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Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time Paperback – August 28, 2007
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Karen Armstrong’s sympathetic profile paints a portrait of a very human prophet (Wall Street Journal)
A good glimpse of how the vast majority of the world’s Muslims understand their prophet. (New York Times)
Respectful, knowledgeable, and, above all, readable. It succeeds because [Armstrong] brings Muhammad to life as a fully rounded human being. (The Economist)
About the Author
Karen Armstrong, author, scholar, and journalist, is among the world's foremost commentators on religious history and culture. Her books include the bestselling A History of God and The Battle for God, as well as Buddha and Islam: A Short History.
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In socio-historical terms, Armstrong believes that Muhammad emerged in a culture in crisis, offering a new religious solution that first and foremost worked politically. The Arabs, she says, had developed a tribal culture, whereby relative peace was maintained by the threat of blood feud - if a tribal member was injured or murdered, revenge was exacted on whomever belonged to the offending tribe, beyond the individual responsibility of the person who carried out the act itself. This worked while tribes were separated in the desert, but began to break down with increasing urbanization in 7C: close proximity bred violence, which easily spiraled out of control into endless mob violence. Muhammad's solution was to create a version of monotheism, that united the Arabs to a single purpose, transcending the polytheistic patron gods of the various tribes in their battles. This is a very interesting existential perspective.
Armstrong also describes the unique details of Islam, as Muhammad created it: the Kuran offered a poetic vision that mesmerized many Arabs in an untranslatable sense. The new religion also offered a new kind of submission to Allah, which carried with it an ethical code that she convincingly argues is close to the essence of Islam. I enjoyed her vision of the religion and gained empathy from it for the prayers I have observed personally.
Muhammad's vision was of course not easy to impose on a primitive culture. This is where Muhammad's political genius comes in, a perspective I found fascinating and valuable: he knew when to compromise, but also understood how society was reorganizing itself and so could set political precedents that often caused grave doubts in his followers before revealing themselves as phenomenal strategic successes later on.
Along the way, Armstrong does pose many of the difficult questions, but somehow finds a way to dismiss them by putting them into historical context, comparing them to existing practices in Christendom and elsewhere. This works well, for example, when she argues that Muhammad in fact worked to liberate women (in a relative way). However, it often fails to satisfy, at least in my own reading. He ordered massacres in Jihad (even of Jews in Medina), the text of the Kuran froze many medieval attitudes into an orthodoxy that is proving rigid today, etc. These are serious problems that cannot be argued away as facilely as Armstrong attempts. In my opinion, she did not wrestle enough with a lot of these questions.
The book ends on an interesting note, arguing that the current crisis in Islam began in the 17C, over 1000 years after Muhammad created his politico-religious system. At that time, as science and then industry developed in Europe, Islamic states/empires began to falter, which raised the question of whether God annointed their religion as indisputably superior anymore. This is very thought-provoking and articulated a view I have wondered about for a long time.
Recommended. Armstrong's heart is in the right place, even if it makes her argument a bit too politically correct for my taste. Nonetheless, a worthy introduction to Islam it is indeed, but only as a starting point.