Episode 57 – Why did the Arabs win? Part 2: In the Shadow of the Sword

Tom Holland author of the book "In the Shadow of the Sword"

Tom Holland author of the book “In the Shadow of the Sword”

An interview with Tom Holland, author of the book “In the Shadow of the Sword.” The book traces the origins of Islam by looking at the Jewish, Roman and Persian worlds of late antiquity. In the interview he gives his views on how this process worked and then I ask him why did the Arabs win?

Period: 602-695

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Categories: Podcast | 31 Comments

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31 thoughts on “Episode 57 – Why did the Arabs win? Part 2: In the Shadow of the Sword

  1. Nick


    I absolutely love your podcast, and got my entire family to listen. You do the best history podcast of any podcaster I have ever listened to. Thank you so much for your effort.

    After today’s episode, I tried to download In The Shadow of the Sword on audible. Unfortunately, they say it’s not available in my country — the US. Thought you’d like to know before getting too many hopes up.

    Keep up the great work!

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  3. yordan

    I am going to join the precious poster in congratulating you on the quality of your podcast. Three months in, it only gets more interesting.

  4. Pingback: Post 54: Tom Holland vs The History of Byzantium | Ox History Blog

  5. pscommercial

    Just want to echo that the last three have been an excellent run of an already excellent podcast.

    I’ve found this topic particularly fascinating- it challenges a lot of received wisdom about a major historical turning point and grounds it more firmly in the strategic situation of the time period.

    Think you’ll have other academic historian interviews? Lars Brownworth (12 Byzantine Rulers) maybe?

  6. Daud Farooq

    Hi Robin
    An interesting episode. I do fear, however, that Holland leaves us with a picture that essentially distorts much of what is known. The approach he takes is classical Orientalist and is symptomatic of the writing of History of the ‘other’. It’s simply dangerous to disarm a whole culture of it’s history because it is rooted in traditions of oral recording. this has been done to African knowledge too. The veracity of these traditions is undermined in a single blow by Holland’s interview.
    The telling of history is always nuanced by the ‘now’ and Holland’s interview is a good example.

    • Jonathan

      With written traditions, you can track changes in the narrative insofar as older writings survive. With oral traditions, you cannot. That is good reason to distrust them more than written sources, particularly when they cannot be corroborated with any other evidence.

  7. Priyankar

    Hi Mr. Robin:
    Did the Ghassanids have a stable political order and a stable economic system and a mini-version of the vast Byzantine bureaucracy?

    • No they would have ruled through a far less formal network. They would have sent word out about what they wanted other tribes to do and then they would have punished or rewarded based on how compliant subordinate tribes were. Personal relationships would have been key.

  8. Why does your photo of the book show a title of “The Shadow of the Sword”, when everywhere else (including your text) it is “In the Shadow of the Sword”, which seems to be the actual title?

  9. Shikari

    Thanks, love Tom Holland as a storyteller! A very good idea! Just one comment: Tom does get a bit confused: Mu’awiya, in his telling, with his Syrian connections should be associated with Ghassan (the ‘Gassanids’) while the armies of Iraq would be associated with the Bani Lakhm (the ‘Lakhmids’).

  10. Love this podcast, but Tom Holland is not an historian. While he brings up some good points, there are enough examples of old verses, and pieces of the Quran before the 8th century.


    This is a good critique of the book by an actual historian.

  11. Pingback: Robin Pierson’s Grand Strategy: The history of Byzantium podcast. | The History of the Byzantine Empire

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  13. Alejo Hausner

    Your interview motivated me to read Holland’s book, which I just got started on. I like his prose style. In fact, he writes so nicely that critics have complained he’s too persuasive: his central thesis (that Islam was created centuries after the Prophet lived, and not in Mecca but further north) is only tentative, but his style almost compels you to take it as established fact.

    I myself don’t find it terribly controversial to say that a religion’s theology and texts might have been created long after the date traditionally given to them. For example, scholars agree that the four Christian gospels were written quite a long time after Jesus lived: about 50 years after his death. So they are transcriptions of oral accounts, not eyewitness accounts.

    Also, the gospels place a lot of emphasis on the Romans’ domination of the Jews, and on divisions between Jewish factions. That emphasis probably arises because the gospels were written around a time when these issues were playing out very violently: the first revolt against the Romans, and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. So by analogy I wouldn’t be surprised if the political environment and wars in the fertile crescent in the 7th and 8th centuries would have a strong influence on the theology of Islam, when that faith’s texts were created, according to Holland.

