If you didn’t know the author, the title of this book and its cover illustration – a fallen helmet with vacant staring eye-sockets lying in the desert sand – give the impression of an epic historical novel. Distribution too; I bought a soft cover “airport edition” – a channel better known for promoting the latest books by best-selling authors. Although in its style and structure it reads like a novel – somewhat florid prose, and dramatic interruptions in the narrative to allow the reader to catch up on another part of the plot – anyone who buys the book under this expectation will soon realize that what they actually have is a
hardcore history book.

It is essentially an attempt to present a historical account of Mohammed and the early history of Islam, as opposed to the idealized version subsequently enshrined in the religion that was founded in the name of the prophet. In order to achieve this, the author traces the development of the three major religions of antiquity – Christianity, Judaism and the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian Persian empire. This forms the essential context for explaining the rapid spread of Islam on the back of the Arab conquest of the ancient east early in the seventh century. He describes how some form of monotheism was by this time already pervasive in most of what we call the middle east. And this did not exclude the Arabs; thousands had moved north, where they could make a profitable living, policing the borders of both Byzantine and Sassanian empires as mercenaries, and where at the same time they were likely to have been influenced by the winds of monotheism. Crucially, he presents compelling arguments why Mecca – a thousand miles south in the middle of the Arabian Desert – could not have been the flourishing entrepot and major pre-Islamic religious center which Muslim tradition (although not the Qu’ran)would have it. Instead, he locates the place from which the prophet migrated to Medina and then returned to in triumph as somewhere on the Palestinian/Syrian border – perhaps even Mamre, where Abraham – the father of the Arabs as well as of the Jews, had pitched his tent beside a Terebinth tree. It was not until half a century after Mohammed’s death, that the non-exclusive community of “believers” that he had founded was transformed into Islam, “submission” , by Abd al Malek the Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. Just as the Byzantine emperors had felt the need to stamp out different versions of Christianity and impose an orthodoxy on all their subjects, and just as the Rabbis of the Talmud labored to define minutely every aspect of Jewish life, so the leader of the first Arab empire needed to establish a defining central orthodoxy for his huge and diverse realm. That orthodoxy was Islam, a religion exclusively for the Arab conquerors, whose holy language was Arabic, and whose geographical origins were deep in Arabia.

The book eventually achieves its objective – but the road is long and winding. Some examples: The third chapter “New Rome” – although harking back to the origins of Rome – is essentially a narrative about Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. How is it possible to get 28 pages into such a narrative before the word “Christian” occurs? Apparently – as far as the story so far is concerned – Constantine’s only significant achievement was moving the seat of empire to Byzantium. Then there are pages of panegyrics about Justinian’s efforts to codify Roman law, but nothing about his ecclesiastical policies or his success in recapturing the lands of the western empire overrun by the barbarians in the previous century. The next section of this chapter swoops back in time to recap the growth of Christianity, Constantine’s role in its establishment as the religion of the Roman state, and eventually Justinian too. Judaism gets a similar switchback treatment; starting with the Talmudic academies in 6th century Babylon, we flash back to Edessa where Jewish and Christian identities were being fought over in the 3rd century, and finally – in a chapter entitled “The Children of Abraham”, which leads with six pages on Christian monastics and pilgrims – we get a potted history of the Jews from the time of Abraham up to the “present”. i.e. 6th century Palestine.

The scholarship, in as much as I am qualified to judge it, is impeccable. The voluminous chapter notes are evidence of the thoroughness of Holland’s research and the comprehensiveness of his sources. His reference to the marginal role of the rabbis until the 6th century, when they firmly established themselves as the leaders of the community and teachers of Jewish Law, is an example of how his narrative reflects recent state-of-the-art scholarship. His sources on Islam seem to include the most recent critical studies by Ibn Warraq and Fred Donner and others I am not familiar with.

The problem is Tom Holland’s style; you never know quite where he is going. The narrative’s swerves and switchbacks occur quite stealthily; in each chapter there is always a crucial turning point, which leads to his plot objective; you find yourself doing a backward search in an effort to find out how you got to where you are. The other book of his that I have read Millenium/ The Forge of Christendom), starts at the end of the “story” with the dramatic meeting between the German emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory at Canossa. There it worked, because in a way the whole book is about the efforts of the Catholic Church to achieve its independence from emperors. In the present book I feel it works to the detriment of the arrative. The other distraction in the present book is the way he switches from a sweeping historical perspective to minute – and often prurient – details, like the halitosis of Abd al-Malek or the sexual antics of the empress Theodora before she got religion and married Justinian. Perhaps he really is trying to appeal to an audience that doesn’t normally read “real” history, and would not swallow a straightforward chronological narrative – good luck with that.