on September 29, 2000
It's a pity this book isn't a standard text for secondary school students. The history of Islam is something all Westerners should learn in their teens - and don't. Robinson's book is both a revelation and an indictment of our collective ignorance.
"Islam, A Short History" is densely written, and sympathetically describes the evolution not only of the Islamic world, but also of the practices and tenets of this major monotheistic religion. Armstrong's tome not only dwells on the history of Islam, but also traces most major currents of thought within Dar al-Islam. She examines the evolution of Sharia (Islamic law), Sufism, the Ismailis, Twelver Shiism, and Wahhabism, just to mention a few of the streams that comprise this river. Best of all, this volume is written in plain English, simply written, incisive when need be, concise if not.
Ten maps show the ebb and flow of Islam: The illustrate the early conquests, the growth of the Umayyad Empire, the disintegration of the Abbasid Empire, the extent of the Seljuk Empire, the geography of the Middle Eastern Crusader states (in the 12th century), the threatening Mongol world in the 13th century, The Safavid Empire, the Moghul Empire in India, and the Ottoman Empire. The amirs, caliphs, ulamas, qadis (judges), and a host of other political, military, administrative, and religious figures are examined and put into their historical contexts.
"Islam, A Short History" contains a first-class 275-entry (!) chronology, a listing of 118 historical figures (!) from the history of Islam, a VERY exhaustive listing of additional readings (bibliography), and a good index. (The only weak point is a somewhat truncated glossary of Arabic terms.) Of the many books I have read about Islam, this is the one I would recommend as the first to read - it is a the perfect introduction to a fascinating (and almost unknown) new world.
on April 29, 2004
Karen Armstong would like to believe in the Prophet Mohammad, not because of his visions or poetry or even his special relationship to God, but because of his ability to create a compassionate and unified movement out of the chaotic tribalism of sixth century Arabia. She also wants to believe that Islam is at least as much social experiment--in equality, compassion, and surrender to God--as it is doctrines or rituals. For Muslims, Armstrong writes, "salvation does not mean redemption from sin, but the creation of a just society." That's a long way from hanging the burned body parts of Americans on public bridges, but that's exactly why this book should be on every American voter's reading list. It's not so much to find out the objective facts of Islam (though there are plenty of those), but to understand the religion's deepest yearnings and view of the world. If you've bought into the American party line on Islam, the last 40 pages of this book are going to be hard to swallow--Armstrong's litany of Western imperialism and meddling are unflinching and humbling. Violent Islamicists also come in for their own share of criticism. Alarmed by the failure of Western materialism to satisfy spiritual needs, Armstrong fears that Islam will fail in its calling to justice and compassion. The broad premise of this calling--that religion might provide an enduring improvement in social life--is the possibility Armstong is most interested in, the desire that makes sense of past and present. Muslims carry this sense and desire into every part of their lives. It may not be important for us to do the same, but refusing to recognize its grip on Muslim hearts and minds is where the battle of Fallujah really began.
on June 26, 2006
I have tried to read up on the history of Islam before, and selected books written by Islamic scholars. The problem with them was they assumed a knowledge of the Quran and were written for Muslims.
Armstrong is writing for a western audience, for those who have no great exposure to islamic teachings. What she has written is a very concise and objective run through of the history of the rise of Islam.
The writing is spare and spartan, and seems to have concentrated on keeping opinion out of the book. For the most part she sticks to simple facts. As a result what you get is a dry and unemotional style of writing which tells you what you want to know without engaging with you.
I see from other reviews that Christian fundamentalists are comdemning this book for being soft on Islam, while the Muslims are calling it "anti-islamic propaganda". I figure that is a pretty good sign that it has trodden a middle path. Certainly to me it appears to be as objective as it is possible to be. I wanted a history, not an apology for Islam, nor a condemnation of it.
What comes across clearly to me from this book is that Islam suffers from the exact same problem as Christianity. If you follow in the footsteps of either Christ or Mahommed you will live a good life. But there are many who claim to be Christians and Muslims who live lives that are truly repugnant. What is most difficult is to resolve secular and political realities with religious belief. Christians have tried to do this by taking religion out of politics, whereas Muslims have tried to subjugate politics to religion. No one has perfected the marriage yet.
Ms. Karen Armstrong has covered an amazing amount of ground in this brief look at the history of Islam's beliefs and practices since 610 when the Prophet Muhammed's revelations began that we know today as the Quran (usually spelled Koran in English). She has supplied a generous number of maps, a detailed chronology, and constantly interprets each ruler, regime, and sect from the perspective of the Quran's text, and the practices advocated by the Prophet Muhammed.