    On the other hand, I remember reading a book by Mircea Eliade, a big scholar in the history of religion. One passage that struck me was about two star-crossed teenage lovers, one of whom jumped to her death from a cliff. A few years after the tragedy, people were remembering the event very differently. They had overlayed all sorts of religious meanings on it: she was an angel, or a goddess. I forget the exact details, but his point was that people are religious beings, and have a strong tendency to map religious ideas onto historical events and historical people.

    The reason I bring up Eliade’s story is to complain about people getting irate over “the actual truth”. Why do people make such a big issue over who Jesus actually was, or who Muhammad was? There are important religious ideas, which are expressed in the stories we write about those men. Those religious ideas are more important than the historical details of those men’s lives.

    • Jim Navy

      I really liked your response and I totally agree. Btw, I just found the series a few months ago and so I am just reading these comments, so sorry about the delayed comments.

      Again, I agree with you. I’m a practicing Muslim but I also try to separate Muhammad the spiritual ideal from Muhammad the actual man whom we really don’t know much about. I really enjoyed the Tim Holland interview. It offers such a new perspective to my religious background that I never thought of before, knew in much detail, or I dare say, was even a bit afraid of approaching, haha. Robin Pearson truly approaches this from a place of pure truth-seeking, you must respect and admire that spirit in people especially with such sensitive topics.

      These 7th century overview episodes, along with the Final War episode are by far my favorites. I look forward to finishing out the series and looking forward for more of Mr. Pierson’s projects!

  14. Pingback: Robin Pierson’s Grand Strategy: The history of Byzantium podcast. – If It Happened Yesterday, It's History

  15. Sam Carlshamre

    As someone who is a PhD-candidate in Semitic Languages (with command of both Arabic and Syriac, yes), with my specialization in Arabic historiography, I just thought I would point out that Hollands positions is incredibly fringe by any possible standard. No one in academia takes this position seriously, nor should they.

    As the host himself points out he does not really know much about the origins of Islam or Arabic historiography in general. That is is all good and fine, but if so please try to take your cues from someone who does, not from a dilletant. Sad to see, given that its an otherwise excellent podcast.

    • Holland is building on the work of dozens of scholars who have called into question the literary accounts of the origins of Islam so I think you may be overstating slightly. However I struggled during this period to find modern books presenting a case for the historicity of the Islamic accounts (that don’t start from the assumption that they are true). If you’d be able to recommend some that would be extremely helpful. Thanks.

  16. Fahd

    I have to say that so far I was enjoying this podcast a great deal but when I reached this point, I’m starting to change my position on it. I find it hard to understand why in this episode and in the bonus episode on Muslim history, you’d prefer to depend so much on theorists, scholars and writers who are generally regarded as controversial, non-historians or generally discredited among the scholarly community. You admit this yourself in these episodes.

    Now admittedly I’m not a historian so I have to go on what others have said but I arrived at this conclusion after searching for Holland and your other sources’ standing among the academic community (shout-out to my favorite subreddit on reddit: AskHistorians!)

    Frankly it’s now starting to make me question how much diligence you’ve put into this project and how trustworthy it actually is. I’ve been debating for quite some time whether or not to continue listening

  17. Omar

    It’s not just in these episodes, but also in the last Byzantine-Sassanid war in the first half of the century, that Robin’s religious views are heavily influencing his interpretation.

    He doesn’t hide that fact, it’s mentioned several times. Both that he’s ignoring certain things mentioned in the sources because they’re “more Homer than Herodotus”, and that he has a religious position in the podcast. Which I think is wonderful. He’s attempting his damn best to fit the history of the 7th century into an athestic world view, and his positions are logical and well thought out – even perhaps necessary – given that starting position.

    That he has had to resort to pseudo-historical nonsense is not something we should blame him for. There are really only two other options, (1) change his whole religious worldview, or (2) defer analysis like George Ostrogorsky and simply say “the following events are well documented, but remain inexplicable”. Ostrogorsky approach is more scientific, but I think Robin did the right thing by not avoiding the analysis. I love the episodes, I’ve been sharing them with my friends and family. Good job Robin, I love your honesty and your attempt.

  18. Clóvis Padilha

    I just learned that Tom is also a dinosaur aficionado by watching the Terrible Lizards podcast. I guess that makes him one of my favorite people alive.

    Btw, I love your podcast, Robin! Have been listening to it since late 2020, after finishing Mike’s, and have already catch up to the current point in the narrative. I’m looking forward for the next episodes!

    I have to say, however, that I am somewhat distraught that you put Heraclius in second place among Byzantine emperors.

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