2016-06-30
Of the major world religions, Islam may be the most misunderstood. All too often, the most radical fringe is presumed to represent the mainstream. Western journalists devote gallons of ink to the harsh excesses of the Taliban, or the brutal violence of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Some see Muslim societies as a monolithic bloc stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. The reality is far more complex: Militant extremists represent only a small portion of Islamic fundamentalism, fundamentalists represent only a small portion of today's Muslims, and today represents only a small portion of Islamic history.

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.

Armstrong addresses a number of misperceptions about Islam, and her comments are so right-minded and instructive one regrets she doesn't go into greater detail. For example, she attacks the Western conception of Islam as a faith inherently inimical to women: "The emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet's heart," she writes, and notes that the Qur'an gave women a legal status (complete with specific rights in matters such as inheritance and divorce) they wouldn't be granted in Christian countries for centuries.

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.

Indeed, the book's main shortcoming stems from the fact that it is, well, short. No doubt Armstrong could have done her subject better justice if she'd written "Islam: A Thorough History." This book feels as if it has been stitched together from the outtakes of her previous works.

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.

Her assertion that "Ali would almost certainly not have recognized the ideas and myths of the Shiis" will offend Shia of all branches: Twelvers and Nizari Ismailis revere Ali as the first Imam, while the Mustali Ismailis honor him as the last Wasi to inhabit the earth. Shia readers will look with equal disfavor on the claim that Ali's son Hasan (also recognized as an Imam) retired from public life "for a financial consideration." And Armstrong's previous writing suggests she knows better than to say of the Shia, "Their difference from the Sunni majority is purely political"--that's like saying the only difference between Protestants and Catholics is where they send the money taken in the collection plate.

I won't go into sins of omission when it comes to Ismailis--this branch of Shiism is regularly dissed by academic as well as popular writers, so Armstrong can't be singled out for chastisement. But Sunnis may object when the author says of the Abbasid caliphate (regarded by many Muslims as a golden age), "it was difficult to see how this regime was in any way Islamic." And one wonders if Armstrong really intended to write clauses like, "reformers up to and including Saddam Hussein..."

A little more space might also have given Armstrong room to flesh out some important and provocative statements she does not really back up. One of her strongest leitmotifs is social justice. She calls this "the crucial virtue of Islam," and lambastes caliphs and sultans throughout history as being "un-Islamic." Egalitarianism is an important aspect of Islam (and scholars such as Harvey Cox have noted the parallels between Qur'anic ideals of social justice and the Liberation Theology of late 20th-century Catholicism), but is it really the "crucial" virtue? Is it more important, say, than strict monotheism? More important than submission to God's will, the very name of the religion ("Islam" is Arabic for "submission")? As a good progressive, I would like to agree--but plenty of Islamic scholars far more learned than I would not.

And this, really, is the book's greatest weakness: Armstrong falls into the fundamentalist trap. Sorting through the many available strands of Islamic thought, she selects the one she likes best and declares it the faith's true essence. There are as many opinions on the "right" form of Islam as there are Muslims (more, if you count interested outsiders), and neither a learned Londoner nor the barely literate foot soldiers of the Taliban can declare any one of them incontrovertibly correct.

Where Armstrong contents herself with explanation, she provides a valuable service: It is entirely appropriate for a Western scholar of Islam to educate her audience and to tear down false stereotypes. She is still within her rights to offer her own informed opinion--and I happen to think her vision of Islam is better informed than that of many self-styled defenders of the faith in Kandhahar or Kabul. But Armstrong steps over the line when she moves from description to prescription. I tend to agree with Armstrong's outlook, but when it comes to normative questions, our opinions don't really matter. We may be qualified to explain how Islam is practiced but not to pontificate on how it should be practiced.



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