Reading notes by John Perkins

In the shadow of the Sword: the birth of Islam and the rise of the global Arab Empire

By Tom Holland

Part III Hijra

Chapter 6


When? (p299)

Three decades after the conclusion of the terrible war between Iranshah and New Rome the balance of power that for centuries had divided the Fertile Crescent into two rival spheres of influence was no more. In the east, Persian rule had collapsed utterly. The Roman Empire stood defiant but only just.

Global rule had passed into the hands of those previously scorned descendants of Ishmael, the bastard offspring of Abraham, the children of slave girl Hagar: the Arabs.

How did a monotheism suddenly appear, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus from a land devoid of Jewish or Christian presence? Muslims say it was a miracle. The entire history of secular enquiry into the origins of Islam is an attempt to answer this question.

The Prophetís biographies written almost two centuries after his death, say that Mecca was a place of significance and wealth the "mother of cities". This is implausible.

Since the rise of Christianity, the demand for incense had fallen. Its major source was Himya (now Yemen). So, very few camel trains still operated trough the Hijaz (western Arabia), and the road by passed Mecca altogether.

The word Mecca appears in the Quran only once (48:24). In all the ancient literature there is not a single reference to Mecca. Only in 741, more than 100 years after the Prophet's death does it finally crop up in the pages of a foreign text. Clearly Mecca was no multicultural boomtown. In the first flush of the Ishmaelite takeover, the patriarch of Antioch assumed that his new masterís holy book was the Torah.

The punishment for adultery in the Quran is 100 lashes (24:2). Yet the Hadith text follows the Torah and says they should be stoned. Why did they not follow the Quran and why were there no commentaries on the Quran prior to the 19th century? In the 10th century it was considered that there are 7 different versions of the Quran. Yet some parts of the Quran have an early date perhaps even before the time of Muhammad.

There are very few datable references in the Quran itself. Only two contemporaries of Muhammad, known from his biographies, appear by name in the Quran. These are Zayd and Abu Lahab. The prophet himself is mentioned four times. Those who the Quran scorns are called Mushrikan. Where they erred most was in the notion that god had fathered angels, and even worse that some of these angels were females.

Among its 44 chapters or sura is there are just a few scattered clues as to the likeliest date of its composition. It certainly post-dates the time of the Thamud, the confederation of Arabs employed by the Romans who are condemned by Muhammad. The Romans are reported to have been defeated in "a nearby land", and yet after that it is said they will be victorious (30:1).

Holland concludes that this must refer to the loss of Palestine to Khusrow II in 614. This seems solid and does date the Quran to the Prophet's lifetime.

In 630 a momentous event occurred. The Roman emperor in Constaninople, Heraclius, defeated the Persians and returned the "true cross" to Jerusalem. Contemporarily, a story was circulated about the other great conqueror of the Persians and the jailer of Gog and Magog. There is a reference to this in the Quran at (18:83) to the "two horned one", Dhu'l Qarnayan: Alexander the Great.

The references match the story that was circulated at that time. Holland says here, if anywhere, it is possible to pin a precise date on and of a segment of the Quran.

Both Empires had been wrecked by the plague and the spectre of ruin was approaching. This is eschatology is also apparent in the tale of Alexander. Hence Muhammad reflects in the Quran the feeling of imminent doom and the Vengeance of God. Muhammad also refers to the Roman tale of the seven sleepers of a Ephesus but does not mention that they were Christian.

Muhammad introduced another classically Roman device. All people of the book Christians and Jews had to pay a poll tax, the jizya.

The Quran does not refer directly to any of the inter-Christian disputes. Holland says a reference to the Christians as "Nasara" refers to the Nazoreans. This was an obsolete sect that believed that the holy spirit was Christ's mother. Muhammad criticises them directly for this (5:116). Holland infers that this sect could have survived intact on the fringes of Southern Palestine, where Muhammad could have come across it.

The Aryan loyalties of the Ostragoths and Vandals showed that the garden of Christian orthodoxy had never been cleared of weeds. The Quran contains echoes of a pre-Nicean anti-Trinitarianism where Jesus was only ever a man, and was not crucified. This is the long scotched Gospel of Basildes.

