Thursday, February 6, 2014

Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong (2000)

Apparently, I'd read this before, but I remembered zilch about it.

Armstrong's book is merely okay.  It's well written, but dryly so.  What annoyed me towards the end was the profusion of Arabic words in italics, some of which had definitions in a glossary in the back, but some which did not.  It was really arbitrary as to which ones did and did not - it seemed like all the words I couldn't remember the definitions for were also the ones that didn't have definitions in the glossary. Murphy's Law at work.

This is most definitely "a short history" :  Islam is a truly enormous subject to squash into 222 pages; 1,404 years of history, tradition, custom, culture, mores, tenets, men and women probably needs 1,404 pages or more to truly to do it justice.  Most of the romance, mystery, intrigue, and personality of the religion was necessarily stripped out to fit into a small book.

Still, even within 222 pages, there were some takeaways.  Mohammed (like Jesus, and probably like all founders of religions) gets a bum wrap from Western thought and religion, but Armstrong (while providing neither hagiography or hatchet job) writes about Mohammed in a respectful and unbiased way.  He sounds like a really neat guy, who had the interests of the poor and downtrodden always in mind.  The social gospel of Islam, something I  was unaware of.  Also, that Islam was a religion of peace, and still predominantly is, and that unbelievers weren't discriminated against but welcome to practice their own religion.  Also, that Islam was and always be a political religion, more interested in government and how it treats those less fortunate. There is no "church" and "state;" the government and religion are the same thing, and attempts to Westernize this concept have failed.  This is way, way oversimplified, I realize, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

This was written prior to September 12, 2001, when the American world (and to some extent, a majority of the world) suddenly changed, prior to Afghanistan, prior to Iraq.  The last chapter has certain hints of things to come, and its interesting to see a pre-9/11 perspective on modern Islam, so close to that fateful event. This is also ten years before the Arab Spring as well, and Syria.  I'd like to know what Karen Armstrong thinks of the last ten years; maybe this book needs an addendum.

Islam: A Short History (Modern Library Chronicles)Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A short history is right and sort of a shame.  1,404 years of history squashed into 222 pages (including index and two glossaries) - its possible to do, but the result isn't much fun.  This is mostly a case of "just the facts, ma'm" with much of the personality and romance of Islam pretty much stripped out.  It's well written, but dryly so - the "wet" of history lies in those personal stories.  One of my biggest complaints about the book, however, was the tremendous amount of Arabic words, italicized, that weren't defined in glossary in the back. What's the point of having a glossary if all the unfamiliar words aren't listed in it?  What was interesting was this is a pre-9/11, pre-Afghani & Iraqi War, pre-Arab Spring and pre-Syrian uprising - but just barely so.  The last chapter hints at things to come; Karen Armstrong isn't a fortune teller, but she did have a good idea at the clash of Islam and the West would continue.  That last chapter was the best; several new chapters could easily be added.

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