February 13, 2008
The great thing about Karen Armstrong’s ‘ISLAM: A Short History’ is that it is short (161 pages) and clearly written. The book is a must for those who need to understand more about Islam than they do – which means most of us. I’m a fan of the author, who converted me with her ‘A History of God’ and ‘Fundamentalism’. Armstrong was a Catholic nun, teaches Judaism and is a recipient of the Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award.
The book cuts through the clichés and explains a faith that has inspired so many and is the basis of a civilisation with an illustrious past. I would not dare to attempt a synopsis, but set out a few extracts whish resound:
- The ideal of democracy is not inimical to Islam but not the western formulation of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. In Islam, legitimacy is given by God and not people.
- It is difficult for Muslims to set up a modern, democratic nation state, in which religion is entirely relegated to the private sphere.
- Fundamentalist movements in all faiths share certain characteristics, including deep disappointment and disenchantment with modern society.
- It is not correct that Islam has within it a militant, fanatic strain that impels Muslims into crazed & violent rejection of modernity.
- ‘Fundamentalism’ is a word coined by American Protestants as a badge of pride.
- In modern history, the American Protestants were the first fundamentalists, followed by the Jews and only in the second half of the last century, by the Muslims.
- The Christians in the Crusades instigated a series of brutal holy wars against the Muslim world (and against Jews); and yet the received wisdom is that Islam is an inherently violent and intolerant faith, only able to establish itself by the sword. This myth has survived to this day.
- Many atrocities have been committed in the past in the name of religion, but also secularism.
- The West has not been wholly responsible for the extreme forms of Islam, which has cultivated a violence that violates the most sacred canons of the religion, but the West has certainly contributed to this development.
- Muslims want modernity, but not one that has been imposed upon them by America, Britain or France. Muslims admire the the efficiency and beautiful technology of the West and they are fascinated by the way a regime can be changed in the West without bloodshed. But when Muslims look at Western society, they see no light, not heart and no spirituality.