The Koran's vision of paradise, with its eternally boyish cup-bearers, handsome like hidden pearls, and wide eyed maidens, is remarkably similar to the vision of Zeus.

Where? (p320)

Mani was a preacher who fused Christian and Zoroastrian teachings. He was born near Ctesiphon the Persian capital in 216. He grew up in a Christian sect which, just like the Nazoreans, practised circumcision, held the Holy Spirit to be female and prayed in the direction of Jerusalem.

Mani gave rise to the Manicheans, which although only ever a small sect, had cells from Carthage to China. Du Blois plausibly has identified the Manicheans as the mysterious Sabeans, the third people of the book as mentioned in the Koran.

The Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian priests, jealously defending the boundaries of their faiths, all hated the Manicheans. Monotheism reigned, and pagan cults had all but been wiped out. In Harran, however, midway between the empires, the moon-worshipping cult of Sin had still survived. The restoration of Roman rule threatened to wipe them out.

Pagans, Mancheans, Jews and persecuted Christians all found refuge in the great desert to the south.

In Najran, in the south of Arabia, there was a Christian Monument, a Kaaba, that honoured the pagan Arabs relish for referencing cubes.

There, the cults of the desert, including that of the goddess al Uzza, had never been under active imperial repression. Other goddess, that are mentioned in the Quran such as al Lat and Manat could also be identified as female angels. As such, they are condemned in the Quran (53:27). All kinds of pretended monotheisms outraged the prophet.

None of this appears to feature prominently in the biography of the prophet, which came to feature you more crowd-pleasing aspects such as massacres1.

The Quran does not contain any evidence of Muhammad's idol-smashing, but it does contain descriptions of the unfaithful as having herds of oxen, cows and sheep. It also mentions gardens of vines, olives and pomegranates. From this, the origin of the Quran cannot have been in Mecca, which is a notoriously dry barren and inhospitable place.

The Koran's origin is much more likely to have been south of Palestine in Nabatea or the Negev. The Quran describes the defeat of the Romans in "a nearby land".

In the entire Quran, only nine places are named, and only two of these can be identified: Mount Sinai and Yatrib, the Oasis that would come to be known as Medina.

Most enigmatic is a place called Bakka in the Quran. Orthodoxy equates this with Mecca but there's nothing in the Quran to justify this assertion.

Holland offers speculation as to where it might have been. Arabs had long flocked to a sanctuary at Mamre, in southern Palestine, a place where Abraham had "stood before the Lord". A Nestorian chronicle had alluded to a sanctuary there, sacred to the Arabs, founded by Abraham. The Quran also identifies, in identical terms, a house at Bakka, founded by Abraham (3:97).

Muslim orthodoxy goes to fantastical lengths to try to place Abraham in Mecca. But God promised Canaan to Abraham, not Arabia. Hagar and Ishmael had taken refuge in the surrounding Wilderness. The Prophet also describes Bakka as a place where Abraham stood to pray. The legend is also associated with Mamre.

Another key feature in the Quran, locating it in the near South of Palestine, is a reference to Lot, and the petrified remains of the Sodomites, which you pass by "in the morning and in the night" (37:133). In this case, they must have lived there. This is in the southern end of the Dead Sea.

As with Mecca, there is no contemporary historical reference to Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh. Muhammad's ancestor Qussay is supposed to have come to power after being assisted by the Romans. But the Romans seem to never have heard of this.

Holland speculates that the word actually came from a Syriac word qurisha meaning partnership. This refers to the Arab practice of acting as the frontier police for the Romans. Since the Persian conquest, this had no longer been a source of funds for them.

Holland says that the "straight path" referred to in the Quran, refers to the "strata", or the old Roman roads, that had by then become overgrown.

The word hijra is not mentioned in the Quran. But Muhammad issued the call to emigrate (1:100) and the reward was plunder (8:26). He named his followers as the Muhajirun - emigrants.

Muhammad intention was to set up a state. Holland agrees with the Orthodox view that its capital was Yatrib, later the "City of the Prophet".

Whether those responding to this call for arms were travelling north or south is not clear. Holland does not comment specifically on the historicity of the hijra dated as 622.

Why? (p340)

In 634 alarming news reached the Romans that a warband of Saracens had crossed into the Negev. A small Roman army led by Sergius met the invaders in the afternoon of 14 February, 12 miles east of Gaza. He was ambushed and the Saracens were victorious.

