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Review: “Islam: A Short History” by Karen Armstrong

In her book Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong seeks to untangle the tumultuous history of Islam through time. It accounts for all the historical development of Islam, documenting the rise, development, and challenges posed by its growth.

In doing so, it seeks to dispel the misconceptions about Islam and Muslims prevailing in our times. As a keen observer of religious history, Armstrong’s book on Islam is concise and easy to understand.

Armstrong’s book consists of five chapters, each chronicling how Islam developed over the years—beginning with the life of Prophet Muhammad (570-632) and the foundational ideas of the Muslim ummah (community of believers).

As a businessman and a family man, Muhammad became a prophet, revealed to him by God in verses of the Quran, with the universal message of teaching equality and social justice. This book moves back and forth, discussing how ideas of equality and justice are tweaked to accommodate social conditions at different times.

Guided by Allah, the Prophet wanted to bring one true God to the Arabs, who, unlike their predecessors, both Christians and Jews (known as the people of The Book), had believed to have been left out of God’s plans.

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The Kaabah (Kaaba) is located in the Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah (Mecca, Saudi Arabia). This photo was taken during the 2018 Hajj Season. Performing hajj is one of the pillars of Islam and is required once for those who can afford to do it. Here, the hajj pilgrims perform the ‘tawaf’ around the Kaabah. | Photo: Wikimedia

Armstrong writes: “The new sect would eventually be called Islam (surrender); a Muslim was a man or a woman, who had made this submission of their entire being to Allah (God) and his demand that human beings behave to one another with justice, equity and compassion” (p. 5).

Further, she adds that giving a proportion of their income to the people in poverty in alms (known as zakat) and fasting during Ramadan is essential to being a Muslim. And that Muslims were commanded as their first duty to build a community (ummah) characterised by “compassion and fair distribution of wealth”.

In 622, Muhammad and his followers set out to Yathrib (Medina) from Mecca. Known as the hijrah, it marks a pivotal event at the start of the Muslim period. After taking over Mecca from Quraysh without shedding a drop of blood, Muhammad established Islam as the essential religion of the region.

From Muhammad, Islam now shifts towards four Rashidun (the four “rightly guided” successors, caliphs, to the Prophet: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali). However, this period is marked by constant tussles over who is the rightful successor of the ummah. Significant feuds were known as the first and second fitnah (the time of temptation).

Armstrong also meticulously documents intrinsic elements of factions within Islam that were to arise over the years. For Shii Muslims, the massacre of the Prophet’s grandson, Husain and his family on the plains of Kerbala in 680 marks a point of betrayal and injustice. Whereas, for Sunni Muslims, the community of the believers is paramount to experiencing the divine.

Sunni Muslims revere Muhammad and all four Rashiduns. In contrast, Shiis demote the first three Rashiduns as having caused injustice to Ali, who they believe to be the lone legitimate imam of the Umma. There are four schools of Sunni Muslims (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, and Hanbali Schools). And many Shii Muslims believe in Twelve Imams (all descendants of Ali), known as “Twelver Shiah”.

Armstrong also meticulously documents the distinct characteristics of Sufism, a mysticism of Sunni Islam. Sufis, she notes, sought God in the depths of their beings rather than in political and social events. Sufism emerged as a reactionary movement against the growing worldliness and luxury in Muslim society.

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Muslim men reading the Koran in Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sufis believed that ordinary Muslims could receive Muhammad-like revelations of the Quran. Moreover, Sufis clustered around their pirs, who instructed their disciples. Over the years, as it became difficult to hold together the whole ummah, these three sects received allegiance from different political dynasties and caliphates.

Besides the religious developments, Armstrong also discusses how Muslim rule as a political project took shape over the years. She outlines how Islam has significantly spread worldwide since the Mongol rule. Moreover, she looks at how political Islam paved the way for absolute monarchy under three Islamic empires: the Safavids (in Iran), the Mughals (in India), and the Ottomans (in Turkey).

Each of these Muslim kingdoms had different political styles. The Safavid Empire sought to convert the whole of Sunni Muslims into Shii Muslims through oppression. Mughals, however, did not undertake such a task— and Akbar sought his Islam to be inclined to Sufi traditions. In Istanbul, Ottomans sought to create a vast ulama bureaucracy and a highly efficient army sanctioned by Shariah.

In the chapter titled: “Islam Agonistes”, Armstrong brings Islam into modernity. She takes a cue from the ideas of Edward Said’s Orientalism to discuss the development of East and Southeast Asia and the narratives of the West and Europe.

Armstrong discusses Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey, Abd al-Nasser in Egypt, and Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran to look at how each of these regimes sought to reinstitute secularism in a manner antithetical to Islam. They reinforced Western clothing, mannerisms, and lifestyles in their people.

Armstrong presents a discussion on fundamentalism as being prominent in all religions, and it is not merely unique to Islam. She looks at how 9/11 reflected a defining moment in discussions on Islam and about understandings of Islam reconfigured. However, I would have really appreciated a more significant discussion on how women’s clothing evolved over the years in Islamic traditions.

Throughout the work, Armstrong has corrected several stereotypes surrounding Islam and Muslims. In doing so, she has presented a uniquely comprehensive story of Islam through the ages. All in all, she has shown how tensions between tradition and modernity, religion and secularism, and moderation and extremist tendencies are at the centre of the story of Islam.


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Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong

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