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

Download: Why did the Arabs win? Part 2: In the Shadow of the Sword

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Categories: Podcast | 24 Comments

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

  1. Nick

    Robin,

    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!

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

  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.

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/04/in-shadow-of-sword-tom-holland

    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

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