Friday, August 12, 2022

Review of Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong

This review was written by Eugene Kernes  

Book can be found in:
Book Club Event = Book List (12/03/2022)
Intriguing Connections = 1) To Cooperate Or To Defect?
Watch Short Review


“Mecca had become a thriving mercantile city, but in the aggressive stampede for wealth some of the old tribal values had been lost.  Instead of looking after the weaker members of the tribe, as the nomadic code prescribed, the Quraysh were now intent on making money at the expense of some of the tribe’s poorer family groupings, or clans.” – Karen Armstrong, The Prophet (570-632), Page 3

“Muhammad did not think that he was founding a new religion, but that he was merely bringing the old faith in the One God to the Arabs, who had never had a prophet before.  It was wrong, he insisted, to build a private fortune, but good to share wealth and create a society where the weak and vulnerable were treated with respect.” – Karen Armstrong, The Prophet (570-632), Page 4

“Social justice was, therefore, the crucial virtue of Islam.  Muslims were commanded as their first duty to build a community (ummah) characterized by practical compassions, in which there was a fair distribution of wealth.” – Karen Armstrong, The Prophet (570-632), Page 6



During Prophet Muhammad’s era, the Arabic world became wealthy through trade.  Wealth that came with social consequences, as tribal values were disintegrating.  Muhammad’s profound spiritual experiences, during which Muhammad wrote the new Arab scriptures, would reinvigorate the lost values.  Islam took shape, with the Quran as the central text.  Having an understanding of social conditions, Muhammad created a doctrine that was spiritual, while containing practical and politically feasible solutions.  The policies did not allow coercion within matters of religion, while also preventing those within the community from attacking each other no matter their faith.  Ending tribal cycles of recrimination.  A community with social justice at its core.  The major problem was succession.  After the Prophet’s death, there was agreement on maintaining the community to prevent feuds.  What they disagreed on was whom should lead the community, and how the members should behave.  Divergent views which precipitated in wars for succession.  Internal strife and external threats caused power to shift, but Islam remained.  With different peoples and empires taking up the religion and spreading the faith. 


A Spiritual Path:

Religion is meant to be a spiritual quest, an internal journey, but in practice there are a lot of external influences.  Politics and religion are intimately tied, causing spirituals leaders to appear like regular politicians, consumed by worldly ambitions.  These struggles distract from the sacred ideal.  Attempts were made to separate religion from politics.  A secularization originally meant to liberate religion from the corruption of state affairs.

Islam is more of an orthopraxy than orthodoxy.  A religion requiring to live in a certain way.

Fundamentalism comes about in every religion, in response to modern problems.  As more secular peoples and fundamentalist people increasingly devote more time to different understandings, they created their own culture.  Become increasingly unable to understand each other. 

Not only are there divergent views within a religion, but the way it is perceived by others becomes distorted as well.  Purposely distorting images of Islam, or any religion, leads to catastrophe.

Muhammad’s achieved victory through non-violent policies.  Islam opposes coercion in religious matters.  The religion is meant to be tolerant and inclusive. 

Birth of Islam:

Trade with surrounding countries made the Arabic world wealthy during the 7th century.  The problem was that the conquest for wealth, caused some tribal values to be lost.  Rather than take care of vulnerable members of a tribe as the Nomadic code prescribed, money was being made at the expense of tribe’s poorer family groupings, or clans. 

During this time, Muhammad had seizures in which Muhammad felt an overpowering presence, and heard what would become a new Arab scripture.  Although more revelation came, Muhammad initially did not share these experiences openly.  Only shared them share them with very close family members. 

Earliest converts came from the poorer clans, as they did not approve of the new inequity.  What Muhammad explained was that the inequity and lack of respect for vulnerable was a contradiction with the laws of existence.  Muhammad had understood social problems and needs, and tried to find a solution that was politically viable and spiritually illuminating.  Old religion was not working as evident by a spiritual dearth, chronic and destructive warfare, and injustices that violated traditions.

Muhammad did not create new doctrines, nor was intent on creating a new religion.  What the movement was about is bringing the old faith to Arabs, who never had a prophet before.  Muhammad recognized the legitimately valid revelations that Jews, and Christians already received.  Muhammad did what other prophets and reformers did during the Axial Age, use former rituals. 

Quran means recitation, and Islam means surrender.  Being Muslim means complete submission to Allah, and Allah’s demands for humans to act with justice, equity, and compassion.  With salat, a ritual prayer done three time a day.  Prostrations designed to humble, and consider inclusivity.  Jihad is the effort given to living the way Allah intended.  Coercion was not permissible in matters of faith.  Muslims are not supposed to persecute others to accept Islam.

Social justice was central to Islam.  Muslims were tasks with building a community, called ummah, in which the members acted with practical compassion and equitable distribution of wealth.  Members within an ummah could not could not attack one another, no matter which religious faith they belonged to.  Not only could members of an ummah not attack each other, they had to provide each other protection.  Such accords brought an end to cycles of tribal warfare and recrimination.  Brining about peace before the Prophet’s death in 632.

Within the Quran, men and women are partners.  Provided women with many institutions such as inheritance and divorce, centuries before the West.  Certain customs came about a few generations after the Prophet, such as forcing all women to veil themselves, or be secluded in different parts of the house.  Polygamy was permitted because the wars killed many men, and left women without protectors. 

