What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Sunday, November 24, 2002
What I Finished Reading Today:
Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong
I got this book for Christmas last year, but it wasn't until I read another Armstrong book, The Battle for God, recently that I was finally inspired to pick up this one and read it, too. After reading Battle, and learning about the history of fundamentalism in the world's three major religions, I was definitely primed to learn a bit more about the history of Islam, and to read more of Armstrong's insightful religious history and analysis. Also, while I learned a lot from The Battle for God, much of the Islamic history (especially names, dates and specific terminology) didn't stick with me in great detail because I was so unfamiliar with it going in, and because I was reading mostly to glean an overview of religious history, with an eye toward fundamentalist movements within it...and not aiming to pass a quiz on historical names and dates in any one religion. Reading Isalm, however, I was hoping to reinforce what I'd learned from the other book, and to more firmly cement in my brain a few historical details about this particular religion.
As you might expect with the history of any religion, it wasn't too surprising to learn that the history of Islam is full of major reinterpretations and turning points, during which the focus and goals of its followers changed significantly. What I was a bit surprised to learn, however, is that, at least in the very beginning, Islam, far more so than either Christianity or Judiasm, was an extremely tolerant belief system. In fact, while the Quran advocated monotheism, the big, new idea in religion at the time (which was also espoused by Christianity and Judiasm), it definitely did not in any way try to state that "the Muslim god is the one true god" or "you must believe in Islam for salvation." Instead, the Quran insisted that its "one" god was the same as the "one" god of the other faiths, which meant that each of them was truly a divinely revealed faith, revealing many of the same essential truths. In fact, the Quran instructed Muslims against religious coercion of any sort, and insisted that all the major monotheistic religions were equally legitimate. And it wasn't until later in history, when various Islamic leaders and groups began to fear that both their own religion and others had strayed too far from Islam's original principles, that various splinter groups began to claim they were the only true followers of god or proper religious principles, and that groups or individuals who did not share their beliefs were infidels.
I also learned that the Quran also contains very adamant prohibitions of things like violence and murder, and although founding prophet Muhammad, in the custom of the day, did have several wives, he also fought hard for the emancipation and empowerment of women (he legalized divorce and female inheritance centuries before other cultures). Also, while the Quran does speak a bit about the veiling of the some of the prophet's wives under certain circumstances, it makes no requirement that all women be veiled at all times (this is a much more recent decree, by Muslim societies and groups aiming to create a more particularly Muslim identity and distinguish themselves from the rest of the modern world).
Of course, after Muhammad's death, the squabbling and splintering began, and there are still splits within the Muslim world between followers who argue over which of Muhammad's colleagues really carried on the true spirit of the religion after his death. Shii Muslims, for example, believe that Ali, Muhammad's closest male relative and husband of one of Muhammad's daughters, was the true heir of the faith and should have been chosen to lead the religion after Muhammad's death...while Sunni Muslims revere the Rashidun, four companions of Muhammad's who were his immediate and official successors (Sunnis are the majority of today's Muslims).
After going on to explain other splinterings over the centuries and major developments such as the creation of the Shariah (the set of laws that govern Islam) and Islam's pre-18th century spread of power across the globe, Armstrong goes on to do a terrific job of describing how these very powerful nations also quickly declined after the west began its great wave of modernization in the 16th century...and the problems modernization created within the Muslim world.
Armstrong ends the book with a look at the rise of fundamentalism in Islam, which is sort of a capsule version of the themes she expands on in much greater detail in The Battle for God (e.g. the idea that fundamentalist movements are a wholly modern phenomenon in which groups who have come to fear modernization and its increasingly secular deveopments call for a return to more pre-modern ideals and ways of life). This final section would definitely be a good introduction to her theories for those who haven't read Battle, and a good review for people who have.
In short, I learned a lot from this book, and I think anyone who hasn't been exposed to the history of Islam, but is aware of world events and the extent to which Islam is currently a major player on the world stage, would find it both useful and enlightening. And it has definitely maintained my interest in both Armstrong and her writings -- to the point that I'm now hoping to read at least two of her other books, The History of God, (another all-encompassing look at the developments of Christianity, Judiasm and Islam) and Through the Narrow Gate, which describes her own experiences as a Catholic nun who eventually left the convent. Both of these will definitely appear on my Christmas list this year.