This was not the first time there had been Arab revolt, but this one was different. They immediately flung themselves against the defences of Syria. The historical details are sketchy but there were two terrible battles, one at the Ghassanid (former Arab client state of the Romans) camp city of Jabiya, and the other on the Golan Heights, above the river Yarmuk. These were fatal for the Romans.

Plague had ravaged both the Roman and Persian Empires, but with no rat population, the desert dwelling Arabs were less affected by it. In 629 the Tigris had burst its banks and the great irrigation channels were destroyed. The empires were weak and the Arab seized their opportunity.

A battle with the Persians ensued at Qadisiyya, just south of the former Kakhmid capital of Hira (the Lakhmids were an Arab client state of the Persians). Within a year, the Persian capital of Ctesiphon (near what is now Baghdad) was lost, along with the rest of Mesopotamia.

Muhammad is said to have died in 632, two years before the victories over the superpowers. Some sources put his death after that. But he had given the Arabs courage and self confidence, Holland says.

The second Caliph (overlooking abu Bakr of the biographies), was Umar bin al-Khattab, who was known for his austerity. As with Muhammad, Holland says there is no doubt as to his historicity, citing a reference to him by an Armenian bishop.

Umar set an example of austerity as like a monk. He was inspired by the holy war proclamations of Muhammad.

Where did the source of the Arab eruption come from? A document survives which is known as the "constitution of Medina". It is comprised of eight treaties between the Muhajirun and the natives of Yatrib. The followers are referred to as believers rather than Muslims. It does not say where they came from, but it was the beginning of the movement that would depose the empires.

The Muslim tradition has Muhammad in conflict with the Quraysh of Mecca, but the tradition also has his opponents as being landholders in Syria. Hence they are unlikely to have been from Mecca.

On the evidence of the tradition, Muhammad was obsessed with the border zone south of Palestine. These are sections of desert the Roman Arab allies, the Ghassanids, had always patrolled.

The Quraysh would have been tempted by the prospect of topping the Ghassanids and laying claim to the heritage of the Lakhmids. The imperial armies may have offered less resistance because they themselves were largely composed of Arab tribesmen.

The Christians were horrified at the invasion of the Ishmaelites. The Jews were a lot more hopeful. The Prophet, it seemed, had chosen Moses and his role model.

Another startling thing about the Constitution of Medina was that it included "whole quantities of Jews". This fact discombobulated the later Muslim historians.

According to the later accounts, three Jewish clans were exiled or massacred by the Muslims. But these are not the clans mentioned in the Constitution of Medina. Holland infers that these massacres, as describes in the biography, did not happen. No contemporary sources speak of it. Jews, like Christians were alert to the propaganda value of becoming martyrs.

It is likely that the compact between the Muhajirin held true, and it resulted in the conquest of Palestine. After that, the Jews were allowed back into site of the ancient temple. The ancient Roman temple of Jupiter, the Kapitolion was cannibalised. For a time, the Jews hoped that their Temple would be rebuilt. Some praised Umar has "the Redeemer".

While the limits of Muhammad's ambitions may have been Nabatea and Palestine, other Arabs had other ideas. In 639 a small band of Arabs crossed into Egypt. The Egyptians were Monosyphite Christians, which has earned them the wrath of Heraclius. This hostility to Constantinople was fatal to Roman rule. In 642 the Romans evacuated. The Nile had been the bread basket Constantinople. There would be no more grain shipments to Constantinople.

The subjugation of the Sasanian (Persian) heartlands was much more brutal. It was only in 650 after a five-year campaign, that Istakr, in the east, to where the Persian Empire had retreated, was subjugated. The population of forty thousand was put to the sword and the Fire Temples were demolished.

Officials of the previous empires were retained and were put to work by their new masters. Umar was titled "Commander of the Faithful". He had scorned the wealth that conquest had brought. After his assassination, leadership fell to Uthman, also a companion of the Prophet. This was the start of the rule of the Umayyad dynasty. One brother, Muawiya had captured Caesarea. Another brother, Yazid, was also a military leader. Another nephew, Marwan, was a greedy opportunist. Uthman ruled from Medina.

