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A Short History of Islam – Karen Armstrong

August 6, 2018

ASHOI 2No religion in the modern world is as feared and misunderstood as Islam. It haunts the popular imagination as an extreme faith that promotes terrorism, authoritarian government, female oppression, and civil war. In a vital revision of this narrow view of Islam and a distillation of years of thinking and writing about the subject, Karen Armstrong’s short history demonstrates that the world’s fastest-growing faith is a much more complex phenomenon than its modern fundamentalist strain might suggest.

She demonstrates that for much of its history, the religion has been a force for enlightenment that promoted liberties for women and allowed the arts and sciences to flourish. She also shows how this progressive legacy is today often set aside as the faith struggles to come to terms with the economic and political weakness of most of its believers and with the forces of modernity itself.

About 1/9th of my degree was in Islamic Studies so I sort of knew much of the material but it served as useful revision.

She debunks the notion that ‘Islam was spread by the sword’ – the Muslim forces usually were garrisoned in separate, new cities to minimize contact between them and the local people.

The index is inadequate.


Beginnings surveys the life and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632) and the foundations of the Muslim ummah, or community of believers. Spiritual visionary, businessman, family man, military commander and statesman, Muhammad was an Arab prophet with a universal message. As the bedrock of Islamic piety and practice, the sacred book revealed to him, the Quran, teaches unity, equality, social justice and faith in the One God, Allah. In 622, Muhammad and his followers left their homes in Mecca to proclaim their own community of faith in the city of Medina. This pivotal event, the hijrah, marks the start of the Muslim era. From these humble beginnings, Islam spread with astonishing speed throughout the Arabian peninsula and into the lands of the moribund empires of Byzantium and Persia under the guidance of the rashidun, the four “rightly guided” successors to the Prophet: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. After Muhammad’s death, however, leadership of the rapidly expanding Islamic empire was hotly contested. With the murder of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, in 661, the ummah plunged into a period of civil war (fitnah). As Islam moved onto the world stage, factional struggles over the mantle of religious authenticity and political authority continued, creating a schism that persists even today.


Development explores the consolidation of the Islamic empire, the rise of absolute monarchies and the codification of religious orthodoxy. The Umayyad dynasty (661-750) with its capital in Damascus restored order and expanded Muslim power, but it also exacerbated internal sectarian divisions. For Shii Muslims, the massacre of the Prophet’s grandson, Husain, and his family on the plain of Kerbala in 680 became an enduring symbol of betrayal and injustice. Umayyad power was soon eclipsed by the meteoric rise of Abbasid dynasty (750-1258) which reached its zenith under the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786-809). From his magnificent capital in Baghdad, the Caliph oversaw a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Challenging the political monopoly of the Caliphate, Muslim scholars (ulama) actively debated the parameters of piety and politics, eventually forming a distinct class. As the arbiters of religious orthodoxy, the ulama codified a religious law (Shariah) grounded on the Quran and hadith, the traditions about the Prophet Muhammad. At the same time, other groups pursued more esoteric forms of knowledge: from the Jafari madhhab (school of law) of the Twelver Shiis, to the rationalist philosophers of falsafah and the mystical orders of the Sufis. All told, it was a time of remarkable intellectual and cultural efflorescence.


Culmination examines the dissolution of Abbasid hegemony, and the rise of local military rulers (amirs). While the Caliphs maintained important symbolic authority, a host of regional powers–the Shii Fatimid dynasty in North Africa, the Ghaznavids in eastern Iran and northern India, the Seljuk Empire in the Fertile Crescent–established autonomous dynasties. Amid these centrifugal forces, it was the ulama who held these scattered military regimes together. With the founding of the prestigious Nizamiyyah madrasah (college for the study of Islamic sciences) in 1067, the Seljuks cemented the independent power of the ulama. At the same time, Sufi brotherhoods (tariqahs) gained widespread popular support. The synthesis of Sufism and Sharia is embodied in the figure of the famous scholar, Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali (d. 1111). At the height of this period of cultural fermentation, foreign invaders appeared on the horizon. In July 1099, the Christian Crusaders from Western Europe attacked Jerusalem, sending shockwaves throughout Islamdom. In the thirteenth century, a far more dangerous threat came from the east as the Mongol chieftain Genghis Khan unleashed his war machine on Muslim lands in a quest for world domination. Muslim responses to the widespread devastation were varied: from the ecstatic mysticism of the Persian Sufi Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273), to the conservative reformism of Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328).


