Cover image for Islam : a short history
Islam : a short history
Armstrong, Karen, 1944-
Personal Author:
Modern Library edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Modern Library, 2000.
Physical Description:
xxxiv, 222 pages : maps ; 20 cm.
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 12.0 12.0 68635.
Subject Term:
Geographic Term:
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No religion in the modern world is as feared and misunderstood as Islam. It haunts the popular Western imagination as an extreme faith that promotes authoritarian government, female oppression, civil war, and terrorism. Karen Armstrong's short history offers a vital corrective to this narrow view. The distillation of years of thinking and writing about Islam, it demonstrates that the world's fastest-growing faith is a much richer and more complex phenomenon than its modern fundamentalist strain might suggest.

Islam: A Short History begins with the flight of Muhammad and his family from Medina in the seventh century and the subsequent founding of the first mosques. It recounts the origins of the split between Shii and Sunni Muslims, and the emergence of Sufi mysticism; the spread of Islam throughout North Africa, the Levant, and Asia; the shattering effect on the Muslim world of the Crusades; the flowering of imperial Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries into the world's greatest and most sophisticated power; and the origins and impact of revolutionary Islam. It concludes with an assessment of Islam today and its challenges.

With this brilliant book, Karen Armstrong issues a forceful challenge to those who hold the view that the West and Islam are civilizations set on a collision course. It is also a model of authority, elegance, and economy.

Author Notes

Karen Armstrong is one of the foremost commentators on religious affairs in both Britain and the United States. She spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun and received a degree at Oxford University.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Readers seeking a quick but thoughtful introduction to Islam will want to peruse Armstrong's latest offering. In her hallmark stylish and accessible prose, the author of A History of God takes readers from the sixth-century days of the Prophet Muhammad to the present. Armstrong writes about the revelations Muhammad received, and explains that the Qur'an earned its name (which means recitation) because most of Muhammad's followers were illiterate and learned his teachings not from reading them but hearing them proclaimed aloud. Throughout the book, Armstrong traces what she sees as Islam's emphasis on right living (… la Judaism) over right belief (… la Christianity). Armstrong is at her most passionate when discussing Islam in the modern world. She explains antagonisms between Iraqi Muslims and Syrian Muslims, and discusses the devastating consequences of modernization on the Islamic world. Unlike Europe, which modernized gradually over centuries, the Islamic world had modernity thrust upon it in an exploitative manner. The Islamic countries, Armstrong argues, have been "reduced to a dependent bloc by the European powers." Armstrong also rehearses some basics about Islamic fundamentalism in a section that will be familiar to anyone who has read her recent study, The Battle for God. A useful time line and a guide to the "Key Figures in the History of Islam" complete this strong, brisk survey of 1,500 years of Islamic history. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

This is a clear, readable survey of the story of Islam suitable for the educated, nonspecialist adult. Armstrong (The Battle for God, CH Nov'00) follows a traditional periodization that emphasizes the life of Muhammad, the expansion, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, the "gunpowder empires," and Islam in the colonial and contemporary world. There is a comprehensive chronology, glossaries of key individuals and Arabic terms, and a bibliography of major works in English divided into subject areas. This is primarily a political history, with little mention of Muslim artistic and scientific accomplishments. Embedded in the historical survey are several arguments that those familiar with Armstrong's other works, such as A History of God (CH, Apr'94) and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (CH, Nov'92), will find familiar. The book is written with a laudable goal: to counter the misconception that Islam is a violent, authoritarian religion bent on world domination. However, Armstron g makes several sweeping claims that would be sharply disputed by some scholars. Wherever possible she emphasizes the egalitarian and inclusive aspects of Islam, downplaying those historical events that do not accord with this description--a perspective that could lead to misunderstanding if this were the only survey of Islam known to a reader. Undergraduates; general readers. G. J. Miller Malone College

Booklist Review

If Armstrong's Battle for God [BKL Ja 1 & 15 00] were not as impressive as it is, this book would still make 2000 a banner year for her. A wonderfully well written overview of the newest great religion, it homes in on the aspect of Islam that most concerns those ignorant of it--namely, its attitude toward politics. The religion begun by Allah's revelations to the illiterate businessman Muhammad had to be concerned with power to grow from its beginnings as a cult within a tribe into a faith that erased tribal particularism to forge a God-centered, universal community. The Prophet himself became a warrior, but warfare isn't, Armstrong stresses, an Islamic tenet; it is a consequence of human imperfection that the realization of Muslim community is intended to mitigate. Islam is a practical faith, not a dogmatic one; it is concerned more with the conduct of life than with doctrines and credos. Because the creation and maintenance of Muslim community is its great task in the world, Islam has had to be more political than such transcendental faiths as Christianity and Buddhism. But politics doesn't license violence for Muslims, and modern Islamic fundamentalists are strictly mistaken both in making jihad or struggle central to the faith and in countenancing terrorism for the sake of jihad. While she argues this view of Islam, Armstrong deftly sketches the human historical realities that have effected and affected the religion. An invaluable primer for non-Muslims. --Ray Olson

Library Journal Review

Within the Muslim world, history and politics are inseparable vehicles of religious expression and cultural identity. A proper understanding of Islamic history is therefore essential if we are ever to resolve the major issues we face in the Middle East. In her newest book, best-selling author Armstrong (Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet; Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths) does an admirable job of presenting Islamic history from an objective, unbiased point of view. This book (part of a new series of small-format hardcover originals from Modern Library) is a distillation of years of writing and thinking about Islam. The history of conflicts with the West from 1750 to the present, the modern Muslim State, fundamentalism, and the Muslim minority are some of the themes addressed. A listing of key figures in Islam is included. Short but detailed, this excellent synopsis of the topic is recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/00.]DMichael W. Ellis, Ellenville P.L., NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



