Less attention to politics and a closer look at the spiritual side of Islam would have made this brief history more...




Would-be students of Islam will throw up their hands in despair at this tangled account of 14 centuries of battling Muslims.

This is among the first original works commissioned by the Modern Library (see The Renaissance, p. 1098), and the aim presumably was to offer Western readers an introduction to the tenets and historical development of one of the world’s major religions. Armstrong (Jerusalem, 1996, etc.) has an established reputation as a religious historian. Seems like a felicitous match, right? And indeed the short history begins well, with a cogent if superficial explanation of both the prophet Muhammad’s roots and the revelations he received from Allah (later collected in the Koran) that demanded “human beings behave to each other with justice, equity and compassion.” The narrative quickly deteriorates, however, into a hairsplitting catalogue of theological quarrels and personal confrontations, cluttered with italicized Arabic terms and a multitude of unfamiliar Arabic names. By page 67 (and the ninth century), the Sunni and the Shiites will have gone their separate ways, but the eager reader, overwhelmed by such terms as ulama, figh, and madbbah (and a litany of caliphs, imams, and descendants of Muhammad), will probably have a headache. Perhaps because Muslim reference-points have become increasingly familiar to the Western reader, the story of Islam’s spread (beginning in the 10th century and at one point reaching as far east as Spain and as far west as India), its subsequent splintering and collapse (in the 18th century), and its hesitant regrouping (in the 20th) is relatively easier to follow. And Armstrong’s discussion of modern fundamentalism as a phenomenon among all religions, not only Islam, is astute. But the focus is hopelessly blurred overall.

Less attention to politics and a closer look at the spiritual side of Islam would have made this brief history more palatable. Maps (not seen), a key to historic figures, a glossary of Arabic terms, and a bibliography will aid readers who persist.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2000

ISBN: 0-679-64040-1

Page Count: 226

Publisher: Modern Library

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2000

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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