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Islam: A Short History (Modern Library Chronicles) Paperback – August 6, 2002

3.6 out of 5 stars 275 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The picture of Islam as a violent, backward, and insular tradition should be laid to rest, says Karen Armstrong, bestselling author of Muhammad and A History of God. Delving deep into Islamic history, Armstrong sketches the arc of a story that begins with the stirring of revelation in an Arab businessman named Muhammad. His concern with the poor who were being left behind in the blush of his society's new prosperity sets the tone for the tale of a culture that values community as a manifestation of God. Muhammad's ideas catch fire, quickly blossoming into a political empire. As the empire expands and the once fractured Arabs subdue and overtake the vast Persian domain, the story of a community becomes a panoramic drama. With great dexterity, Armstrong narrates the Sunni-Shi'ite schism, the rise of Persian influence, the clashes with Western crusaders and Mongolian conquerors, and the spiritual explorations that traced the route to God. Armstrong brings us through the debacle of European colonialism right up to the present day, putting Islamic fundamentalism into context as part of a worldwide phenomenon. Islam: A Short History, like Bruce Lawrence's Shattering the Myth and Mark Huband's Warriors of the Prophet, introduces us to a faith that beckons like a minaret to those who dare to venture beyond the headlines. --Brian Bruya --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Readers seeking a quick but thoughtful introduction to Islam will want to peruse Armstrong's latest offering. In her hallmark stylish and accessible prose, the author of A History of God takes readers from the sixth-century days of the Prophet Muhammad to the present. Armstrong writes about the revelations Muhammad received, and explains that the Qur'an earned its name (which means recitation) because most of Muhammad's followers were illiterate and learned his teachings not from reading them but hearing them proclaimed aloud. Throughout the book, Armstrong traces what she sees as Islam's emphasis on right living (? la Judaism) over right belief (? la Christianity). Armstrong is at her most passionate when discussing Islam in the modern world. She explains antagonisms between Iraqi Muslims and Syrian Muslims, and discusses the devastating consequences of modernization on the Islamic world. Unlike Europe, which modernized gradually over centuries, the Islamic world had modernity thrust upon it in an exploitative manner. The Islamic countries, Armstrong argues, have been "reduced to a dependent bloc by the European powers." Armstrong also rehearses some basics about Islamic fundamentalism in a section that will be familiar to anyone who has read her recent study, The Battle for God. A useful time line and a guide to the "Key Figures in the History of Islam" complete this strong, brisk survey of 1,500 years of Islamic history. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Chronicles
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; Rev Upd Su edition (August 6, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 081296618X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812966183
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (275 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #13,866 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Thomas J. Brucia on September 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
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.
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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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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