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Thus Spake Dustin

I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.


Review of Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong

Islam: A Short History - Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (New York: The Modern Library, 2002). Pp. 230. Paperback $15.95.


I was going through used bookstores in Omaha last week and I came across this book. It was a decent price, and I’ve been looking for a book about the history of the Middle East. I want to be better informed about the politics of the region, and this book appeared to fit the profile. In fact, the President will make a major announcement about military action in the Middle East later tonight. This region affects U.S. politics, and that, in turn, affects me. Living in ignorance is not good, and to be a better voter, it behooves me to learn more. Plus, I’m hoping to be better informed for the ecumenical dialogues I participate in.


The book starts with Muhammad, then progresses through the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Crusades, and the Mongols. After that, Armstrong discusses the rise of the empires of the Safavids, Moghuls, and the Ottomans. Finally, she ends with a discussion of the arrival of the West and the contemporary situation of the Middle East.


This book is entitled, Islam, but it’s really about the people that made up the empires I described above. Armstrong does write a bit about Islamic ideals and beliefs, but what makes this book stand out, and what makes it a very good introduction, is her discussions of how these various empires and rulers were able to use – or distort – Islam. Within this mix, she is also able to write about various movements/schools that develop, and how they influence various aspects of Islam and the empires in which they existed.


I don’t want to have too many spoilers, but there are a few things of note that I found very interesting, and I’d like to share them here. As Armstrong is opening her book, she writes about Muhammad’s motivation and how he saw Islam fitting into his world. Three of them I thought were of note.


Firstly, Mecca, Muhammad’s hometown, was experiencing economic growth for the first time in its history. As a part of the population gained wealth, another part was experiencing extreme poverty. Muhammad was very uncomfortable with this inequality.


Secondly, Muhammad had an admiration for the religion of the Jews and the Christians. Armstrong says that he felt that the Arabs had been left out of God’s overall vision. However, with his visions of the Quran, he believed that the Arabs now became a part of the ‘family,’ so to speak. However, Armstrong notes that Muhammad was unaware not only of the differences between Judaism and Christians, but also that various types of Christianity existed in this period (Orthodox, Nestorians, Arians, Monophysites, etc.). He believed the each ethnic group received their own prophet – Moses, Jesus – to reveal the one God.


Thirdly, Muhammad was tired of the fighting that existed between the various Arab tribes. With the advent of Islam came the idea of ummah, or community. From my understanding, this isn’t much different than the Christian idea of koinonia. Once an Arab tribe became Muslim, they were forbidden to attach another Muslim tribe. In this way, Muhammad was able to unite the Arabs for the first time in their history.


After reading about these three motivating factors, it became clear that Islam was fundamentally different than Christianity. Christianity is, at its basic level, a religion of orthodoxy (right belief – and this gets played out in Byzantium where the councils are convened to determine right belief, and heretics are anathematized); however, Armstrong strongly points out that Islam is a religion of orthopraxy (right practice). The practice of Islam is the practice of living in harmony with one another in an ideal society, which is God’s desire for the human race. This is why Islam has such a strong sense of giving to the poor.


This unity of the Arabs had consequences, however. Arabia is basically a desert. So for each tribe to get the resources they need to survive, they developed the idea of ghazu, or raids. Why they didn’t develop a more sophisticated form of trade, I’m not sure. However, if all of tribes are now united in Islam, they couldn’t raid each other for resources, so they turn to the non-Muslims of the north (Byzantium and Persia). This begins the expansion of the Islamic empires.


From here on out, Armstrong is able to articulate the various expressions of Islam and how the various monarchs and empires use, or distort, Muhammad’s original vision. One of the first disputes in Islam is over the proper successor of Muhammad – this eventually leads to the Shiis and the Sunnis. It also leads to other Muslims having visions and declaring themselves prophets, known as the riddah. They also lead to the First and Second Fitnahs (literally, temptation, but I think of them as civil wars). Of course, these disputes cause an identity crisis of sorts because the idea of Islamic unity, ummah, is threated. This very idea is in play today in the Middle East.


Islam also faced new trials as Islam became a part of an empire. The rulers of these empires soon discovered that the most efficient way to run a medieval agrarian society was to rule as absolute monarchs – along the lines of the Persians, and the Byzantines. However, Islam, as a religion, is more egalitarian, and Muhammad advocated a more ascetic lifestyle. This caused tension between faithful practitioners and the royal courts. In fact, Shariah law starts as a protest to the state, though later the Ottomans incorporate it into the state.


After progressing through several empires, she has a good discussion about Islam’s encounter with the West. The West had spent the last 300 years easing into modernity, changing from a religious based society to a secular based society. Their economy completely changes – from agrarian to one founded on technology and an investment in capital. This allows the West to produce goods indefinitely, and it brings most people above the subsistence level. It also meant that they needed to turn to other places for resources, and this lead to colonization in the Middle East (as well as elsewhere).


The Middle East, which was still an agrarian society, had always seen the West as barbarians (after the fall of the Byzantines). Thus they typically paid no attention to the West and were completely unaware of the advances there. So, when the West shows up, worlds begin to clash. But I won’t spoil the whole thing here. It’s also quite involved and not easy to sum up, so I’ll just recommend you read Armstrong’s book.


I could go on and on from what I learned in this book – how the capitals changed cites, how the esoteric movements began, the Islamic renaissances… However I’ll just end this review by stating that I found this book very helpful. It is straightforward and easy to read for someone who is unfamiliar with the history and Arabic terminology. The only reason I gave it 4 starts instead of 5 is that Armstrong isn’t quite as unbiased as she should have been – she takes a few cheap shots at the West. But they are few, and it shouldn't discourage you from using this book to learn more about the Middle East and how the current situation developed.