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Publisher's Summary

The evolution of the Arab empire is one of the supreme narratives of ancient history, a story dazzlingly rich in drama, character, and achievement. In this exciting and sweeping history - the third in his trilogy of books on the ancient world - Tom Holland describes how the Arabs emerged to carve out a stupefyingly vast dominion in a matter of decades, overcoming seemingly insuperable odds to create an imperial civilization.

With profound bearing on the most consequential events of our time, Holland ties the exciting story of Islam's ascent to the crises and controversies of the present.

©2012 Tom Holland (P)2015 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"Elegantly written.... A veritable tour de force. (The Wall Street Journal)

What members say

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Great Book with a Misleading Title

I should say first of all that this book is dazzling in terms of its scope and breadth, and it is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Islam. That said, I was just a little bit disappointed to find that the author does not really dig deep into that history until the last third of the book. It seems as if the preliminary material which sets the stage for the emergence of this particular form of imperial monotheism in 7th-century Arabia takes up most of the space, and the purported subject of the book gets short shrift. Don't get me wrong, the material on Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and early Christianity is incredibly interesting, but it seems that a book with a subtitle like "The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire" would begin tackling those subjects much earlier in the narrative. To be sure, all of those earlier monotheisms form a necessary context and background to the rise of Islam, but the emphasis on those earlier forms seems out of proportion to the emphasis on Islam. All that aside, I recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject. Holland's writing style is lively and engaging; refreshingly free of academic cant and jargon, and in some ways his prose style is reminiscent of classic historians like MacCaulay or Gibbon. And it works well as an audiobook; Steven Crossley's narration is flawless. I will definitely be listening to/reading this one again.

22 of 22 people found this review helpful

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  • Phil O.
  • San Diego, CA, United States
  • 11-01-15

A vivid, illuminating trip through late antiquity

This tale sparkles with personalities, beliefs, collisions, and richly-staged history, moving seamlessly between these different levels. The author is a great storyteller (in wonderful sync with the narrator's style), not so much an exhaustive expositor of various possible views of these things. It starts a bit awkwardly, I thought, as it veers off for quite awhile into the unreliability of sources for modern verifiable historical details on various prophets and prophetic religions of antiquity. This is repeated as needed when a new religion or sect is introduced. But suddenly, these issues are mostly shelved, and we are immersed in the main mode of storytelling which is vivid and virtuoso. I am happy to hop on for the ride, vowing to return to more placid, plodding scholarly explanations another time. Meanwhile, I feel as if I was in the times alongside the people, and my sense of all these peoples' origins is brought to shimmering life. Islam through most of the story is merely anticipated, as we spend much time in other regions of the near- and middle- east and among non-Arab peoples and their sects. The portrait of Constantinople and particularly its Roman overlords was fantastic. Here are Jews, Christians, Pagans, Zoroastrians, yet others, and of course, Arabs as their civilization gathered itself and quickly took amazing flight.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Not Holland's best work

I really wanted to love this book. I'm a big fan of Tom Holland's work in written and audio format, but this book was difficult to follow. I could not tell what the presentation style was because it did not seem to follow a thematic progression and it certainly wasn't a narrative history. It just seemed to meander through time and place. While the minute to minute listening was classic Holland, I had no idea how anything fit with what I had heard previously or would hear subsequently.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Disjointed

Maybe if I had a hard copy of the book it would all flow in a decent way, but the narrative as I followed it was full of sidesteps and jumped about chronologically. I understand that for a full understanding of the background, one must actually follow the background.... presented as it was it felt more like a Tarantino film than a history, in that it seemed very out of sequence and hard to follow.

Frankly I almost returned the book.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Misleading title

What disappointed you about In the Shadow of the Sword?

Two thirds of the book are a history of all of the cultural events leading up to the birth of Islam. It describes well the vacuum of power that existed in the 5th and 6th century that allowed Islam to expand, almost at will. It says nothing about how the split between Sunni and Shia occurred. It tells nothing about the conquest of Constantinople. It tells nothing of how Islam was finally stopped in eastern Europe. I was primarily interested in Islam, not the other "children of the book"

Has In the Shadow of the Sword turned you off from other books in this genre?

No. I have to be more careful reading reviews.

What does Steven Crossley bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

It was a great read.

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

It was a great review of the history of Christianity, Judaism and the empires of Europe and East Asia. I wasn't looking for that in such detail.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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A Tour of Late Antiquity

If you've enjoyed Holland's Rubicon and Dynasty, please do yourself a favor and wander into the gorgeous landscape painting of late antiquity he creates in this work. His evocation of the Shah's disastrous expedition against the Hepthalites will dig its hooks into you, I guarantee. Be forewarned, Holland spends most of his time setting the stage, the actual Islamic conquest isn't set in motion until the final third of the book. But, if you've ever been curious about that hazy time between the fall of the western roman empire and the rise of islam, Holland will flesh it out for you in gilded detail.

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Intriguing story, somewhat annoying narration

The narrator tries to invest too much cuteness in every phrase, and plays the emphasis on clever wording too hard. It makes for annoyed listening

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Good But Too Much Filler

It seems like half the book is spend setting up the background for the rise of the Islamic empire. Perhaps that's because (and I think the author has said as much) there really aren't that many source documents.

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Engrossing narrative, well told with a disconnected ending

The first third of this narrative is exactly what you should expect from Tom Holland and the 'Fire' if the name is well explored, but the middle third veers curiously into Constantinople for a ponderous amount of time. The last third, while geography related to the first, seems to be of a whole other project. Virtually unrelated, it is a narrative worth reading, albeit a strange direction that really does not seem connected ti the rest. Still Tom Holland narrative style makes for an engaging read.

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It’s in IPod but!

Any additional comments?

It’s not friendly for navigating the book to find the chapters that are of special interest. The chapter display on the IPod is too small for navigating. This was not a problem, in my earlier downloads.