The book has an agenda, which I would describe as creating a spiritual appeal for mutual understanding among Muslims and nonMuslims, especially those of the Jewish and Christian faiths. That appeal seems based on an appreciation for similarities in the religious practices of the three religions as they were originally observed. Every deviation from those original Muslim practices is explained in the book as an error that needs to be and will probably be corrected in time.
If you are like me, you will find that some of your understanding about historical Muslim beliefs is incorrect. For example, the original geographic expansion of Islam from 638-738 A.D. involved little attempt at creating converts to Islam. In fact, the Muslim forces usually were garrisoned in separate, new cities to minimize contact between them and the local people. Much of what we have heard about the doctrinal basis for religious war in Islam seems to have been developed through the successful Mongol invasion, and reactions to the secular invasion of Western culture into Muslim nations in the last few decades.
One new idea that I learned from this book is that the success of all Muslims as a community in a combined political, social, and economic sense is viewed as a sign by Muslims of how well the religion is being observed. Until the arrival of oilfield riches in the Middle East in the 20th century, Islamic influence had been on the wane worldwide as the industrial West swept forward to create its colonies and continued economic dominance through advanced products and technologies. The seeking for a possible solution to this ebb of cultural success has led in part of the fundamentalism that has spawned conflicts with the United States and some other nations.
I was also interested to note that in countries where Muslims are in the majority, democracy will lead to dominance by religious parties. Islam does not separate church and state the way that Western democracies usually do. Appreciating this point means a different kind of diplomacy and cooperation with Islamic democracies than will occur with multicultural, pluralistic democracies.
Although I found the book to offer these kinds of insights, Ms. Armstrong would have helped me understand Islam more by sharing additional information about the religion from the primary source of the Quran and key writings of religious figures. Also, it is unusual to analyze a religion in terms of how closely it follows the original way it was observed. Few today, for example, look at the Catholic Church or any Protestant church for how closely it matches in specifics how Jesus and His disciples lived. Finally, I could probably have gotten the key points in the book without quite as much detail as was spelled out here about various leaders. With less "who did what, when, and where to whom" there would have been much more space to explain key ideas and to provide more detail about the Quran.
I also wondered what misunderstandings various Muslim groups typically have about those of us who live in countries where the percentage of Muslims is relatively small.
A number of other questions still came to mind after reading the book. If each person is to be treated equally in respect and in terms of economic goods in accord with the Quran, what do people in various Muslim countries think about the growing gaps between the richest and poorest Muslims? What do Muslims in various countries think about people of their same religious persuasion who live in various Western democracies?
Greet all with an open mind and a welcoming heart and hand!
on January 20, 2002
The enormity of my disappointment from this book is a direct result of the high expectations I had based on a friend's recommendation and Ms. Armstrong's description as a scholar in the field. I found the book badly written, biased and lacking in critical depth. Ms. Armstrong bombards the reader with scores of names, dates and jargon. She wastes time describing minor events, sects and characters that did not leave a lasting impression on Islam or its interaction with the world. The level of detail and brevity of the work prevents the author from describing and analyzing the larger trends and does not offer the benefits of critical historical discourse.
While the books is not blatantly biased and avoids many "classical" pitfalls of antagonistic statements regarding Christianity and Judaism it is far from objective. One example of such subtle bias is that the author properly explains that many acts performed by the early Muslims (pillaging, conquests, etc.) should be judged in their context and that this was not uncommon behavior at the time. The same understanding, however, is not extended towards any other culture or group whose actions are described by Ms. Armstrong. The emerging sense from the language is that the militant expansion of the Muslims was appropriate and understandable, but defeats that were inflicted on them by their rivals were not. Another example of misdirection (or simply sloppy work), out of many, is the description of the Suez Canal as an Egyptian project that was forcefully taken over by European powers. In fact, a Frenchman designed and built it, financing the work by selling shares to French investors with support, mostly in labor supply, from the local government. The British government later bought shares of the canal from the Khedive Said of Egypt, the other major shareholder.
Having read the book I found myself disagreeing with the author's notion that there's some separation between "true" Islam and those that act under its auspices. All religions have some ideal form in the abstract; most religions are practiced differently by various sects or schools of thought and I find it hard to accept that we can say that those who do not follow our notion of the ideal religion do not represent it. Islam, just like Christianity, Judaism and all other religions is represented by all those who believe that they practice it. Among them you will find kind and generous people as well as thieves, militants or people having any other quality.
