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    In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Koran, gave them a
    historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the
    most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a
    society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in
    accordance with God's will. A Muslim had to redeem history, and that meant that state affairs were
    not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself. The political wellbeing of the
    Muslim community was a matter of supreme importance.  Like any religious ideal, it was almost
    impossibly difficult to implement in the flawed and tragic conditions of history, but after each
    failure Muslims had to get up and begin again.

    Muslims developed their own rituals, mysticism, philosophy, doctrines, sacred texts, laws and
    shrines like everybody else. But all these religious pursuits sprang directly from the Muslims'
    frequently anguished contemplation of the political current affairs of Islamic society. If state
    institutions did not measure up to the Quranic ideal, if their political leaders were cruel or
    exploitative, or if their community was humiliated by apparently irreligious enemies, a Muslim
    could feel that his or her faith in life's ultimate purpose and value was in jeopardy. Every effort had
    to be expended to put Islamic history back on track, or the whole religious enterprise would fall, and
    life would be drained of meaning. Politics was, therefore, what Christians would call a sacrament: it
    was the arena in which Muslims experienced God and which enabled the divine to function
    effectively in the world. Consequently, the historical trials and tribulations of the Muslim
    community-- political assassinations, civil wars, invasions, and the rise and fall of the ruling
    dynasties-were not divorced from the interior religious quest, but were of the essence of the Islamic
    vision. A Muslim would meditate upon the current events of their time and upon past history as a
    Christian would contemplate an icon, using the creative imagination to discover the hidden divine
    kernel. An account of the external history of the Muslim people cannot, therefore be of mere
    secondary interest, since one of the chief characteristics of Islam has been its sacralization of history.
        -Karen Armstrong, Islam : A Short History

Attractively packaged; moderately priced, mercifully brief; written by a much ballyhooed "expert" on religion, an ex-nun no less : where better to turn for an overview of Islam, right?  Wrong.  Oh sure, there's a bare bones presentation of Islamic history here--that seemingly continuous round of war, revolution, genocide, assassination, and the like--though from what I understand it is plagued with errors.  But the more serious problem is the complete absence of criticism, or even just impartial analysis.  Ms Armstrong, improbably, asks the reader to believe that the violence which has characterized Islamic history and continues to be one of its defining features today, is actually a deviation from Islamic norms.  This strains credulity.  It also, by denying that such violence is an intrinsic problem, results in her failure to address the continuing nature of the problem.

This is particularly disappointing because if you just read the quoted passage above, which comes from the Preface, you will have all kinds of questions about whether Islam, as originally understood, is capable of peacefully adapting to the modern technological world.  After all, we have no examples in the history of human affairs where a theocracy (or any other completely centralized state) was capable of providing the kind of dynamic economy that globalization requires.  But Ms Armstrong then adds :

    Social justice was...the crucial virtue of Islam.  Muslims were commanded as their first duty to build
    a community (ummah) characterized by practical compassion, in which there was a fair distribution
    of wealth.  This was far more important than any doctrinal teaching about God.  In fact the Quran
    has a negative view of theological speculation, which it calls zannah, self-indulgent whimsy about
    ineffable matters that nobody can ascertain one way or the other.  It seemed pointless to argue about
    such abstruse dogmas; far more crucial was the effort (jihad) to live in the way that God had
    intended for human beings.  The political and social welfare of the ummah would have sacramental
    value for Muslims.  If the ummah prospered, it was a sign that Muslims were living according to
    God's will, and the experience of living in a truly islamic community, which made this existential
    surrender to the divine, would give Muslims intimations of sacred transcendence.  Consequently,
    they would be affected as profoundly by any misfortune or humiliation suffered by the ummah as
    Christians by the spectacle of somebody blasphemously trampling on the Bible or ripping the
    Eucharistic host apart.

This raises even more questions, most of which we can't answer, particularly since this book was no help.  For now, let's set aside the similarities between Islam and Communism--the shared materialism and historical determinism in particular.  Instead let's just focus on the fairly basic fact that systems designed to provide "social justice"--that is, equal distribution of wealth--have proven uniformly disastrous.  If Islam is going to remain structured around this goal, it will be eternally humiliated, as its people share equal portions of a shrinking pie, even as the Judeo-Christian West rolls in ever increasing riches, no matter how unequally divided they may be.  In effect, Islam as an economic system virtually guarantees the failure of Islam as a religious system--the sclerotic statism and self-defeating redistributionism guaranteeing stagnation or even decline in comparison to the West.

It may well be that an adherent of Islam who wishes to see the Islamic dream realized must seek to destroy the forces which drive globalism : political, economic, religious, and social Freedom.  This is certainly the case if Muslims are to measure the worth of their society (ummah) in terms of its prosperity.  For Islamic society is already economically backwards, and it has probably, thanks to its oil reserves, hit its high point.  After all, in the absence of petroleum sales, what else does Islam provide to the Global economy ?  No high tech goods.  No software.  No food.  No biotechnologies.  No medicinal advances.  Little art.  Islam may have been a religion ideally suited to the subsistence, agrarian culture in which it arose; but what evidence do we have that it is suited to a culture where wealth depends on the products of the human mind ?