PREFACE The external history of a religious tradition often seems divorced from the raison detre of faith. The spiritual quest is an interior journey; it is a psychic rather than a political drama. It is preoccupied with liturgy, doctrine, contemplative disciplines and an exploration of the heart, not with the clash of current events. Religions certainly have a life outside the soul. Their leaders have to contend with the state and affairs of the world, and often relish doing so. They fight with members of other faiths, who seem to challenge their claim to a monopoly of absolute truth; they also persecute their co-religionists for interpreting a tradition differently or for holding heterodox beliefs. Very often priests, rabbis, imams and shamans are Just as consumed by worldly ambition as regular politicians. But all this is generally seen as an abuse of a sacred ideal. These power struggles are not what religion is really about, but an unworthy distraction from the life of the spirit, which is conducted far from the madding crowd, unseen, silent and unobtrusive. Indeed, in many faiths, monks and mystics lock themselves away from the world, since the clamour and strife of history is regarded as incompatible with a truly religious life. In the Hindu tradition, history is dismissed as evanescent, unimportant and insubstantial. The philosophers of ancient Greece were concerned with the eternal laws underlying the flux of external events, which could be of no real interest to a serious thinker. In the gospels, Jesus often went out of his way to explain to his followers that his Kingdom was not of this world, but could only be found within the believer. The Kingdom would not arrive with a great political fanfare, but would develop as quietly and imperceptibly as a germinating mustardseed. In the modern West, we have made a point of separating religion from politics; this secularization was originally seen by the philosophes of the Enlightenment as a means of liberating religion from the corruption of state affairs, and allowing it to become more truly itself. But however spiritual their aspirations, religious people have to seek God or the sacred in this world. They often feel that they have a duty to bring their ideals to bear upon society. Even if they lock themselves away, they are inescapably men and women of their time and are affected by what goes on outside the monastery, although they do not fully realize this. Wars, plagues, famines, economic recession and the internal politics of their nation will intrude upon their cloistered existence and qualify their religious vision. Indeed, the tragedies of history often goad people into the spiritual quest, in order to find some ultimate meaning in what often seems to be a succession of random, arbitrary and dispiriting incidents. There is a symbiotic relationship between history and religion, therefore. It is, as the Buddha remarked, our perception that existence is awry that forces us to find an alternative which will prevent us from falling into despair. Perhaps the central paradox of the religious life is that it seeks transcendence, a dimension of existence that goes beyond our mundane lives, but that human beings can only experience this transcendent reality in earthly, physical phenomena. People have sensed the divine in rocks, mountains, temple buildings, law codes, written texts, or in other men and women. We never experience transcendence directly: our ecstasy is always "earthed," enshrined in something or someone here below. Religious people are trained to look beneath the unpromising surface to find the sacred within it. They have to use their creative imaginations. Jean-Paul Sartre defined the imagination as the ability to think of what is not present. Human beings are religious creatures because they are imaginative; they are so constituted that they are compelled to search for hidden meaning and to achieve an ecstasy that makes them feel fully alive. Each tradition encourages the faithful to focus their attention on an earthly symbol that is peculiarly its own, and to teach themselves to see the divine in it. In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Koran, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was 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, and that meant that state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself The political wellbeing of the Muslim community was a matter of supreme importance. Like any religious ideal, it was almost impossibly difficult to implement in the flawed and tragic conditions of history, but after each failure Muslims had to get up and begin again. Muslims developed their own rituals, mysticism, philosophy, doctrines, sacred texts, laws and shrines like everybody else. But all these religious pursuits sprang directly from the Muslims' frequently anguished contemplation of the political current affairs of Islamic society. If state institutions did not measure up to the Quranic ideal, if their political leaders were cruel or exploitative, or if their community was humiliated by apparently irreligious enemies, a Muslim could feel that his or her faith in life's ultimate purpose and value was in jeopardy. Every effort had to be expended to put Islamic history back on track, or the whole religious enterprise would fall, and life would be drained of meaning. Politics was, therefore, what Christians would call a sacrament: it was the arena in which Muslims experienced God and which enabled the divine to function effectively in the world. Consequently, the historical trials and tribulations of the Muslim community-- political assassinations, civil wars, invasions, and the rise and fall of the ruling dynasties-were not divorced from the interior religious quest, but were of the essence of the Islamic vision. A Muslim would meditate upon the current events of their time and upon past history as a Christian would contemplate an icon, using the creative imagination to discover the hidden divine kernel. 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. Excerpted from Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Mapsp. vii
Prefacep. ix
Chronologyp. xiii
1 Beginnings
The Prophet (570-632)p. 3
The Rashidun (632-661)p. 23
The First Fitnahp. 33
2 Development
The Umayyads and the Second Fitnahp. 41
The Religious Movementp. 45
The Last Years of the Umayyads (705-750)p. 50
The Abbasids: The High Caliphal Period (750-935)p. 53
The Esoteric Movementsp. 65
3 Culmination
A New Order (935-1258)p. 81
The Crusadesp. 93
Expansionp. 95
The Mongols (1220-1500)p. 96
4 Islam Triumphant
Imperial Islam (1500-1700)p. 115
The Safavid Empirep. 117
The Moghul Empirep. 124
The Ottoman Empirep. 130
5 Islam Agonistes
The Arrival of the West (1750-2000)p. 141
What is a Modern Muslim State?p. 156
Fundamentalismp. 164
Muslims in a Minorityp. 176
The Way Forwardp. 178
Key Figures in the History of Islamp. 189
Glossary of Arabic Termsp. 199
Notesp. 203
Suggestions for Further Readingp. 205
Indexp. 213

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