If you are looking to learn objectively about Islam and the history of the Muslim nations, your money and time will be much better spent reading other books.
on May 3, 2002
Karen Armstrong is an unusual woman. She was a nun for a while, early in her life. She teaches in a Jewish educational institution for rabbis. She's won awards from Moslem religious groups for her writings. And she writes and teaches about all three religions. You would expect, from all of this, that a book she writes that's a history of Islam would be good, and full of information. What you wouldn't expect is for it to be in 187 mostly painless pages, easy to read and follow.
I feel I should also respond or at least address some of the issues brought up by some of the other reviewers, to explain how I could rate a book so highly when many others didn't. First, of course it's short. The format of the series is short books on essential topics, and the subtitle says it's a short history. Complaining about its brevity in such an instance is tantamount to reviewing a book for not being something it was never intended to be. Second, there seems to be a tendency, especially among Christians, to pan this book because it doesn't show the inferiority of Islam to Christianity. This is a silly critism on several points: first, regarding the religion as inferior would make it hard to write an objective history of it, second, the author isn't a Christian these days anyway, third, the author's whole point is that the religion has evolved over the centuries since its formation, so saying it's one thing is a bit misleading. It's many things. On this same last note, someone criticized the author's supposed double standard in refusing to hold the Muslims in the book to the same moral standards Christians are held to elsewhere in the text. This is misleading, as the passage he was quoting referred to an Arab reaction to something Christians did, not whether that action was regarded as moral by the author. It's hardly the author's fault if Muslims themselves aren't always objective.
Islam is the subject of much study recently, given September 11 and the situation surrounding Israel. From what I gather here and elsewhere, there are a lot of misconceptions, caused by people who have either distorted the religion itself, both bigots who misunderstood what they were seeing, and Muslims themselves, justifying the way they choose to run their governments or oppose them. This book spends most of its space discussing how the religion has evolved since Muhammad, and the various doctrinal differences between the groups that worship differently. It's explained in a clear, lucid text that was understandable even to me, an ill-educated military historian who's not too well-versed in religious history in the first place. I feel I gained a great deal from the book, and would recommend it highly to others.
on February 18, 2003
Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God, writes well. She has a gift with words and a style that eases the reader through very difficult material.
I was highly enthused when I first got hold of this book. Like her other books, it is easy to read and highly engaging. She summarizes a very complex history nicely and covers major points of this history in encapsulated prose. If you are looking for a good overview of their history this is a great place to start.
Now for the bad news. She, in attempting to make the book palatable and not bogged down in theology and the 'warts and all' of historical detail, only skims the surface. I was left wondering what went wrong with Islam. If the view of Islam presented here is the 'true' Islam, how do we grapple with what it has become (at least its presentation in the more popular Western media outlets)? This book does not seek to answer those questions. Some have accused her of 'whitewashing' Islam's history. I suppose we must look at her intent. I believe she has attempted to write a good entry-level book in order to engage the reader to the positives rather than the negatives (which are much too easy to find) in order to even desire to understand it rather than attack it outright. In this she has succeeded quite well.
If you wish to understand the deeper meanings and varied histories of Islam's history, you may start here but do not be fooled. This book only scratches the surface.
on July 18, 2002
The most important aspect of Islam: A Short History is its length. Having now read this volume in the A Modern Library series and two volumes in the Penguin Lives series, I am starting to see the limitations of the endeavor to produce slim, inexpensive volumes. Although Armstrong's Buddha is not affected by the editorial constraints of these throwbacks to the Everyman books, Islam: A Short History is. But there are also problems with the argument, too.
In the first four chapters, Armstrong's coverage of the Islamic world is comprehensive and efficient. As in A History of God (HG), she makes a valid point: Muslims interpret the legitimacy of Islam by its worldly effects. Therefore, politics and religion are difficult to distinguish by using a western interpretation based on the Christian separation of God and world. Islam is also about practice, not belief, which is again a Christian interpretation. So, for instance, when Mehmed II conquers Constantinople, it is a ringing endorsement of Islamic legitimacy, but the British in India causes defensiveness. Armstrong also has an interesting line on the limitations of the Shariah: it is an antiquated pre-modern agrarian code ill-equipped for the industrial age. Until page 141, Armstrong has accomplished her task, but then in the last chapter, it unravels.
Already, in her discussions of the Ottoman Empire, centuries flow past at warp speed, but the last chapter is completely unlike the preceding four. Where before the book was history spiced with commentary, the last chapter is editorial littered with dates. Basically a quick and dirty discussion on jihad, the last chapter is theological, not historical. In the preceding four chapters, Armstrong again, as in HG, respectfully presents numerous scholars, like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, but the last chapter is a defensive apology for various jihad commentators, such as Sayyid Qutb and Mawdudi. Armstrong valiantly tries to salvage the good in Islam from the damage wrought by these scholars' followers. However, she completely abandons history for commentary. Plugging dates and people may be pedestrian, but a source text for beginners should just provide basic facts without boring the reader.
