Karen Armstrong seeks to provide some much-needed balance in her book "Islam: A Short History." "Ever since the Crusades," she writes, "the people of Western Christendom developed a stereotypical and distorted image of Islam, which they regarded as the enemy of decent civilization." Her goal is ambitious: to tell the story of how one-fifth of humanity has spent the past 1,400 years--and to do it in 187 pages. But for the author of the best-selling "A History of God," this task might seem one of only modest proportions.
Considering the vastness of the enterprise and the brevity of volume, Armstrong does surprisingly well. But considering the importance of the subject and the skills of the author, one might have hoped for something more.
But what was progressive in the seventh century is not necessarily progressive today. Islamic feminism is still largely confined to elite circles. Writers like Fatima Mernissi and the late Fazlur Rahman have argued that gender equality can be grounded in solidly Islamic principles--but the reformation of popular opinion is still far from complete.
Another topic touched upon all too briefly is the relationship between Muslims and Jews. Before the mid-20th century, discord between the two faiths was rare. As Armstrong rightly notes, Qur'anic passages sometimes invoked as evidence of Muslim hostility refer not to Jews in general, but to specific Jewish clans in Medina who were at war with the nascent Muslim community when the verses were revealed.
But any history of Islam (even a short one) that does not deal with the mutual trauma surrounding the foundation of the state of Israel and the resulting displacement of several million Palestinians is deficient. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Armstrong addressed the complexities of the struggle over Jerusalem/Al-Quds, arguing that no lasting peace could be forged without taking account of the importance this city has not merely to the Palestinians but to Muslims all across the world. A few pages of discussion on this topic would have made Armstrong's book--scheduled for release just weeks before the projected declaration of a sovereign Palestinian state--all the more timely.
There is, in addition, little sourcing of facts. The bibliography gives suggestions for further reading, but the volume itself has only two pages of endnotes--two thirds of which are Qur'anic citations that could have been included in the main text. Armstrong is a very knowledgeable writer, but the lack of sourcing taints her credibility. If Armstrong had had the time for thorough fact-checking, she probably wouldn't have placed the number of American Muslims at 7 to 8 million: The generally-accepted estimate is 5 million.
Armstrong errs, furthermore, in describing Malcolm X as "the charismatic leader of the black separatist group" Nation of Islam (he was the Nation's most charismatic spokesman, but never its leader) and in attributing to Malcolm the conversion of up to 2 million Black Muslims to Islamic orthodoxy. That was brought about by Elijah Muhammad's son, Warith Deen Muhammad--a decade after Malcolm's own conversion and assassination. Such missteps leave the reader a bit wary of taking unsourced statements on faith.
A larger critique is that of focus: Armstrong's historical vantage is that of the Sunni majority. She addresses the history of Shiism in Iran and Fatimid Egypt, but seems to treat the denomination that accounts for about 10% of the world's Muslims as a historical aberration.