There is an optimistic belief that the world’s rival religions are all equally true. So while the mountain of faith may be scaled from different directions, all paths ultimately converge at the summit.
While such an ecumenical understanding of the oneness of God may be comforting, it is maintained only by a sort of willful blindness. In examining the rise of various brands of monotheisms within the context of late antiquity, Tom Holland’s excellent new book disabuses us of any easy and naive theological groupthink.
Holland is a British historian whose métier is the rise and fall of ancient civilizations. His books are authoritative and erudite histories, and in previous books he has addressed such expansive topics as the rivalry between Persia and Greece in Persian Fire, the fall of the Roman Republic in Rubicon, and the rise of the West in The Forge of Christendom. He combines vivid prose with impeccable narrative timing and a wonderfully dry wit. Here, for example, is his take on the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, a conversion which came after many years of Constantine’s searching for a deity powerful enough to match his own ambitions: “In the end it was Christ who passed the audition.”
In his new book, Holland focuses on the birth of Islam during late antiquity and traces its emergence as a political and cultural force in the “subsoil of the ancient Near East.” He notes that while Western interest in Islam has grown to “unprecedented heights,” the academic study of its origins has received little attention, in part due to “the inherent complexity of the subject.” Holland counters Ernst Renan’s famous proclamation that, “Islam was born in the full light of history” by asserting that Islam’s “birth has been shrouded in what has appeared, to an increasing number of scholars, as an almost impenetrable darkness.”
Holland’s timeline stretches from roughly the birth of Christ to the founding of Baghdad in the 8th Century. This was the turbulent and violent age of Empires, and Holland does an admirable job of disentangling for the general reader what, to modern ears, are very strange geo-political realities. For example, the book opens with a dramatic retelling of the death of Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar, the last Jewish King of Arabia.
The familiar Roman and Persian Empires play an integral part in the story, as do the lesser known, but no less vital, Abbasid and Sasanian Empires. (In addition to a very thorough index and bibliography, the author has thoughtfully provided a timeline, a dramatis personae and a glossary.)
Holland’s eye is never far from the swirling cauldron of theological debates. Late antiquity was marked by a multitude of religious cults, factions, fervors and enthusiasms, all jockeying to fathom and promote the true word of God in “an ever more-globalized world.”
Yet by late antiquity, the world’s three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – had been shaped into more or less their modern forms. Holland writes, “The great innovation of late antiquity was to fashion, out of what might have been inchoate blur of beliefs and doctrines, individual templates for individual religions, and then establish them as definitive … a transformation as momentous as any in history.”
While Islam, like all other religions, claims a “fundamental and mysterious essence which is somehow immune to the processes of time,” the historical reality is that Islam developed in concert and in competition with the other Abrahamic faiths, all of which share a number of common themes.
Of prime importance was the need to extend universally the word of the One True God via written laws, along with the corresponding understanding that God’s will could only be known through the interpretative prism of a holy man. Additionally, the evangelizing of God’s word would prepare the faithful for the coming of the Golden Age, which could only be ushered in once all the faithful were in perfect accord with God’s will.
In brief, the monotheisms of late antiquity mirrored the claims of political empires to universality. As Holland notes, “Why, in a world dominated by the pretensions of would-be universal empires, should the pretensions of a would-be universal faith not find a ready audience?”
Holland’s central point is that Islam – contrary to the tradition that its origins can be attributed solely to the Prophet’s revelations – drew on a dazzlingly rich and complex civilization. And if we reject divine providence in the form of the Angel Gabriel as an explanation for Mohammed’s “recitation,” then we are forced to concede that the Koran, far from existing beyond the exigencies of time and space, was constructed as a response to the whirlpool of events, religious ideas and spiritual sentiments that preoccupied the peoples of late antiquity.
In other words, the Koran is best understood as a text of late antiquity. And if we concede this point, then the entire Islamic edifice is opened to the rigours and methodologies of modern historical analysis – a development that is bound to unsettle some orthodox believers, but a development from which there can be no going back.
Predictably, Holland’s views on the historical beginnings of Islam have garnered a number of detractors. In response to one such critic, he writes, “No field of ancient history is more riven at the moment by differences of interpretation than that of early Islam. It is clear that debate on the origins of Islam, far from dying down, is reaching a whole new pitch of excitement and intensity. One may, perhaps, as a Muslim, regret this – but not deny it.”
Patrick Keeney teaches in the School of Education at Thompson Rivers University.