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ISLAM by Karen Armstrong


A Short History

by Karen Armstrong

Pub Date: Aug. 25th, 2000
ISBN: 0-679-64040-1
Publisher: Modern Library

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.