Early Politics, And Recent:

As Muhammad’s clan gained increasing political power, it caused others to try and limit the rise.  Converts to Islam were treated poorly.  For two years, there was a ban on trading with Muslims.  

Muhammad had later become leader of a collection of tribal groups.  The tribes were not bound by blood, but shared ideology.  An innovation within the society.  Nobody was forced to convert to Islam. 

Early on Muhammad worked closely with Jewish tribes, and tried to align some practices of Islam to be closer to Judaism.  Muhammad’s greatest disappointment was when the Jews of Medina did not accept Muhammad as an authentic prophet.  Within Judaism, the era of prophecy was over, so could not accept another prophet.

Although there were incidents that caused conflict between Jews and Muslims, the hatred of Jews is a 20th century development after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.  During the 20th century, Muslims imported anti-Jewish myths from Europe, as they did not have these traditions.  Many anti-Jewish sentiments are distortion of complex events, with distorted verses from the Quran.  The Prophet did not have hatred of Judaism.


After Prophet Muhammad’s death, there was a problem with succession.  As they were a tribal people, they questioned whether or not there should be a state.  What kind of form the ummah should take.  Some wanted unity, but disagreed on whom should lead. 

There were those trying to break away from the ummah, and wanted their former independence.  There was a war of riddha (apostasy), to realign them.  This was not a wide spread religious defection, as it was a political and economic revolt.  Some did not have much ties to Muhammad’s region.  Others thought their pact was only with Muhammad, not Muhammad successors. 

What the tribes recognized that they did not want the chaotic state before Islam, an era plagued by raiding and feuding.  That energy could be directed towards common activities, which would be a better path.  They accepted an ummah that was preserved by an outwardly directed offensive, against non-Muslim communities.  Although the tribes were egalitarian and disapproved of monarchy, they did accept a chief during military campaigns or journeys.

The campaigns were not religious, but for practical purposes.  To preserve the unity of the ummah.  There was no divine mandate to conquer the world.  The campaigns were not initially directed to Western Christendom, for that region did not have many opportunities to trade, or booty to obtain.

Those who lived in the empire became dhimmis (protected subjects).  Dhimmis did not need to change their faith, nor could they be raided or attacked.  Dhimmis paid a tax in return for military and judicial protection.   

The views on what it meant to follow the Quran had become divergent.  Even when Ali’s submitted to the results of an arbitration, the act was not accepted by radical supporters.  The lack of succession and appropriate behavior caused civil wars, in which many devout leaders (imams) were killed.  Those who attained power, tended to massacre many who did not share their views or tribal ethnicity.

Some groups such as the Usulis did not think ordinary Muslims were capable of interpreting basic principles of the faith.  So they sought out learned ulama, who would provide justice and authority.

Empires of Islam:

By mid-10th century, the caliphs became symbolic authority, for real power resided with local rulers.  Local rulers established dynasties within various parts of the empire.  Some local powers developed an educational system.  Islam began to thrive even without government support. 

Islamic empires were under threat from the Mongol expansion.  The Mongol’s did not have a spiritual movement, although tended towards Buddhism.  Mongol policy was to build on local traditions of the subjugated area.  By the early 14th century, the four Mongol empires converted to Islam.  Mongols became the main Muslim power.  Mongol ideology of the state was glorified imperial and military might.  A dream of world conquest.  The state was run on military hierarchies. 

After the Mongol Empire, Islam’s power then shifted to new empires in India, Azerbaijan, and Anatolia. 

The Ottoman Empire was able to establish a government in which different religions could peacefully coexist.  The empire was a collection of communities.  As military disciple weakened, the sultans could not wield absolute power.  Economic problems led to corruption and tax abuse.  Inequity was the norm.  Trade declined due to an inability to compete with others. 



As the book covers a vast amount of history, certain eras did not get much detail.  The book introduces many of the peoples and empires that were influenced by and influenced the practice of Islam, but to understand each would require more research. 

Sometimes there is a deterministic account of history, such as an inevitable fall of agrarian societies.  Even societies that are primarily agrarian, possess various other aspects which influences their ability to survive and adept to different situations.

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•Is religion and politics intertwined?
•What is Islam?  What are some of Islam’s social functions?  How does the religion approach others?
•What kind of community does Islam want to inspire?
•Who is Prophet Muhammad?
•What changes in the Arab world inspired Prophet Muhammad?
•What happened after Prophet Muhammad?
•What is the purpose of religion?
•Why secularize religion from state affairs?
•Why does fundamentalism develop?
•What impact did Islam have on tribal politics?
•How are men and women treated in the Quran?
•What are some events that happened during the rise of Islam?  What did Prophet Muhammad have to deal with?
•What was Prophet Muhammad trying to do with the scriptures?
•Why did some tribes want to break away after Prophet Muhammad’s death?
•What happened to those within the Islamic Empire who did not share the Islamic faith?
•What happened to the caliphs authority over time?
•How did the Mongol Empires influence Islam?  How did Islam influence the Mongol Empires?
•How did the Ottoman Empire govern its members?
•What other peoples held Islam as their religion? 

Book Details
Publisher:         Modern Library [Random House]
Edition ISBN:  9780812966183
Pages to read:   215
Publication:     2000
1st Edition:      2002
Format:            Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           4