Saturday, May 16, 2009


Islam: A Short History
© 2000 Karen Armstrong

This is the third or fourth book I've read in the "Modern Library Chronicle" series, which consists (I now realize) of brief but fairly informative treatments of given topics. I have not purposely been reading this series: I realized it only when looking at the back of this book and observing previous books I've read listed as part of the series (Richard Pipes' Communism and Michael Stürmer's The German Empire, namely).

My purpose for reading this book was twofold: one, to maintain what little Islamic literacy I have, and two, to read something by Karen Armstrong. I've heard a good bit about her but haven't been able to finish anything of hers. (I recall trying to read A History of God, but losing interest very early on. This was before my interest in comparative religion, so perhaps I should revisit it.) This book is less a book on the beliefs and practice of Islam than it is a history of the religion, particularly its developing political expressions. The book is divided into five parts: "Beginnings", "Development", "Culmination", "Islam Triumphant", and "Islam Agnosistes".

Commenting on this book is a little difficult for me, because I don't have a working knowledge of Islamic history to judge Armstrong against. Assuming the facts are true and the judgements valid, the book is in my opinion quite well-written. She explains the subject matter well, and as Islamic history develops, she is quick to establish connections with material previously discussed. Given her skill at communicating, I found the book to be very informative. All criticisms of Armstrong I've heard have been from people who think she isn't critical enough -- that, in an effort to see religions from the perspective I myself have been courting recently, that most of them are attempts at ethical philosophy, she ignores brutality in either the religion itself or in its leaders. What comes to mind is how she treats Mohammed's slaughter of the citizens of Mecca when he and his army of Muslims captured it. She writes that we "must be careful" not to judge him by our own standards, that in his time it would have been foolhardy to simply let them go. Given that by her account he killed all of the men and had the women and children sold into slavery, and given that his supposed intention and achievement was to create a society where even the weakest are treated with respect, I find that write-off a little lacking in courage.

I'm well aware of the need to view people in the context of their culture, but I'm also very wary of an explanation that seems more defensive than explanatory. I would have appreciated a more cynical, or not-as-romantic, view of the event. Thinking on this makes me realize how vulnerable history is to its authors' unwitting subjectivity: was Mohammad an religious idealist who wanted to create a better world for his people, or was he a practical, ambitious, charismatic and concerned businessman who was able to create a kind of community that met all of his needs?

Regardless of problems in interpretation, I did find the book useful in its less controversial explanations. What most interested me was the Islamic idea of ummah, the spiritual community. What it means is that for Muslims, faith and politics cannot easily be separated. Political expression is part of religious expression. One of Armstrong's strengths is that she does not get tied down in small matters: she looks at the big picture, spending a good bit of time comparing western civilization and Islamic civilization, looking at the way their histories have changed the way they view faith and secularism.

In the end, what I can say this: I enjoyed reading the book and found it both informative and thought-provoking. I think it merits recommending with the knowledge that interpretation plays an important role in evaluating the book. I am not certain at this point whether the book's views are very open to interpretation, or if I'm just more consciousness of the interpretative nature of a controversial subject than I am of accounts that deal with more familiar subject material.


  1. I found her book on Myth to be *very* good.

    I also have her biography around here somewhere.....

  2. What's the title on that? It looks as if my local library has a solid stock of Armstrong material.

  3. The two titles I have are:

    A Short History of Myth


    The Spiral Staircase: A Memoir.

    The biography is basically the tale of her losing her faith and leaving her life as a nun.

  4. I've heard of the latter: thanks for the full Myth title, I'll keep my eyes peeled.


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