It seems that many Americans have been asking, “What is this Islam thing?” since some Wahhabists hijacked four American jetliners 9/11. I know that my own book dealing with dar-al-Islam (the label for the for the Muslim world, paralleling “Christendom”) had a resurgence of sales, as did another book with “Muslim” in the title for which I am the de facto American distributor. The prime beneficiary of this boom is Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, which was the best-selling trade paperback of the last quarter of 2001 in the Bay Area. There are other books addressing the cross-religion rise of “fundamentalist” reaction that has used modern technologies to spread a message of rejecting modernity. One of the very best is also by Karen Armstrong (who was born in 1944): The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (also published in 2000). As she stresses, “Any ‘reformation,’ however conservative its intenion, is always a new departure, and an adaptation of the faither to the particular challenge of the reformer’s own time.”
Islam: A Short History aims to — and largely succeeds — in providing a comprehensible succinct outline of the history of the religion of Islam and of political regimes (including a series of empires) that are Muslim. Armstrong covers 1400 years and a substantial part of the world in 165 pages of text. There are a lot of names and dates in the text, supplemented by a 31-page chronology, a nine-page dramatis personae, a four-page glossary of Arabic terms, a nine-page topical bibliography, and a dozen maps. Is this too much information for readers unfamiliar with the subject to absorb? Yes. Even someone like me, who knows a fair bit about some parts of the story, can feel overwhelmed at the torrent of names and be tempted to regard the book as a reference to be dipped into rather than read through.
However, Armstrong is not just throwing names and dates at the reader. A narrative/analytic thread is quite visible. And the basic, recurring conflict between a radically egalitarian religious mandate and very inegalitarian political/social/economic relations in Muslim societies betraying the vision of the Prophet Muhammed (570-632) is of greater general interest now than it was when she wrote the book.
The historical mission Muhammed identified (as the voice through whom God spoke) is “to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God’s will. A Muslim had to redeem history [not transcend it as the Christ who commended rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s], and that meant that state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality, but the stuff of religion itself…. If state institutions did not measure up to the Quaranic ideal, if their political leaders were cruel or exploitative, or if their community was humiliated by apparent religious enemies, a Muslim could feel that his or her faith in life’s ultimate purpose and value was in jeopardy.”
I have a great impatience with those who distinguish Christianity from what Christian institutions have done (Crusades, Inquisitions, etc.) or claim that Marxism has never been tried (i.e., that the communist states of the 20th century weren’t “really” putting Marxism into practice). Being sometimes consistent, I think that so many failures of Islamic regimes to produce the kind of society Muhammed envisaged demonstrates its unfeasibility. I am obviously not a Believer. We have learned that the most extreme attempt to force a society into what some semi-educated students (taliban) interpreted as Islamic was no more egalitarian than the godless Soviet “dictatorship of the proletariat” that not only failed to achieve utopia on earth but through its incursions into Afghanistan provided the training ground for Islamicist jihad.
Some of the earlier empires, notably the long-running Ottoman one, were far better at maintaining respect for other religions than various contemporary and recently fallen “Islamic republics.” The Quran proscribes coercion in matters of faith, and specifically commands Muslims to respect the beliefs of Jews and Christian, abl al-kitah, which Armstrong argues should be rendered “people of earlier revelation” rather than the usual “people of the book.” (Conversion was actively discouraged for some centuries after the death of the Prophet, and persecution of Jews as “Christ killers” was pioneered in Christendom.)
The Islam of the Quran — prescribes a single community, and the warring Arab tribes for a time united and did not fight each other, but the history of Muslim kings, empires, and now republics has been as bloody as the rebellions and wars within Christendom. (The violence against those outside the realm of the same faith is a matter Armstrong slights, though there are ample analogs from ostensibly Christian armies.)
Suppressing particular sects with their own understanding of the True Faith has also been widespread. Indeed, the history of lethal conflict extends to the first generation, the companions of the Prophet, including Ali, the nephew and closest surviving male heir (murdered in 661) and the three caliphs who preceded him. The Shi’i Muslims regard Ali as the only legitimate successor, whereas Sunni Muslims reject his legitimacy.
I don’t want to try to provide an even more concise history of Islam in the space of one epinion than the one Armstrong produced, only to commend her book en toto, and particularly her acute analysis of the tension between what exists purporting to be Islamic and what the Quran says should be. Part of the overthrow of many dynasties has been a popular consensus that the state has corrupted Islamic values and seeks to destroy the revealed true religion. Fundamentalists, like earlier sects, are highly selective of which parts of the Quran they press and which they ignore. That coercion in religious matters is forbidden in the Quran has been particularly spectacularly forgotten by contemporary Islamicists.
Armstrong is also the author of a 1991 biography of Muhammed and of many other books including the one on fundamentalisms also published in 2000 and a 2001 short life of Buddha.