Islam Triumphant focuses on the return of absolute monarchy under three Islamic gunpowder empires: the Safavids, Moghals and Ottomans. In Iran, Shah Abbas I (d. 1629) transformed the Safavids from a fledging Sufi order into a powerful Shii state, suppressing the Sufi tariqahs and decimating the ulama in a concerted struggle (jihad) against Sunni Islam. From their majestic capital in Isfahan, the Safavids expanded their empire while patronizing artists and scholars. The mystical philosopher, Mulla Sadra (d. 1640) embodied the ethos of the age, calling for the unity of political reform and spirituality. In South Asia, the Moghals ruled an efficient and expansive dynasty within the heartland of Hinduism. Under Akbar (d. 1605), a unique cultural synthesis produced novel institutions and glorious architectural monuments. Conservative scholars like Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1625), however, condemned Akbar’s universalism and called for a return to the dictates of Shariah–a reformist zeal that was transformed into state ideology during the reign of Aurengzebe (d. 1707). At its height, the Ottoman Empire stretched from the Fertile Crescent to the doorstep of Europe. From the capital of Istanbul, Suleiman the Magnificent (d. 1666) expanded the Ottoman borders, bolstered by a vast ulama bureaucracy and a highly efficient army led by an elite corps of slave soldiers, the Janissaries. Centralized, bureaucratized and militarized, the age of Imperial Islam (16th-18th century) marked the apex of Muslim political power, sanctioned by Shariah.


Islam Agonistes considers the profound impact of colonization and, along with it, the ideology and institutions of modernity on the Muslim world. Technologically advanced and militarily superior, the West’s ambitions presented a new and unprecedented challenge to Islam. In the face of European hegemony, Muslims turned inward, reflecting on their own history for answers to this crisis of identity. The ulama, for the most part, became increasingly insular, falling back on their traditions of piety and learning even as they were stripped of power and prestige. Others, however, argued that the times demanded a more proactive response. Inspired by the outspoken Iranian activist, Jamal al-Din al Afghani (d. 1897), the Egyptian thinkers Muhammad Abdu (d. 1905) and Rashid Rida (d. 1935) called for the modernization of Islamic educational, political and legal institutions. Islamic fundamentalism (usuliyyah), by contrast, viewed the West as morally bankrupt, the abode of barbarism and ignorance (jahiliyya). From the Sunni ideologues Mawdudi (d. 1941) and Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966) to the Shii revolutionary leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989), fundamentalists resisted the secularist exclusion of the divine from public life. Rejecting nationalism, they called for the strict implementation of Shariah and the creation of an Islamic state. During their short-lived reign in Afghanistan, the Taliban embraced an extremist version of this activist ideology.


9/11, 2001 may prove to be the defining event for today’s generation of students, and quite possibly for tomorrow’s as well. Its legacy is likely to permanently reconfigure the geo-political landscape, alter global security arrangements, redefine foreign policy, and test society’s commitment to freedom and civil liberties. Since 9/11, Islam has fallen under an intense and unrelenting mass media spotlight. With rare exception, the modern Muslim world is portrayed as a fossilized monolith: Arab, patriarchal, rigid, militant and utterly at odds with modernity. In the eyes of many, Islam and the West are on a perilous collision course. The Postscript critiques these prevalent misconceptions while raising serious questions about the consequences of 9/11 for all of us. Across the globe, the vast majority of Muslims have responded to the September apocalypse with horror and disgust. The terrorist attacks carried out by the radical followers of Osama bin Laden are seen as a violation of the most sacred tenets of the faith. In the wake of 9/11 the challenge now for Muslims and non-Muslims alike is to search for common ground. In this global age of shrinking boundaries we must foster mutual understanding and open dialogue if we are to avoid a future of endemic bigotry, injustice and violence.

In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Quran, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God’s will. A Muslim had to redeem history, and that meant that state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself. The political wellbeing of the Muslim community was a matter of supreme importance.  Like any religious ideal, it was almost impossibly difficult to implement in the flawed and tragic conditions of history, but after each failure Muslims had to get up and begin again.

Muslims developed their own rituals, mysticism, philosophy, doctrines, sacred texts, laws and shrines like everybody else. But all these religious pursuits sprang directly from the Muslims’ frequently anguished contemplation of the political current affairs of Islamic society. If state institutions did not measure up to the Quranic ideal, if their political leaders were cruel or exploitative, or if their community was humiliated by apparently irreligious enemies, a Muslim could feel that his or her faith in life’s ultimate purpose and value was in jeopardy. Every effort had to be expended to put Islamic history back on track, or the whole religious enterprise would fall, and life would be drained of meaning. Politics was, therefore, what Christians would call a sacrament: it was the arena in which Muslims experienced God and which enabled the divine to function effectively in the world. Consequently, the historical trials and tribulations of the Muslim community– political assassinations, civil wars, invasions, and the rise and fall of the ruling dynasties-were not divorced from the interior religious quest, but were of the essence of the Islamic vision. A Muslim would meditate upon the current events of their time and upon past history as a Christian would contemplate an icon, using the creative imagination to discover the hidden divine kernel. An account of the external history of the Muslim people cannot, therefore be of mere secondary interest, since one of the chief characteristics of Islam has been its sacralization of history.

