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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2000



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


A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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