In 656 a split developed and he was hacked to death by band from Egypt. Muawiya was despatched to seek vengeance but a new leader, Ali ibn Abu Talib, was appointed to succeed Uthman. Ali shifted the capital from Medina to Kufa. Engaged in a battle against the rebels, Muawiya negotiated a peace.

Ali had to deal with a further rebellion from the Kharijites. These were a particularly severe and bloodthirsty sect. In 658, Ali had a crushing victory over them, but was later struck dead by a Kharijite assassin. Muawiya stepped into the breach. The Kharijites did not accept his rule, nor did those who remained in Kufa: the "Party" of Ali, the Shia.

Muawiya, meanwhile in 674, sponsored a siege of Constantinople. He had styled himself, as with Umar and Uthman, as "Commander of the Faithful".

Muawiya did not go to Medina to hail his accession, but rather did so instead at Jerusalem, in the shadow of the temple mount. As well as the Jews, Muawiya sought popularity from the Christians. Both his tax base and his bureaucracy was composed of Christians. Although Muhammad had declared the crucifixion a fraud, Muawiya went up and prayed at Golgotha.

Many of the German historians claim that Muawiya was actually a Christian himself. None of his inscriptions or coins ever mention Muhammad. Nor does he reference the Koran. Un-Christianlike, he also regarded Jews, Samaritans and Manichieans all as faithful.

Holland attributes this to the doctrines of Islam being as yet undeveloped. Holland does not mention that his bathhouse inscription, bearing a cross, dates itself Year 20, "in the era of the Arabs". Other historians infer from this that the Arab calendar does not date from the Hijra, but from the beginning of the Arab empire.

Chapter 7


God's deputy (p367)

In 679, 20 years after Muawiya had sat and prayed at Golgotha, a Frankish bishop named Arcluf arrived in Jerusalem. He reported it to be "crowded with all different peoples". The Church of the Resurrection, built by Constantine, was unimpaired. The travel documents were in Greek, and the coins were even stamped with a cross.

In a place where the temple once stood, there now was a quadrangular prayer house. It was called a mosque, a place of prostration. It was, however, described as being poorly built. Neither was his Palace very impressive.

But not even Justinian or any of the Caesars had presumed to pose as an intercessor between humanity and God.

He had rebuilt it Ephesus's Cathedral, and adorned bath houses with inscriptions containing a cross. But still there was nothing like the doctrines of a religion had yet been developed.

Meanwhile the militant Kharijites had retreated to the desert. The other adversaries, the Shia of Ali, still clung to their convictions. Some of the companions of the Prophet also still remained, and one of these was a Qurayshi aristocrat named Abdalla ibn al-Zubayr. For 20 years his response to the blasphemy of Muawaya was to remain in Medina and attend the Prophet's memory.

When Muawiya was near death he proclaimed his son, and notorious playboy, Yazid as his successor. This produced not just shock, but the spark of a civil war.

Syria held firm for Yazid, but Arabia and Iraq did not. Husayn, the only surviving grandson of the Prophet, raised the banner of rebellion. He was hacked down by the Umayyad heavies in a small flea-bitten village called Karbala, something that would later do wonders for his role as a martyr for the Shia.

Meanwhile back in Medina, Ibn al-Zubayr emerged as the most prominent opponent of the Umayyads. Yazid's representative there was the venal and slippery Marwan.

In 683, ibn al-Zubayr damned the new Amir has a usurper. Marwan fled Medina for Syria, and Yazid's task force went in the opposite direction. They stormed the ramparts of Medina, wiped out the defenders and seized the city. The "City of the Prophet" was put to the sword for 3 days. According to the stories, nine months later, over 1000 babies were born.

Ibn al-Zubayr however, escaped to a certain sanctuary in the south. But where? Holland says the evidence is that it was in the north of Hijaz, i.e. not Mecca.

In the summer of 683 with Yazid's army camped outside, it is said, the Kaaba, the "House of God" caught fire and burnt to the ground. Next, Yazid, now back in Syria, keeled over and died.

Yazid's army pledged to the loyalty to ibn al-Zubayr, if only he would accompany them to Syria, but he refused. He set about building a new sanctuary House of god.

