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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 4 page 18


Islam borrowed many important concepts from the Christianity and Judaism, the two established monotheisms that, along with their many sects and schisms, inhabited the Holy Land. Initially, as a matter of fact, Jerusalem was Islam’s top Holy City — Muslims turned in its direction for prayer. Only later, in a period of post-Mohammedan revisionism, did the faithful turn to Mecca instead.

And again just like Christianity and Judaism, Islam retained remnants from pre-monotheistic times. The very idea of an angel recalls the many magical supernatural beings of the pagan world. The famous ka’aba, the sacred cube in Mecca, was a pagan shrine until Mohammed supposedly exorcised it.

It would be unrealistic to imagine there could have been an instantaneous and total transition from polytheism to monotheism, and anyway in my view the boundary between the two belief systems is not as impermeable as you might presuppose, since the human mind can always divide the One into many aspects and on the other hand the Many can be thought of as parts of the One.

Still, a big character change that came with monotheism was the insistence by monotheists on religious rules and doctrines. Also, monotheistic religions tended to detest each other, since by definition there should be only one theism. As far as I can tell, monotheists become more tolerant only when their own particular convictions weaken.

Tom Holland seems to consider that Islam is built on shaky foundations since the Qur’an, which is supposed to be Allah’s message via Mohammed, was put in writing only after Mohammed’s death. Personally I wish Holland had dug more deeply into the credibility problems that arise when a religion loses its direct connection to its declared inspirational source. On the Christian side, when exegetes such as Dominic Crossan peel away the layers of the Bible to discover, or rather to guess, which words and deeds are closest to the real words and deeds of Jesus, and when they speculate on why this or that evangelist altered or invented a story — to me that is fascinating detective work, although for sure the Jesus you end up with looks less divine and more sadly human.

It's my duty as a conscientious reviewer to mention that it took too many pages for Holland to get round to the Arab conquest part.

I totally get it that the author has to provide geo-political background for the rise of Islam, but do the Roman and Persian empires really need to commandeer the first three-quarters of the book? Probably Holland had a lot of material left over from his previous popular histories about the classical world, Rubicon and Persian Fire, and this book on the Arabs helped him clear his desk a bit. So be it. At least by pushing Shadow of the Sword beyond 400 pages he has qualified it for a Med cruise, plus you’re getting a better price per page.