Saturday, 30 April 2016

Islam: A Short History, by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, 2000 Phoenix, London

This book certainly does what it says on the tin; it provides a short history of Islam from the time of Muhammad to the more recent conflict between Islamism and modern western values. Despite its brevity, it will be highly informative for those whose knowledge of Islamic history is limited; which includes nearly everybody in the west.

The author, an ex-nun of generally liberal sentiments, is not a Muslim, but she has a great admiration for the Islamic religion. In the preface, she argues that Islam is a thoroughly this-worldly faith. The goal of Islam is the redemption of history through the establishment of a society built on justice and the equality of all before God. She portrays Muhammad as a very sincere and noble figure, who had a deep respect and admiration for Judaism. Her discussion of the early interactions between Jews and the first Muslims is very interesting. She argues that Islam never had the goal of universal military conquest; the conquest of the Middle East was prompted by wars of self-defense by the Arab Muslims.

Coming to the modern era, she argues that Islamic fundamentalism is not a reversion to a true spirit of Islam, but is an ideology created by Muslims to resist western influences that are seen to be in opposition to Islam. She points out that secularism in Iran and Turkey an aggressive and coercive form. Regarding women's hijab, she points out evidence that many Muslim women who wear it hold quite liberal views about gender. She suggests many use hijab as a way of negotiating modernity, embracing modern life while offering symbolic affirmation of Islamic tradition.

I like the fact that she praises George W Bush's determination after 911 to avoid Muslims being scapegoated. He made efforts to appear with Muslims and visit Mosques. Sadly, this spirit of solidarity with peace-loving Muslims seems to have passed. Republican candidates such as Trump, Cruz and even Rubio have cast suspicion on ordinary Muslims. I would dearly love to see Ted Cruz visiting a mosque and showing that he takes seriously the fears and concerns of Muslim Americans.

One suspects that at times Armstrong glosses over some of the more negative and worrying aspects of Islam. Nevertheless, I would definitely recommend Christians to read this to gain a balanced perspective on Islam. It is very common for Christians to read only books that offer either a polemic against Islam or guidebooks to evangelizing Muslims. Rarely will conservative Christians take the time to read books by Muslims or offering a sympathetic reading of Islam, like this work. Unfortunately there are a lot of Christians who talk like they are experts on the subject of Islam, when in reality they have just spent a lot of time reading websites presenting very selective quotations from the Quran.

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