We are faced then with only three realistic possibilities :

    (1) Islam can retreat into isolation and try to ignore the rest of the world.

    (2) Islam can fight the rest of the world, to defeat globalization and its attendant freedoms.

    or, (3) Islam can submit itself to the forces of globalization and undergo a radical Reformation.

The first option seems unrealistic based on what we know of human beings.  Eventually, people will choose economic well being over spiritual security.  The second is foolhardy, because the West will win and force option three upon a defeated and depopulated Islamic world.

That leaves the third option, certainly the most desirable.  But it requires a series of steps which will be truly wrenching, and which have only previously occurred in the Islamic world when a pro-Western dictator controlled the countries involved (Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Iran under the Shah, laying the ground work for today's Iran which is groping towards accommodation).  This Reformation will involve decoupling the Muslim faith and clericy from the political state and from the economy.  It will require the acceptance of less economic equality, in exchange for greater wealth for everyone.  It will require accepting the existence of Israel.  This is not necessary in economic terms, but is the political reality.  Most of all, it will require acceptance of the idea that Islam itself will decline in popularity and will suffer some moral degradation, as as happened to Judaism and Christianity in the West.  It is unfortunate but true that as people's material wants are sated, their spiritual needs change, and their willingness to follow strict moral codes deteriorates.  One would hope that Islam could strike a better balance than we have here in the West, where faith is resurgent but still far to absent from our public life.  But Islam may well be in for an extended period of retreat.

Unfortunately, because she takes such a hagiographic approach to Islam, Ms Armstrong fails to consider these questions.  In the most absurd section in the book, she dismisses Islamic extremism as similar to Christian fundamentalism and the resistance to the teaching of Evolution in schools.  I realize we're still in the heat of the moment, but the inability to distinguish between the Scopes Trial and the events of September 11th in and of itself demonstrates why so many in the Islamic world do not wish to see their faith reduced to the kind of morally relativistic hash that the great faiths of the West have been reduced to.

Islam needs a jihad (struggle), but a peaceful, inward looking one.  It seems extremely unlikely that traditional Islam can coexist with democracy, capitalism, and "small p" protestantism.  Islam is going to have to change in order to survive.  It is well worth struggling to preserve the essence of Muhammad's teachings and to maintain a society informed by these teachings--perhaps in the years ahead we in the West can even learn from Islam how better to integrate the teachings of our prophets into our economic and political lives--but make no mistake, it will be a struggle and facing up to the challenge will take infinitely more courage than do suicide bombings.  It will require leaders who are actually courageous enough to get out in front of public opinion and lead, rather than be swept along by the mob in the streets, as are most of the region's "leaders" now.  It will require unprecedented honesty about the reasons that the Islamic world is underdeveloped (no more blaming the Great Satan for all the problems) and the enunciation of a real vision of what constructive change could mean for the people who are trapped in these pre-modern economies.  It will take enormous fortitude on the part of the people as they undertake the enormous dislocation inherent in the switch from Security to Freedom.  In short, it will require much from all.

But if Islam really is a great religion, and I assume that it is, then it will endure such change.  And if the faith of Islam produces a great people, and I assume that it does, then they will endure these changes, and will ultimately prosper because of them.  The vibrant and productive, but uniquely Islamic, society that they build will grant them the "intimations of the divine" that they seek, and which today they quite evidently can not find.  Finally, if they do summon up the courage to undertake this difficult transformation, the West must be there, not interfering, but willing to help when called upon.  And this too will take a kind of courage, and a greatness, which I likewise assume that Western Civilization retains.


Grade: (C-)


Karen Armstrong Links:

