At first glance, this is just a new history of the start of Islam, and how the Arabs came to dominate such a large area, one of those parts of history that often defies analysis. And Holland loops this book around that subject a couple of times just to show how and why this is traditionally a tough subject to tackle.

There’s a fair amount of myth surrounding the foundation of Islam. And it’s so well presented that even when an outsider looks at it, and starts wondering just how likely some of it is, the weight of evidence comes down on the side of that myth. General Western views of this period aren’t much more critical of the story than Islamic scholars are; that’s an amazing intellectual achievement right there.

At the same time, this also is a marker of the change from late Antiquity, where Middle East is dominated by the superpowers of Rome (/Byzantium) and Sassanid Persia, to the early Medieval period where its the Christian world vs the Islamic one. Looking at AD 500 and AD 800, things look very different, and the source of changes seems invisible in AD 500.

Of course, the Middle East was traditionally a bubbling cauldron of different religious beliefs. Things like the Dead Sea Scrolls are the merest tip of the iceberg of religious debate; a snapshot of one place and time. Other sources talk of various other cults, and groups, that were obviously stealing the better ideas from each other. I really wish Holland had gone into that a bit more, and maybe tried to trace some of the currents of religious thought in the area, the groups that were slowly pushed to the fringes by the state-backed power of Christianity and Zoroastrianism. He goes into some, and lists a few oddities from the 5th and 6th Centuries. Oddities that sound really familiar in a religion that was supposed to spring full-formed from the mouth of a person touched by God.

And looking into the history of the Quran and the haddith, things don’t look so clear. Despite the claims made, the earliest known examples, and the first biography of Mohammad, which codifies a lot of this story, date to nearly two centuries after his life. Now, these are based on earlier versions, but there’s a fair amount of drift possible in that time, and the early history of the Quran is not looking any clearer that the early history of the Gospels. Holland doesn’t go into it, but the later parts shows that there is something about the birth of a religion, possibly something forever unknowable. The codified institutions come later; events swept people along, caused a passionate belief… that doesn’t get written down in all the excitement.

After that, a closer look at what was actually going on with Rome and the Sassanians helps bring things into focus. The Islamic irruption into the world stage happened at the end of a long conflict between Rome and Persia, and Holland not only points out how this had drained available manpower on both sides, but he goes into a plague that swept through the region just recently, and like the better known Black Death, it was devastating to world population as a whole. He then goes into the current generation of Arab mercenaries, whose sources of money are drying up….

And from there, the rest of the book is a familiar story, but with the emphases changed. He posits, from what is in the Quran, and a few other places, that Mohamed, and his closest companions, were far more aware of the Roman world than is generally understood, and move on to the struggle to define just what had happened over the next few generations, as events of the 630s slipped out of memory, and into history.

Its a well-written book all the way through, and really shakes up the normal perception of this period. I’d say this is among the top ‘must reads’ for anyone interested in this part of history. Parts of it are a bit vague, and pro tem, but it does reference much more current research than you normally get to hear about.