Book review: In the Shadow of the Sword


coversmlI reviewed this book when it first came out. Now it is about to come out in paperback, I want it to get as wide a readership as possible. I think it is one of the most significant books, and probably the bravest, I have come across since I first read Solzhenitsyn – and I realize that you might think I am exaggerating, but I will explain why.

Tom Holland is the successful author of several books of ancient history, two of which (Persian Fire and Rubicon) are ones I frequently recommend as great history. In the Shadow of the Sword is his dauntingly vast account of the religious realities of the first five hundred years of Christianity. If you dimly recall the feuds around the council of Nicea, this book will put flesh and blood on them, in gruesome and well-documented detail. He gives the religious background to a variety of religious groupings, with a bewildering cast and endless battles, but never loses his sure footing in the detail. This is a quite brilliant piece of history writing, and deserves the highest recognition.

But that is not why it is significant or courageous. This is: buried in the back third, for the first time, an author has taken what scholars of the history of Islam have been quietly whispering and put it on public display for the rest of us. The existence of Muhammad, the archaeology of Mecca, the textual history of the Qur’an, the credibility of the sources, the internal inconsistency of the data are all examined with a forensic eye and a judicious conclusion. Other scholars will now have to join the debate in public. This is a hugely important book.

We are familiar with this debate for the Bible, of course, but we have had a hundred and fifty years to think it through. It is commonplace for us to be confident that archaeology gives plausibility to the Bible, and that it speaks from and to its world. But mainstream critical scholarship is reaching far more radical conclusions for the historicity of Islamic claims than it ever reached for Christianity. Did you ever hear even the most radical scholar say that Jerusalem did not exist at the time of Jesus? That no part of the New Testament predates 300 AD?

Tom Holland deserves widespread support, because when the nature and content of this book becomes more widely known (which it will when it goes into paperback) he will face a firestorm of criticism, and some of it may come in an intimidating and unsafe way.

There have been other books which have done exposés of Mao, Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot, and they have frequently been eye-opening. But my comparison of Holland with Solzhenitsyn holds, because of the physical courage that sometimes has to be displayed to make truth known. We Christians often wonder if the time will come when we will have to pay a price for speaking truly in public. Tom Holland has led the way.

In the Shadow of the Sword is published in paperback by Abacus at £10.99

10 comments on “Book review: In the Shadow of the Sword”

  1. Chris, I completely agree. I read it on the back of your review last year and it was a brilliant read. But, as you say, the last third is utterly compelling. Thank you for pointing this book out.

      1. I think channel 4 do. I believe they pulled the plug on repeating the documentary he did alongside the book to avoid the backlash.

  2. This will go onto my “books I must read” section. As I’m moving countries soon, I can’t quite get it at the moment – though maybe I can convince myself it will be a great read on the plane!

    Thanks Chris.

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