD 224 to the rise of the Abbasid caliphate in 750. This hold the key to comprehending how the world of the first millennium came to be dominated by one God, three religions and an innumerable succession of emperors.
In a book that challenges most of the first principles of Islamic exceptionalism, Holland portrays the vast Arab empire that was amassed between the River Oxus and the Pyrenees during the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries as the most potent in a series of religious and political superstrates that came to dominate the world of the Mediterranean and Middle East following the chaotic collapse of the western Roman Empire.
Islam was not born fully formed with the Prophet as he received God’s revelation in a cave in 610, or when he fled Mecca for Medina around 622. In fact, the religion took nearly two centuries to assume its present form: a strict monotheism supremely loyal to the memory and teachings of its founder, Mohammed, governed by the words of its sacred text, the Koran, and overseen by an alliance of zealous princes and powerful priests.
During those two centuries, Islam and the caliphs took on board almost everything that had been integral to the success of the other emerging faiths and empires of the age: Persian Zoroastrianism, the Christianity of the eastern Romans and Judaism, which lacked a territorial empire but endured by the potency of its teaching throughout Palestine, Arabia and beyond.
From these old models, the Arab conquerors who rode out of the desert to seize North Africa, most of the Iberian Peninsula, the Holy Land, the fertile crescent and virtually everything between the Aral and Arabian seas, gleaned the means by which they, too, could rule the world.
Theologically, this meant the potency of submission to a single God; the doctrinal power of a single, perfect messenger to whom God had revealed himself; the relentless persecution of deviant or cultish forms of religious belief; and, most importantly of all, the enduring reach of a sacred text.
It also evolved in response to methods of controlling a wide and varied people: a legal code in which believers held privileged status; the exultation of warriors who fought in the name of the Almighty; spectacular buildings raised to the glory of God; and the conscious mythologising of great cities as the central hubs of both political power and pilgrimage.
Countless other aspects of early Islamic power were also borrowed directly from the empires that preceded the caliphates. Whereas the Christian Roman Empire of Justinian had imposed heavy taxes on those who did not worship God, so the Arabs imposed a poll tax (known as the jizya) on Jews and Christians who fell under their rule. The jizya illustrates the way in which the Arabs built a new order on the ruins of the old.
Holland tells a complex story, dotted with names and places leagues beyond the realm of popular recognition. Yet the ancient, largely alien figures jump from the pages in this gripping read. The nuances of ancient theological debate are not glossed over; but they are placed into the context of smelly marketplaces, shimmering palaces and bloodstained battlefields.
Holland is writing, however, about a touchy subject. Among his arguments is the credible notion of Mecca in the age of Mohammed is almost certainly not historically authentic, that our knowledge of the Prophet is uncertain, since nearly all of the information we have concerning his life derives from accounts written centuries after his death and that there were probably variations in early texts of the Koran. This raises many tensions among Islamists who have strongly resisted any Western attempts to interpret their scriptures in the same manner as Christianity. Holland touches on this again in a controversial Channel 4 documentary, for which he received death threats from many Muslims and condemnations from Islamic states such as Iran.
This is an incredible read as Holland illuminates the historical darkness of the declining ancient world. It is also a particularly important in an age where Islamic terrorism is rife. This book shed light on the context of Islam’s formation, which explains many of the religion’s violent doctrines. It gets 5/5