Tracing the birth of Islam

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SWORD: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. By Tom Holland. Doubleday. 526 pages. $29.95.

This impressive and extensively documented narrative history traces the birth of Islam in the arid regions of the Middle East, its emergence amid the fits and starts of internecine tribal and political strife and its development into the second largest religious entity in the world.

Perhaps even more interesting is Tom Holland’s careful examination of the centerpiece of Islam, the Quran, whose somewhat obscure origins are still the subject of intense scholarly research.

Islam arose in the context of the mature religions of Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity as well as an array of ancient pagan sects.

The author, praised for his books “Persian Fire” and “Rubicon,” brings his highly polished flair for storytelling and his keen eye for historical detail to bear on how these often brutally competitive entities fought over their relative proximity to the word of God.

“In the Shadow of the Sword” explains that practically all of the religious texts of the time were constantly being altered to address contemporary problems and new refinements of belief. Many times, whoever held the reins of power added to the sacred texts their own commemorative stanzas or imposed additional, usually harsher, restrictions on the faithful.

As in much that has directed the course of history in the Middle East, the blood ties of tribalism pretty well dictated events and only very strong leaders were successful in achieving widespread unity, and usually not for very long.

Holland skillfully pulls together the cultural, religious and political histories within the sphere of an emerging and then all-enveloping Islam to give context to where it is today. As in all histories, it is remarkable to see how much has been changed and how much remains the same. Holland expertly makes such complex history familiar, and on a subject of universal importance.

Reviewer Ben McC. Moise, an author and freelance writer based in Charleston