Sunday, March 15, 2015

In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland

It was a matter of opinion whether Yusuf was on the side of the angels or the demons; but neither Jews nor Christians had any doubt that what had happened had derived ultimately from God. This was the core presumption of the age; and a history of late antiquity that neglects to pay due acknowledgement to it is a history that has failed.

And so Holland does. In order to tell his story of Islam he begins with the history of its environment; so I learned some of Persian history and culture of the era (I didn’t know all that much about Zoroastrianism, for instance). He also introduces Eastern Roman history and a description of what was happening with Jews (e.g. compiling the Talmud—most Jews hadn’t returned to Israel but had stayed in Persia), and Jewish-Christian relations. Then the role of the Arabs (hired gun clients for both Romans and Persians) becomes clearer, and why they were able to roll over their enemies so easily. (Plague took out O(1/3) of the city-dwelling Romans and Persians, but left semi-nomadic Arabs mostly alone; also the Romans and Persians had fought each other to a standstill and were pretty depleted.)

Arabs weren’t just found in the desert.

…Arab tribes eager to set their fortunes on a firmer footing. Some, like the Nabateans… had exploited their position between the trade routes of the desert and Mediterranean to create a fabulously wealthy commercial hub, centred on their pink-hued capital of Petra. Others, looking to take a short cut to power, had aimed to infiltrate the cities of other people and then seize their commanding heights: a policy of playing cuckoo in the nest that explained why the kings of Edessa had been of Arab descent.

And the Roman clients and the Persian clients had their own territories handy to the larger struggles (and sometimes fought each other even when the Romans and Persians were at peace).

Confession time: I’ve never succeeded in plowing through the Koran, and I’m informed that large chunks are not really decipherable anyway. So I was not aware that the Koran had essentially no datable references, though Holland points to one reference to current Roman events that would have happened during Muhammad’s lifetime. I also wasn’t aware that the Koran specified 3 prayers and not 5, only mentioned hell as the punishment for apostates, and said 100 lashes (and not execution) was correct punishment for adultery.

The Kharijites sound quite familiar, by the way: this pure sect of Islam might “go out with their swords into the markets while people would stand around not realizing what was happening; they would shout ‘no judgment except God!’ and plunge their blades into whomever they could reach, and go on killing until they themselves were killed.” Their heirs are still about this work, though with Western-invented tools instead of simple swords.

The Koran tells of Christians that they worship three gods, a father, son, and mother. Orthodox Christianity doesn’t resemble this at all, of course, but Nazoreans believed the Holy Spirit to be female, and apparently so did Mani and the Manicheans. These were made seriously unwelcome in the Roman and Persian empires, and the survivors tended to make their way to the fringes. Like the edges of Arabia.

Maybe even deep into Arabia (there were monks), but maybe they didn’t need to be.

Holland tries to advance two theses:

  • Mecca was not Muhammad’s center for worship; he lived and worked much further north; he dealt not with pagans (who hardly get a mention in the Koran) but with other monotheists.
  • Many of the hadith (known even by Muslims to be almost entirely bunk, created to support some political view or another) were created by former Zoroastrian scholars who were trying to modify doctrine so that they would not be second-class Moslems. The Arabs at first tended to put obstacles in their path: non-Muslims had to pay extra taxes and the Arabs naturally enough didn’t want to have to treat other tribes as their equals.

To address these points he considers internal evidence in the Koran and in descriptions of what some of his allies did (like buy land in the area now part of Israel). That would be extremely speculative for someone living in Mecca, but reasonable enough if they lived in the north not far away. Mecca gets hardly any mention in the Koran, and at least one Muslim worship center shows reorientation from one direction to another further south at Mecca. And during a civil war one of the Companions holed up in a shrine somewhere obscure (but in the northern regions) which Muslims valued but which was utterly destroyed in the siege. Shortly thereafter the victorious Abd al-Malik made a pilgrimage to Arabia and ordered “renovations” in Mecca. Some writers called him the man who had “destroyed the sacred House of God”, and another wrote “At the time of the Prophet, may God save him and give him peace, our faces were all turned in one direction—but after the death of the Prophet, we turned ourselves hither and thither.” And Holland notes that there were plenty of “ka’ba” in Arabia—lots of sacred cubes.

As to the hadith, Holland notes the region where many were “discovered”, notes that the political conditions there would favor making changes, and notes further that some of the differences (praying 5 times a day, death for apostasy, stoning for adultery) were long-standing tenets of Zoroastrians. Zoroastrian priests were supposed to brush their teeth every day too, and lo and behold a hadith was found announcing that Muhammad did too. The rulers of the Muslims started concentrating on the unifying nature of the religion, and discovered that this meant that the religious scholars necessarily assumed a much greater prominence than before—sharing power.

Proof of anything like this is quite hard to come by, especially where someone had things to hide. Surviving biographies of Muhammad are more than 200 years later than his death, and the earliest known was written in the same era as a flourishing hadith creation industry.

Certain of the details he brings up are certainly suspicious, but I’m not quite convinced that such large changes in practice could be made undetected. Perhaps they were, and the chaos of civil war and widespread illiteracy among the Arabs made it easier to carry off. If you only have word-of-mouth about what the Koran and Muhammad said, and you were told by powerful scholars that Muhammad had actually said something different, I suppose you’d go along and not talk about it too much.

Holland tells the upshot of the investigations into those ancient Koranic fragments found in a Yemeni mosque. One of the two researchers said that the verses had changed over time: as Holland puts it “words, spellings, and even the order of verses in the Qur’an were perfectly capable of being misread and miscopied, it is apparent as well that these were only ever involuntary errors. There is not a hint of deliberate fabrication”. Naturally the Yemeni leaders went wild and forbade further access.

An interesting book, though I am nowhere near expert enough to tell whether the theses are supportable. Worth reading for the background even if they aren't.


Texan99 said...

I'm still only about halfway through, having gotten bogged down a bit. I had exactly your reaction to the Kharijites! Could have been ripped from the headlines.

And I found the background helpful, too. In recent years I've been trying to repair my spotty historical education, and I enjoy reading ancient history most of all, but I'm still having trouble keeping it all straight. There was lots more Persian history in this book than I've found elsewhere.

james said...

You mentioned you'd been reading it, so I looked it up and it looked fun. Stuff like "not sure Abraham existed" got a bit old after a while (that good old "internal evidence" says that part of Genesis is quite old), but he writes a lively history. And Persian history was pretty much a blank to me after Alexander, so this was great.

Texan99 said...

You inspired me to finish both "Shadow of the Sword" and the book about the collapse of the Late Bronze Age in about 1177 B.C., but I thought both of them ended in a bit of a muddle. Re the latter, I guess there still is no real understanding of quite why things fell apart more or less simultaneously all across the ancient Middle East in the early 12th century B.C. I was always taught it was some kind of Invasion of the Sea Peoples, but evidently that explanation doesn't hold up very well. I suppose it was some variation on those kids and their rock-n-roll.

james said...

Yes, the 1177 did sort of trail off unfinished--and I was startled how much of the book was footnotes. (I got it on Kindle) I thought it was worthwhile for the extra info, even if it still doesn't all fit nicely together.

Texan99 said...

Exactly! I thought I was about halfway through, that he'd carefully set up how none of the traditional explanations made sense, and I was settling in for the new, improved explanation, and suddenly there were the footnotes. But it's true it was interesting reading the summary of how interconnected all the Mediterranean civilization were then.