    -EXCERPT: Introduction to Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
    -EXCERPT : PREFACE from Islam : A Short History
    -EXCERPT : from Battle for God
    -BOOKNOTES : Sunday, October 22th, 2000 Title: Islam: A Short History   Author: Karen Armstrong  (CSPAN)
    -ESSAY: Believers in the lost Ark: Treating myth as fact misunderstands the meaning of religion (Karen Armstrong, August 9, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Faith and Freedom (Karen Armstrong, May 8, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY : The True, Peaceful Face Of Islam (KAREN ARMSTRONG, TIME)
    -ESSAY :  Fundamentalism - The US is the true home of religious extremism, which begins not as a crusade against outsiders, but as hatred of those of the same faith. (Karen Armstrong, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY : Islam's Stake : Why Jerusalem Was Central to Muhammad (Karen Armstrong, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of On Pilgrimage : A Time to Seek by Jini Fiennes (Karen Armstrong , Sunday Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation by Richard Fletcher (Karen Armstrong, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Karen Armstrong, author of The Battle for God (Book Browse)
    -PROFILE: In the name of the father: Ex-nun Karen Armstrong tells Nicholas Wroe why Buddha is so refreshing (Nicholas Wroe, April 13, 2002, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW : Divine Reticence : A conversation with Karen Armstrong, biographer of the Enlightened One (Harvey Blume, Atlantic Monthly, March 2001)
    -INTERVIEW : with Karen Armstrong :  author of The Battle for God (Book Browse)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Religious & Spiritual Diversity in Our World : Series Show #2 - Karen Armstrong, "The Battle For God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam" (Author-Author with Joe Skelly)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Karen Armstrong (Fresh Air, August 2001)
    -Modern Library Authors : Karen Armstrong
    -PROFILE : Karen Armstrong: A Profile in Literary Diversity (M. M. Ali, February 1993, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs)
    -PROFILE : Karen Armstrong's Unscholarly Prejudices (Andrea Levin, On Camera, March 19, 2001)
    -Profile of Karen Armstrong : Mary Rourke meets the author of "Islam, a short history" (Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2000)
    -ESSAY: Karen Armstrong has a . . . well . . . interesting take on Islamic terror (The American Spectator)
    `-ARCHIVES : "karen armstrong" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "karen armstrong" (Mag Portal)
    -SLATE BOOK CLUB : Karen Armstrong's Islam: a starting point for thousands of infidels. the book club Judith Shulevitz, Geraldine Brooks, Christopher Caldwell, Chris Suellentrop, and Ted Widmer, Nov 7, 2001
    -REVIEW : of Islam : A Short History (WILLIAM H. McNEILL, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong (Nicholas Bagnall, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of Islam : A Short History (Daniel Pipes)
    -REVIEW : of Islam : A Short History (Jonah Blank, BeliefNet)
    -REVIEW : of Islam : A Short History (L.S. Klepp, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW :  A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong (Mark M. Arkin, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of A History of God (
    -REVIEW : of  Muhammad : A Biography of the Prophet (
    -REVIEW: of Battle for God by Karen Armstrong (Chris Hedges, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Battle for God (C. P. Farley,
    -REVIEW: of Battle for God (Darold Morgan, Christian Ethics Today)
    -REVIEW : of  The Battle for God By Karen Armstrong (Laura F. Winner, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Battle for God (AMY RYCE , Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of The Battle for God (Kim Allen)
    -REVIEW : of Battle for God (BILL MAXWELL, St. Petersburg Times)
    -REVIEW : of JERUSALEM  : One City, Three Faiths.  By Karen Armstrong (Serge Schmemann, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Jerusalem : One City, Three Faiths By Karen Armstrong (Janice Penkalski, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Jerusalem (Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, MIDDLE EAST AFFAIRS JOURNAL)
    -REVIEW : of Buddha by Karen Armstrong (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Buddha (David Cortesi, Hundred Mountain)
    -REVIEW : of Buddha (Jane Lampman, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of Buddha (BOB TRIMBLE / The Dallas Morning News)
    -REVIEW : of In the Beginning: A New Reading of the Book of Genesis by Karen Armstrong (Chaim Bermant, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis by Karen Armstrong (Christian Zabriskie, Boston Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Does Islam Need a Luther or a Pope? (Edward Feser, 12/04/2003, Tech Central Station)
    -EXCERPT: Islam: introduction to the religion of Islam for Christians (REV. JOHN HARDON, S.J.)

    -ESSAY: Islam and Intellectual Terrorism: Turbans of the mind are disallowing and disavowing proper intellectual engagement with Islam. (Ibn Warraq, New Humanist)
    -INTERVIEW: Ibn Warraq: Why I Am Not A Muslim (The Religion Report, 10/10/2001)
    -INTERVIEW: Islam and apostasy (The Religion Report, 02/07/2003)
    -REVIEW: of Why I am Not a Muslim (MAXIME RODINSON, February 2000, Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society)
    -ESSAY: Holy War (Chris Mooney, 12.17.01, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY: When Ibn Warraq met Edward Said (Adil Farooq, January 16, 2003, Winds of Change)

    -ESSAY: Islam and the Challenge of Democracy: Can individual rights and popular sovereignty take root in faith? (Khaled Abou El Fadl, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY: Islam and the Theology of Power: "Supremacist puritanism in contemporary Islam is dismissive of all moral norms or ethical values." (Khaled Abou El Fadl, Islam for Today)
    -ESSAY: Khaled Abou El Fadl: Reformer or Revisionist ? (Andrew G. Bostom, April 9, 2003, Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Khaled Abou El Fadl: Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong ( "Ideas and Issues", Hugh LaFollette)
    -ESSAY: Is Khaled Abou El Fadl a Moderate? (Little Green Footballs, 8/15/2003)
   -REVIEW: of The Caliphate of Man: Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic Thought, by Andrew F. March (Rachel M. Scott, New Rambler)