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“Islam, A Short History” by Karen Armstrong Essay (Book Review)


No faith in contemporary society is as feared and misconceived as Islam. It covers the general view as an extreme religion that supports terrorism, authoritarian leadership, gender imbalance, and civil war. In a fundamental review of this short story of Islam and condensing years of thoughts and writing about the issue, Karen Armstrong demonstrates that the world’s fastest-growing faith is a much more complex phenomenon than its modern fundamentalist strain might suggest.

Karen Armstrong writes that the depiction of Islam as a violent, backward, and closed tradition should come to a conclusion. She goes deep into Islamic history and draws the mark of Islamic story that started with the stirred revelation in an Arab businessperson called Muhammad.

Muhammad identifies with the poor, whom society left in the process of modernization. These acts set the pace for the story of a religious faith that values society as a manifestation of God.

Armstrong demonstrates political and religious history of the Muslim world, starting with the Koran revelation to Muhammad in 610 AD through to the present days. She covers the early Muslim leaders of the 7th century and the first trial, which brought civil war in the Arab states. She discusses modern democracy of the western world and its influence on Islamic faith. Finally, Armstrong talks of Muslim fundamentalism, not as a problem of Islamic faith alone, but as a world phenomenon.

Development and culmination

During the development of Islamic religion, Islamic faith experienced divisions among the Shiites, Sufis and Sunnis. The divisions can be attributed to the fact that religious leaders of the time experienced worldly changes, which consumed them just like politicians. Armstrong notes that this power struggle is an abuse of a sacred ideal. Religion is not about power struggle. Muslim faith passed a period of transition.

During the period of Abbasid in 9th century, the Muslims used their religion to adapt to numerous political changes that finally brought down the caliphate and ushered in the Sunni Iranian dynasty. Armstrong notes another significant development in the 14th century was when Muslims subjugated to the Mongols. This prepared the Muslims for the imperial rule of the Ottoman Empire, and finally the arrival of Western powers (Armstrong 41).

Armstrong writes that the faith of Islam main duty is to create a just society where all members experience equal treatment and respect. History had negative effects on Islamic faith. Muslim religion had its own rituals, philosophy, laws, mysticism, laws, shrine and sacred writings just like any other religion. Political well-being of Muslims is fundamental.

They expected their states to measure up to the ideals of Quran. Muslims visualized their faith to be in jeopardy and of no ultimate life’s purpose if their leaders were cruel, and if faithfuls faced threats from irreligious enemies. They had to struggle to put their religion back on order, or else the whole faith would lose meaning.

Armstrong shows that Muslims value their history and their key characteristics are the preservation of past events. The historical events of the community such as assassinations, invasions, wars and power struggles among the leaders became part of the Islamic search and vision (Armstrong 50).

The modern democracies of the Western world

Armstrong shows the effects of modern democracies of the West on Islamic faith from the time of colonialism to present. The short history also captures the ideological differences of what constitutes an ideal democracy. Colonialism reduced Islamic faith to depend on their powers. Muslims experienced contempt of the colonizers, who their modern ethos consumed.

Colonialists could only see Islam as an inefficient, backward, fatal and corrupt society. The colonialists’ ethnocentric views did not give them the opportunity to notice that Islamic states were emerging from agrarian periods. This treatment bred hate. Armstrong noticed the fact that Muslims often felt rage and hostility for their culture.

She further points that Muslim nations cannot come to modernity as smoothly as other state like Japan, which never experienced colonization (Armstrong 141). This is because their institutions and economy remained intact since there was no dependency on the Western world for guidance.

It is a general fact that Muslims have not yet got suitable political systems to present times. This does not apply that Muslims are unable to coexist with modernity. Armstrong’s short story shows that Islamic searches for ideal polities and suitable leaders have remained matters of concern for Muslims throughout their history.

Religious life has become difficult in the modern world, and secular effects of the modernity present serious problems for all leading religions of the world. The search for a modern Muslim state also experiences dilemma. Therefore, Islam has to use its traditions to address the challenges posed by modernity and look for an ideal leadership, which becomes essential and typical of any religious activity.

Muslim fundamentalism

Armstrong looks keenly at the issue of fundamentalism. She notes that Western media have always portrayed the violent and radical form of religion (fundamentalism) as entirely as a creation Islam. However, she notes that fundamentalism is a world affair, which all leading religions of the world have experienced in response to issues of modernity.

Fundamentalism never occurs accidentally and only takes its shape when modernity process has advanced in stage. Religious leaders take their time to merge the two, but if they are incompatible, some believers turn to extreme measures resulting in fundamentalism movement. Armstrong clarifies that fundamentalism movements first occurred in the United States and later spread to other parts of the world (Armstrong 164).

According to Armstrong, fundamentalism reflects the failed promises of modernity and fear. The movement sees secular ways as threats to religion. Therefore, fundamentalism struggles to restore the conventional and traditional ways. Muslim fundamentalists disagree with other Muslims who positively embrace modernity.

Fundamentalist initial action is withdrawing from the mainstream culture. It is vital to note that fundamentalists believe that they are fighting to survive. Under the guidance of such mindset, some elements resort to terrorism, while others try to restore their religion by lawful ways.

Armstrong gives fundamentalists credit in their attempts to bring sense to religious bodies. This way, religious bodies have taken frontline in contribution to international affairs more so to check on the excesses of secularism. Armstrong does not look at fundamentalism as a political force rather she sees it as a way to restore normalcy and spiritual values in the modern world.

At the same time, she recognizes the fact that the radical natures of fundamentalism movements tend to distort the religious aspects of tolerance and reconciliation. Armstrong takes into account the fact that Muslims in the United States acquired education and have professional jobs, whereas their counterparts in Europe have not progressed much.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library Publishers, 2002. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "“Islam, A Short History” by Karen Armstrong." December 7, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/islam-a-short-history-by-karen-armstrong/.


IvyPanda. (2019) '“Islam, A Short History” by Karen Armstrong'. 7 December.

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