Fighting continued amongst the Arabs and ibn al-Zubayr sent his brother, Musab, to bring order to Iraq. To assist bringing the Arabs to order, in 685 or 686 a coin was minted with a new message: in the name of God, Muhammad is the messenger of God. Ibn al-Zubayr realised that to build an empire a unifying message was needed.

Meanwhile after Yazid's death, Marwan, in 684 called a meeting in the old Ghassanid capital of Jabiya. Marwan was voted the new Amir. He did not live much longer, but he ensured that Syria would remain Umayyyad. His successor was his son, Abd al-Malik.

Abd al-Malik shrewdly paid tribute to the Romans to secure his northern border, while leaving it to Musab to crush the Khajitites and the Shia.

Only after four years, in 689, did he launch an attack against Musab. In 691 he was victorious. He the minted ibn al-Zubayr's slogan on his own coins.

When Abd al-Malik turned to Jerusalem he had a different view than that of Muawiya. A new mosque was being built on the temple mount. It was an octagonal building with the dimensions replicating exactly those of Constantine's great church, the Hagia Sophia2. When completed, it was to be some mounted by a vast gilded cupola: it was the "Dome of the Rock".

Clearly this was a great shrine. But ibn al-Zubayr still had his "House of God". Abd al-Malik hsd no option but to go after his rival. In 691, an army of 2000 set off from Kufa into the desert.

The commander, al-Hajjaj pounded the sanctuary with catapults. In 692 ibn al-Zubayr was finished and all of Arabia was Abd al-Malik's.

After Abd al-Malik made a pilgrimage to Arabia, the "qhla" in mosques which pointed to direction of prayer, were systemically reoriented in a different direction. The "House of God" no longer seemed to be where it had been previously, between Medina and Palestine. Rather, it was now in a place much further south, in the depths of the Hijaz: Mecca.

The site of the previous sanctuary at Bakka still remains unknown. Despite the new location, Abd al-Malik merely claimed to have restored it.

It remains a mystery as to why Mecca, a thousand miles from the centre of Umayyad power, was chosen. However nearby to Mecca is the oasis of Taif. Muawiya had made it his summer capital. Abd al-Malik's father Marwan, was its governor. Al-Hajjaj had grown up there. So the site at Mecca would have been well known to them.

In 694 Abd al-Malik went and honoured the new "House of God": the Shrine that posterity would commemorate as the Kaaba of Mecca. All religions have their relics and sacred sites. The "black stone" and the reputed association with Abraham were important features in establishing the importance of the site.

In 691, coins were re-minted with images that owed nothing to Constantinople: a spear in a prayer niche, Abd al-Malik himself girt with a whip. In 696 a radical new coin began to be minted that had no images at all, only Arabic writing. To Abd al-Malik, Arabic was the language of God.

Ab al-Malik's inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock contain Koranic phrases for the first time.

Christian scholars, noting for the first time the existence of writings attributed to Muhammad, describe them, not as a single book, but rather as a jumble of fragments with titles such as "The Cow", "The woman", and "God's She-camel".

The first two are now suras of the Quran. "God's She-Camel" references a traditional Arab story about a miraculous camel, that came out of a rock and produced bounteous milk. This is referenced in the Quran, but it does not appear as a separate Sura.

While legend has it, that the Quran was stabilised at the time of Uthman, Muslim scholars do not deny that the Quran was subjected to a state-sponsored makeover during the reign of Abd al-Malik. Al-Hijjaj was in charge of the editing process. When challenged that humans should not intervene, he declared that Abd al-Malik stood in higher regard, in God's view, than did the angels and the Prophets. Not given to false modesty, Abd al-Malik declared on his coins that he was "Kalifat Allah": "Deputy of God".

Another innovation was his slogan on the Dome of the Rock. The adjective "submission" had become a noun. Religion, in god's eyes, it said, is Islam.

By the time of Abd al-Malik's death in 705, the state, that two decades ago had been on the verge of collapse, had been reconstituted as a state no less brutally efficient than its Roman and Persian predecessors.

Sunna - Side up (p391)

Walid, Abd al-Malik's eldest son, and the caliph responsible for the sumptuous new mosque in Damascus, asserted his superiority over the superseded faith of the Christians.

