Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong. Specifically, it will contain a book report on the book. The history of Islam is little understood by many Christians in the world, and this succinct book helps make the religion more understandable and sympathetic, while illustrating the long history of the world's religions, and the long history of strife between them.
The author of this book, Karen Armstrong is an ex-Catholic nun who writes on various religious issues. She spent seven years as a nun, and wrote a book about her experiences called Through the Narrow Gate (1982). She is an expert on religion, and has written numerous books on Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, along with her views of what the three religions have in common. She has won awards for her writing, and is viewed as an expert in attempting to show the commonality of the roots of religion. Some of these books include: A History of God (1993), Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, (1996) and The Battle for God, (2000). As such, she is exceptionally qualified to write this book on Islam. In addition, her books make it easy for the layman to read about religion and religious beliefs at an understandable level, and so, the author is not only qualified to write this book, she is an excellent choice as author because of her style, her background, and her writing ability. Often called the "runaway nun," her work is often controversial, but eminently readable and interesting. She is a professor of Christianity at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism in London, England.
In summary, this book is a detailed and yet brief look into the history of the Islamic religion. It begins with the Prophet Muhammad, and his discovery of a new Arab scripture as he meditates near Mecca, and follows how Muhammad began to spread his message, and people began to listen. It shows how he had to flee Medina with his family, and how the first mosques were founded. It shows how the religion split into two distinct forms: Sunni and Shii, and how the religion spread throughout the world. She writes, "Sunni piety was more optimistic that the tragic vision of the Shiis" (Armstrong 65). The author also shows how the Crusades affected the religion and how imperial Islam grew and prospered in early medieval times. Then, the author shows how Western expansion and thought affected the Muslim world and some of the problems inherent with expanding modernism in countries that still are agrarian and distant from much Western expansion.
Throughout each section the author shows the different factions of Islam that have been present almost since the beginning of the religion, and the violence and bloodshed that has also plagued the religions. She also illustrates how revolutionary Islam evolved, and ends with a discussion of Islam today, and its' future. However, throughout this brief history, the author also manages to bring the reader a sense of the Muslim people, and how their religion has evolved, altered, and grown with the times. The book is brief, but it contains a lot of information for its' small size, and summarizes it succinctly so the reader can follow history easily.
The author offers a thesis that Muslims have always been intertwined with history, and so, a history of their religion is not only the story of their past, but also the story of their future. In the Preface she writes, "An account of the external history of the Muslim people cannot, therefore, be of mere secondary interest, since one of the chief characteristics of Islam has been its sacralization of history" (Armstrong xii). Thus, her purpose is to make the religion more understandable to outsiders, but also to illustrate the religion's deep reliance on history, especially the political history that is so important to Muslims, as Armstrong continually illustrates in the book.
In addition, the author's basic thesis is to simply share the history of the Muslims so that there can be a greater understanding of their beliefs and their past. The book is certainly a history book, but it is also holds the author's own concepts of her studies, and in this, it is more than a history, it is a very personal look by a renowned and recognized scholar on a religion that is often misunderstood and frightening to outsiders. The author wants to remove many of the myths surrounding Islam, and portray it as it really is at the root. However, there is another piece to this thesis, and that is to show how the world's religions have always seemed to have strife, and difficulty in accepting one another. Even the Muslims have not been able to agree, and so have split into several factions that still fracture the religion today. These facets may never see eye-to-eye, and so, the Muslim world may never be totally united, or totally at peace with each other, let alone the rest of the world.
Many of the author's views are interesting and enlightening, and many of them are difficult to digest. It was interesting to note that Islam actually means "surrender," and Muslim means someone who has become completely submissive to Allah and his teachings. The teachings of Allah were not exactly what this reader expected, because much of the modern Muslim religion seems so far removed from the beliefs of justice, equity, and compassion that the author often notes throughout the text. If the Muslim religion is based on these very grand ideals, then how can the religion possible be seen as successful? Many Muslims live in areas of the world where strong, imperialistic leaders oppress them, and they do not enjoy justice, equality, or compassion. In addition, many of these ideals, when taken in context, seem to point toward a Socialist or Communistic lifestyle, and that is not a modern day reality in most Muslim countries, either. Muslims are not equal with their leaders, or even with each other. In most modern-day countries, there are the very wealthy and the very poor, with little in between. This is not equal or just, and certainly is not compassionate for those who live in poverty and fear.
It is also interesting to read that the Muslim Holy Book, the Quran, forbids violence of any kind. The author notes, "All violence was forbidden in Mecca and the surrounding countryside at all times. [ ... ] During the hajj pilgrims were forbidden to carry arms, to argue, to kill game or even to kill an insect or speak a cross word" (Armstrong 11). Thus, the reader wonders from early in the book, how has so many Muslims strayed so far from their holy book's teachings, and why have the become so violent and frightening?
The author's style is actually not as academic as the reader might first expect, and the style is easy to read and fairly easy to understand, although from the first, the history of the Islamic faith has twists, turns, and convolutions that sometimes make it quite difficult to understand. The author attempts to make this information all as understandable as possible, and adds a Chronology, a glossary, and even suggestions for further reading to help the reader fully understand the material and her purpose in writing the book.
However, there are sections that are still difficult to decipher, such as the description of Muhammad's attack on the Meccans, and other sections of the book. If violence is not a part of the religion, why are they attacking others, even if they are not of the Islamic faith? It seems there are many questions like this in the book, and they are all not tied up neatly by the end. Thus, the reader either must continue with their research, or be left wondering about some of the paradoxes in Islamic history. The author does explain the raids on Meccans and Jews as necessary, or they would have invaded and perhaps annihilated the Muslims, but still there are many incongruities like this that keep the reader wondering as the book unfolds. Unlike some authors, Armstrong does not present her material as if she were the only authority on Islam, or to illustrate her own understanding of her topic. Instead, she presents it so the reader will comprehend the material, and so, it is easier to understand. This supports her thesis well, because the reader does have a better understanding of the history of Islam after reading this book, even if there are some questions that remain unanswered or unclear.
As the history unfolds, it seems the Muslims become increasingly violent toward the outside world, and toward each other. The author notes, "But a pattern had been set. The Muslims of Iraq and Syria now felt antagonistic towards one another" (Armstrong 36). While many aspects of the religion have clearly altered over the years, this tendency to infighting has stayed with Islam, and seems to be one of the biggest problems facing the future of…