Islam: a Short History

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Karen Armstrong, billed on the jacket as "one of the world's foremost scholars on religious affairs," comments on everything from the Christian Crusades, the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, the taking of hostages by Ayatollah Khomeini and his issuance of a fatwah on author Salman Rushdie, and Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam to the Taliban in her book Islam: A Short History. It is important to note that the book was published prior to the destruction that occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001. Armstrong's observations, though often flawed because of her rose-colored view of Islam's mysticism, accurately reveal the impending nightmare of the Taliban. She harshly condemns the Taliban as fundamentalist and contrary to the Qur'an. While I wholeheartedly agree with Armstrong's condemnation of the Taliban and its ideology and actions, I still must take issue with a number of critical observations and statements that she makes throughout her book. Her premise is that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, despite the fact that the West has incorrectly, and contrary to fact in her opinion, stereotyped it as a religion that provokes and promotes violence and intolerance. A Community of Muslims. Armstrong writes, "The Qur'an did not put forward any philosophical arguments for monotheism; its approach was practical, and as such, appealed to the pragmatic Arabs. The old religion, the Qur'an claimed, was simply not working. There was spiritual malaise….The way forward lay in a single God and unified unmah (Muslim community), which was governed by justice and equity" (8). Armstrong repeats this Qur'anic ideal throughout her book. She explains that to follow the Qur'an is to work to establish a politically and socially Muslim community that adheres to and upholds Qur'anic principles. She critiques the Taliban's fundamentalist attempt at establishing this community as hopelessly evil and unislamic, even though the principles they so aggressively and terribly carry out into action (i.e., the subjugation of Islamic women and mutilation and stoning as forms of punishment) come directly from the Qur'an. Her problem lies in her premise. Armstrong's premise is that Islam is a peaceful and tolerant religion, and the violence and intolerance that is so often associated with it is unislamic and fundamentalist. It is with this premise that I take issue. Is This Allah? According to Armstrong, the Qur'an advocates the one transcendent God as opposed to paganism, "much like Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, monotheism in the Middle East, and rationalism in Europe...[these faiths] focused on a single deity or supreme symbol of transcendence" (7). Armstrong astonishingly concludes: "Constantly the Qur'an points out that Muhammad had not come to cancel the older religions, to contradict their prophets or to start a new faith. His message is the same as that of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, or Jesus" (8)! It is true that the Qur'an mentions these names; however, the proclamations it makes about each of them are not the same as, and cannot be reconciled with, the proclamations found in Scripture. As a mystic, Armstrong's conceptual understanding of the transcendent is also flawed. She simply understands that it is One. Moreover, in her view God is so totally different from humans that this former nun can accept the Qur'an's denials of the Trinity and the incarnation of the Son of God as human to die for us. According to Armstrong, love is above all else, including conceptual truth. She, therefore, lauds the Muslim Sufis as she perceives them rising above the religious wars because they rejected conceptual truth. She also praises monasticism and mystical spirituality (74–75; 90–93, 122; cf. my review of Karen Armstrong's A History of God, Christian Research Journal, 18, no. 4 [1996]: 52). The Qur'an: A Divine Revelation? Armstrong alleges that Jews and Christians sometimes taunted the Arabs for having no prophet...
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