In 711, a tiny Arab raiding party had landed on Gibraltar. Within the course of only a few months, this venturesome warband had succeeded in defeating the Visigoths in battle, killing their king and seizing the capital of Toledo, deep in the vitals of Spain.

The stories of Spain might have been conjured from a realm of fantasy, but the thirty thousand prisoners brought back to Syria by the conquerors of the Visigoths were not.

The terrible violence that marked the conquest of the Sasanian heartlands had seen the markets of Kufa and Basra flooded with quite a staggering number of Persian captives. Not since the first coming of Rome to the Near East 800 years earlier, when the conquest of the region by the legions had reputedly seen ten thousand slaves sold daily, had there been transplantation of human livestock on anything like such a scale.

Christians, to their horror, found themselves subjected to laws originally designed by the Romans to keep the Jews in their place. They were forbidden to dress or speak like Arabs, to sit in the presence of an Arab, or to wear swords or ride in a saddle.

In Syria the furnishings of high-end properties owed nothing to Medina and everything the Roman relish for wine, nude sculptures and mosaics. In Iraq the peacock tastes of the Persian aristocracy were enthusiastically adopted by wealthy Arab warlords.

However the bloodline of Abraham was being seriously diluted. The right to sleep with slaves was one that Muslims could enjoy on the say so of the Prophet himself. Persian girls were particularly desirable. Daughters of Zoroastrian families, each of whom was expected to kneel three times a day before her husband and humbly beg of him his desires, were famously well-conditioned to obedience.

But from what did the authority of the leaders derive? Inadvertently, by their public promotion of Muhammad as a messenger of God, the Umayyads undermined their own authority. They provided those dismissed by the Arab warrior elite with a potent means of opposing their own continued subordination.

Due to Abd al-Malik's vision of a more equitable Islam, natives wanted to join the society of their masters, and rushed to embrace the embryonic religion. In response, the Arabs sought to place as many road blocks as they could on the "straight path". Arab rule, as it has ever done, depended on the vanquished knowing their place.

Taxes were levied now in a different way: as a fine on unbelief. God wished that infidels pay a poll tax - the jizya - to their Muslim masters, and to feel humiliated while doing so. It was recorded in the Quran itself, after all.

Christians and Jews did not dispute the right of the Muslim authorities to tax them. They considered it their lot in life.

The followers of Zoroaster saw things differently. Their church would never again gain the ear of kings. Their priests found their beloved religion of Truth and Light being treated with brutal contempt.

So where did they go? Most in their misery, turned to the Nestorian church. Christians, far from being diminished, became the majority. In the north of Iraq, churches flourished as never before.

The nascent Islam had nothing like the ancient legacy of hymns and commentaries of Zoroastrian church. In clarifying precisely what the Prophet's message was, there were roles aplenty for the former Zoroastrian priests with an aptitude for scholarship. A Jewish Rabbi at the time noted that that converts "still had some of their original religion with them".

Some of the Zoroastrian doctrines transferred into Islam were that the punishment for apostasy should be execution, that prayers should be five times a day, not three, and that it was a mark of piety to use a toothbrush. The Koran mandates that hell is the punishment for apostasy and that prayers should be three times a day (24:58). The Koran had been over-ruled. To give a notion the force of law, it only had to be established that the Prophet had said it. But how to authenticate the sayings?

Here the Jewish scholars could help. They had been doing this for years. They had long argued that there was a secret Torah, revealed to Moses, that have never been written down. It was around 710 in Kufa, that Muslim scholars began to find equally binding revelations, that had also never before been written down.

Deliberating on chains of authentic transmission was just what the Rabbis had been doing for centuries. The Sunna took on characteristics of the Torah, where every aspect of human existence was regulated. The punishment for adultery became stoning rather than whipping, as in the Quran.

The scholars the ulama, had scored a great victory. It was they, rather than their masters, who had become the arbiters of the will of God. But it was not just the "Deputies of God" whose legitimately had been undermined. The Umayyads began to appear, not as the bulwarks and sponsors of Islam, but as the opposite: deviants and usurpers, blotting the purity of the sunna.

The House of Islam (p 411)

For the Romans, the loss of the southern provinces, calamitous though it had been, had served to shear the New Rome of any number of troublesome heretics: Monosyphites, Manicheans and Jews.

