With many generalized works having been written over the years on history, culture, religion and other related fields, why should one single out any one single short volume on Islam as being especially worthy of an abstract? The fact is that Karen Armstrong has a well-established reputation as being especially capable in distilling large amounts of abstruse and abstract scholarship and making them both comprehendible and stimulating to the lay reader. Her books have been readily available in many bookshops, including those located in smaller communities far from huge university libraries. Her book on Islam, released during the trying times of post 9/11, when many of us were seeking to better understand Islam and sift out the reasons for terrorism, is a valuable addition to the Modern Library series, that has decades of tradition in making culture available to the ordinary citizen at reasonable prices.
The work covers the history of the faith from the time of Muhammed to the present. It discusses the background of Arabia before the Prophet, and explains why Islam became successful, both among the Arabs, and then among conquered peoples of Byzantium and Persia who earlier had been either eastern Christians or Zoroastrians. It perceptively analyzes the culture of Islam during its medieval zenith, and discusses the effects both of the western Crusades and the Mongol invasions from the east. Armstrong discusses the revival of Islam under the Ottoman Turks and then a renewed onslaught of Western imperialism beginning with Napoleon and culminating with the protectorates established after World War I. It concludes with a review of contemporary Islam, its problems and frustrations, and suggests the deeper reasons why some Muslims are beguiled into violent extremism, deviating from the main principles of a faith that is essentially benign, moderate and tolerant.
There is a danger, in a one-volume work, of being too superficial, and it is possible to treat Islam too superficially. However, Armstrong’s book, although concise, shows great depth of understanding of Islamic thought and culture, and it is a handy tool for someone wishing to gain basic understanding of such issues as the differences among the sects of Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite, medieval Islamic law, philosophy and science and how they influenced Europe, mystic Sufism and the subtle reasons why Islam fell behind the West, becoming a victim of both economic and cultural imperialism.
A large variety of Arabic terms are explained, both in the text and in a glossary at the end. Also useful for quick reference is a timeline placed at the beginning and then a biographical listing of important persons in the history of the culture. The bibliography is categorized according to the major headings used by the author in the body of the text. Karen Armstrong’s ‘Islam’ is a valuable little reference in helping Westerners understand Islam, and veer away from the great error of seeing a ‘clash of civilizations’ in our modern world, or in believing Islam to be little more than a spawning ground for anti-democratic terrorism.