Armstrong provides a handy index, maps, a glossary, an index of key figures, and endnotes, but her reading suggestions also suffer from the faults of the last chapter: too much breadth and not enough scrutiny. Those wanting more theology need only look here for help. The editorial limits of the series are probably responsible for the breadth of the last chapter's focus, but judging from the reading suggestions, it may have also saved us from a longer commentary. Armstrong's prose is as deft and inspired as always, but she loses her nerve in the last chapter. If I forget the last chapter, I can endorse this little book. But, the book very nearly inspires me to continue studying, if only to refute Armstrong's half-hearted editorializing.
on December 2, 2001
The core of this book is a competent, moderately well-written (but never eloquent) account of the central events, figures and movements of Islamic history. Take the word "short" in the subtitle seriously, rather than by analogy to H. G. Well's infamously long "Outline of History." The book is 180 scrawny pages. Despite the length, or lack thereof, and the vast history it presumes to abbreviate, Armstrong does seem to manage to cover the most critical happenings in a concise manner.
The main stylistic problem I found was that the book tends to become top-heavy with names and Arabic words. Armstrong introduces terms, then uses them on another page, maybe three in a sentence. In the early going you begin to wonder if, by the end, the whole book won't be in Arabic.
Several readers have commented on Armstrong's agenda. She wants to prove that Islam is not inherently uncivilized or dangerous. Every religion allows for a variety of interpretations, and the best way to read Islam is in terms of the brotherly, open lifestyles that she proves Mohammed and his early followers followed.
Actually, she doesn't prove this, or anything else, not having room for serious argument in this "short history." She claims it. We're apparently supposed to deduce that she knows what she's talking about from the fact that she's famous, and that there are a lot of references in the back of the book. (We're left to find out for ourselves that not all of them agree with her thesis.) If one could parody the message of the book as, "Islam is Quakerism in a hurry," then one can summarize her style by saying Armstrong is a "historian in a hurry."
(...) Armstrong argues that the pernicious idea that Islam is a religion of war, is based on a "stereotypical and distorted image of Islam" that is actually a reflexion of Western vice. "It was when Christians instigated a series of brutal holy wars against the Muslim world that Islam was described as an inherently violent and intolerent faith." Oddly, however, it was also described that way before the Crusades -- which is why the Crusades were launched in the first place, in frank imitation of Muslim Jihad. (See Pope Urban's speech in The First Crusade, edited by Edward Peters.) Is Armstrong suggesting, as some mystical fans of quantum physics have, that sometimes result precedes cause?
At times Armstrong's selection of facts and interpretation of them borders on overt dishonesty. Many of the evils she puts down to later imperialists -- such as making it a capital offense to criticize Mohammed -- were in fact initiated by the prophet himself. Armstrong should have known that if she read the books she recommends in her bibliography. (See, in particular, Rodinson's Mohammed.)
While Armstrong's post-hoc, self-indulgent arguments verge on the inane at times, fortunately most of the book is straight history. (Though sometimes even there Armstrong oversimplifies terribly.) You might find it useful, as an outline, if you supplement it with a books that cover specific aspects of Islamic history in more depth and honesty. A few I'd recommend are Jihad, by Paul Fregosi, (really amazing), the Crusades Through Arab Eyes, (for the Muslim side), and God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam. There's a interesting chapter in the Oxford History of Islam on Islam in subSaharan Africa, though even more than Armstrong, the authors of that book tend to look the other way when Muslims are doing things that would reinforce the alleged "stereotypes." I'd also like to find a good history of Islam in India, if anyone has any recommendations.
author, Jesus and the Religions of Man
Karen Armstrong attempts to cover nearly 1400 years of Islamic history in 180 pages in this wide ranging book. Perhaps too large a topic for such a short book, Armstrong takes the reader from the background of the Prophet Mohammed to a discussion of the Taliban and fundamentalism.
Much of the book reads like a chronology, with little depth into the whys of what happened. While Armstrong does a good job of providing access to the Western reader on the basics of Islam and the history behind it - including the emphasis of the political-religious entanglement at its heart, the book feels like a fire hose or a ride through a flume - moving so fast that you never really get to enjoy the experience.
If you are looking for a very basic history by an author well versed in comparative theology, you may enjoy the book. For this reader, it was too much history packed into too small a tome.