The gaze of the Umayyads turned to Constantinople. Not long after the caliph Walid was succeeded by his brother, Suleman, in 715, Arab armies were on the march, led by one of Abd al-Malik's sons, Maslama. They were ferried across and surrounded Constantinople from the west. By this time, the city was partly in ruins, but the Hippodrome, the Imperial palace, and the Hagia Sophia, had all endured.

The Arab war fleet sought to force the city's sea wall. But the Romans had a secret weapon. They had boats that could launch "liquid fire". The Arab fleet was devastated. In 717 the Arab siege of Constantinople was abandoned.

Another advance in was made in 727, but Arabs began to suffer setbacks. In 732 in the wilds of Gaul, they were put to rout. In 748, they suffered a great defeat at the hands of the Romans near Acroinum, beyond the Taurus Mountains. A stalemate ensued.

But the concept of "jihad" had become entrenched. Abd al-Malik had composed an entire book of hadiths devoted to Jihad. Scholars began to organise parts of the Koran chronologically, so that those urging war superseded those surging peace.

It was not only the Hadiths collections that were starting to be shaped by the martial enthusiasm of the ulama, but details of the Prophet's biography.

It had been effective. No dynasty in history had presided over a more staggering array of conquest than the Umayyads. Clearly, God has approved.

But the ulama were undermining the authority of the caliphs. They were downgraded from being the "Deputy of God" to the "Deputy of the Prophet of God".

When Hisham, the last of Abd al-Malik's sons came to the throne, circumstances were unfavourable. In 739 there was a widespread revolt in North Africa. In 740 the Shia demonstrated that they had not lost their appetite for doomed uprisings. In 745 it was the Kharijites turn to again raise the banner of revolt. In 744, Hisham's heir Walid had been assassinated. By 747 his successor Marwan had effectively put down and trampled the rivals. But Iraq and Syria lay in ruins. Marwan was so despised in Damascus that he decamped and established his court in Harran. There, the pagan moon worshippers had tricked the authorities that they were the enigmatic "Sabians" of the Koran, and were therefore "People of the book".

Meanwhile another dynasty, based in remote Nabatea, could lay claim to a priceless ancestor, the uncle of Muhammad: Abbas. They were the Abbasids.

In the far eastern city of Merv, another insurrectionist had raised his banner, claiming to be an agent of God and calling himself Abu Muslim, the "Father of a Muslim". He declared the Marwan to be condemned by God. Abu Muslim was an agent of the Abbasids. In 749 they had complete control of Iran. Later in the same year, a Abbasid was publicly hailed as "Kalifat Allah" in Kufa. In 750, near the banks of the Tigris, Marwan faced the pretender. He was defeated and fled to Egypt but was pursued and beheaded. Islam's founding dynasty was finished.


Plus ca change

The Abbasids exhumed the corpses of the Umayyad caliphs and incinerated them. In 762, they began construction of a new city on the banks of the Tigris: Baghdad.

In their ostentation, the Abbasid caliphs resembled the Persian emperors. In 806, the Abbasid caliph immortalised in the Arabian Nights, Haroun al Rashid, resumed the age old campaign against the Romans. Some things never changed, but in other ways they were making history.

Ibn Ishaq, whose biography of the Prophet would go on to be reworked by ibn Hisham, was one of the numerous scholars to be attracted to the Abbasids infant capital.

The ulama, by tightly controlling what went into the history books, were able to propagate an understanding of their civilisations that attributed almost every single thing of value to the Prophet and the Prophet alone.

In 1258, Baghdad was flattened by the Mongols and the heirs of the Abbasid were trampled to death. But Islam endured without a caliph, due to the efforts of the ulama. The pen, it seems, is indeed mightier than the sword.

1. Holland is sceptical of the existence of Mecca at the time, scoff at aspects of the biography,  but accepts the historicity of Muhammad, whithout really discussing it.
2. The Hagia Sophia's dome diameter is 33m, wheras the Dome of Rock's dome diameter is 21m, so Holland is wrong here. The Dome of the Rock, impressive though it is, lacks the architectureal magnificence of the Hagia Sophia. Its dome is supported by inner columns, rather than by pendentives from the external walls, as in the Hagia Sophia.