Book Review – “Islam” by Karen Armstrong (2000)

Karen Armstrong is a renowned religious scholar who researches the world’s religions in order to explain to us their differences, their practices, and their constituents. She stresses that all major religions have strong commonalities. Her work on Islam gives us an in-depth study of a religion that has been in existence since the seventh century.

Islam is a monotheistic religion; that is, its followers believe in one God, whom they refer to as Allah. The word Islam means “surrender.” An adherent of Islam is called a Muslim. Muslims regard Muhammad as the last messenger of God to whom the Quran, the word of God, was revealed. Muhammad received these revelations from God during the last 22 years of his life.

Muslims observe the five “Pillars” or essential practices of Islam. (1) They are in full agreement with the Muslim confession of faith “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” (2) They pray five times daily. (3) They fast during Ramadan. (4) Almsgiving is a religious obligation. (5) Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it makes the Hajj, or religious pilgrimage, to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime.

The largest denomination of Muslims are the Sunni, followed by the Shii, the Sufi and the Faylasuf. The Shii regard their Imam as their local leader; their differences are merely political. The Sufi is a mystical tradition of Sunni. The Faylasufs had a more rational approach.

Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with Christianity being the largest. Muslims recognize several historic figures as prophets, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

Early on, the Muslim religion placed great stress on egalitarianism, meaning that all are equal. Gradually, different sects gravitated from this practice as leaders tended to become monarchs and led hedonistic lives. The early centuries also saw a great deal of fighting and confiscating of land in the name of religion.

Today, the Muslim culture respects the modernization practices of the West but want to hold on to their own religious and moral traditions while trying to incorporate some of the best aspects of Western civilization. The prophet Muhammad said that he had come to bring a “Middle Way” of religious life that shunned extremes. Islamic scholars believe that the current extremism in some quarters of the Islamic world is alien to the Muslim spirit and will not last.

Karen Armstrong has also written “Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet” and “A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” A former Roman Catholic nun, she discusses this time of her life in “Through the Narrow Gate,” and also has written a memoir “The Spiral Staircase” which deals in part with her epilepsy.

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“Islam” by Karen Armstrong (2000)