Social justice was…the crucial virtue of Islam.  Muslims were commanded as their first duty to build a community (ummah) characterized by practical compassion, in which there was a fair distribution of wealth.  This was far more important than any doctrinal teaching about God.  In fact the Quran has a negative view of theological speculation, which it calls zannah, self-indulgent whimsy about ineffable matters that nobody can ascertain one way or the other.  It seemed pointless to argue about such abstruse dogmas; far more crucial was the effort (jihad) to live in the way that God had intended for human beings.  The political and social welfare of the ummah would have sacramental value for Muslims.  If the ummah prospered, it was a sign that Muslims were livng according to God’s will, and the experience of living in a truly islamic community, which made this existential surrender to the divine, would give Muslims intimations of sacred transcendence.  Consequently, they would be affected as profoundly by any misfortune or humiliation suffered by the ummah as Christians by the spectacle of somebody blasphemously trampling on the Bible or ripping the    Eucharistic host apart. ”religious creatures because they are imaginative” and are therefore ”compelled to search for hidden meaning and to achieve an ecstasy that makes them feel fully alive.”

ASOIMuslims ”have looked for God in history”; their ”chief duty was to create a just community.”

For the adherents of Islam, politics ”was, therefore, what Christians would call a sacrament: it was the arena in which Muslims experienced God.”

Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God’s will.

“When resources were limited, it was impossible to encourage inventiveness and originality in the way that we do today in the modern west”.

“we must realize that democracy is [only] made possible by an industrialized society which has the technology to replicate it’s resources indefinitely”.

” It was probably during the riddah wars that muslims began to assert that Muhammad had been the last and greatest of prophets, a claim that is not made explicitely in the Quran”.

“On the eve of the second Christian millennium, the Crusaders massacred some thirty thousand Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem.”

Malcolm X “became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam … when he discovered the moral laxity of Elijah Muhammad.”

” … the opposition grew, led by Abu al-Hakam (who is called Abu Jahl, “Father of Lies,” in the Quran), …”

Islamic tradition would later assert that there had been 124,000 such prophets, a symbolic number suggesting infinity.”

“On one occasion his most intelligent wife,Umm Salamah, helped to prevent a mutiny.”

“The Quran prescribes some degree of segregation and veiling for the Prophet’s wives, but there is nothing in the Quran that requires the veiling of all women or their seclusion in a separate part of the house. These customs were adopted some three or four generations after the Prophet’s death. Muslims at that time were copying the Greek Christians of Byzantium, who had long veiled and segregated their women in this manner; they also appropriated some of their Christian misogyny.”

“There was also spiritual restlessness in Mecca and throughout the peninsula” and feeling of being left out of the divine plan

“In purely secular terms, we could say that Muhammad had perceived the great problems confronting his people at a deeper level than most of his contemporaries, and that as he “listened” to events, he had to delve deeply and painfully into his inner being to find a solution that was not only politically viable but spiritually illuminating. He was also creating a new literary form and a masterpiece of Arab prose and poetry.”

Muhammad had been greatly excited by the prospect of working closely with the Jewish tribes, and had even, shortly before the hijrah, introduced some practices (such as communal prayer on Friday afternoons, when Jews would be preparing for the Sabbath, and a fast on the Jewish Day of Atonement) to align Islam more closely with Judaism.

But some of the Jews in the smaller clans were friendly and enhanced Muhammad’s knowledge of Jewish scripture. He was especially delighted to hear that in the Book of Genesis Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael (who became Ismail in Arabic), the child of his concubine Hagar …. This was music to Muhammad’s ears.

The Western media often give the impression that the embattled and occasionally violent form of religiosity known as “fundamentalism” is a purely Islamic phenomenon. This is not the case. Fundamentalism is a global fact and has surfaced in every major faith in response to the problems of out modernity. There is fundamentalist Judaism, fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Hinduism, fundamentalist Buddhism, fundamentalist Sikhism, and even fundamentalist Confucianism.

Muhammad was one of those rare men who truly enjoy the company women. Some of his male companions were astonished by his leniency towards his wives and the way they stood up to him and answered him back. Muhammad scrupulously helped with the chores, mended his own clothes and sought out the companionship of his wives.

Muhammad became the archetypal example of that perfect submission to the divine, and Muslims, as we shall see, would attempt to conform to this standard in their spiritual and social lives. Muhammad was never venerated as a divine figure, but he was held to be the Perfect Man. His surrender to God had been so complete that he had transformed society and enabled the Arabs to live together in harmony. The world Islam is etymologically related to salam (peace), and in these early years Islam did promote cohesion and concord.

The “core teaching” of the Koran being that it was wrong to build private fortune,

“but good to share wealth and create a society where the weak and the vulnerable were treated with respect.”

Social Justice was the “crucial virtue of Islam.”

Hence Muhammad never asked Jews or Christians to accept Islam, unless they particularly wished to do so…

Anti-semitism is a Christian vice. Hatred of the Jews became marked in the Muslim world only after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent loss of Arab Palestine

..Muhammad took Mecca without shedding a drop of blood.

Of the three monotheistic religions, Islam was in fact the last to develop a fundamentalist strain, when modern culture began to take root in the Muslim world in the 1960s and 1970s. By this date, fundamentalism was quite established among Christians and Jews, who had had a longer expossure to the modern experience.

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