Synopses & Reviews
No religion in the modern world is as feared and misunderstood as Islam. It haunts the popular Western imagination as an extreme faith that promotes authoritarian government, female oppression, civil war, and terrorism. Karen Armstrong's short history offers a vital corrective to this narrow view. The distillation of years of thinking and writing about Islam, it demonstrates that the world's fastest-growing faith is a much richer and more complex phenomenon than its modern fundamentalist strain might suggest.
Islam: A Short History begins with the flight of Muhammad and his family from Medina in the seventh century and the subsequent founding of the first mosques. It recounts the origins of the split between Shii and Sunni Muslims, and the emergence of Sufi mysticism; the spread of Islam throughout North Africa, the Levant, and Asia; the shattering effect on the Muslim world of the Crusades; the flowering of imperial Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries into the world's greatest and most sophisticated power; and the origins and impact of revolutionary Islam. It concludes with an assessment of Islam today and its challenges.
With this brilliant book, Karen Armstrong issues a forceful challenge to those who hold the view that the West and Islam are civilizations set on a collision course. It is also a model of authority, elegance, and economy.
About the Author
Karen Armstrong is one of the world’s foremost scholars on religious affairs. She is the author of a number of bestselling books, including The Battle for God, Buddha, Jerusalem, A History of God, and Through the Narrow Gate, a memoir of her seven years as a nun. She lives in London.
Reading Group Guide
1. In Karen Armstrongs view, what is the historical mission of Islam? What is the chief duty of Muslims according to the Quran? What is the Islamic notion of salvation?
2. What are the five pillars of Islam? Does Islam place more emphasis on right living or right belief? The community or the individual? In these ways, is it more similar to Christianity or Judaism?
3. At the time of Muhammed, what was the attitude of Islam toward other prophets and religious traditions? How were non-Muslim subjects, or dhimmi, treated in the Islamic empire? How does that treatment compare to what went on in the premodern West?
4. Is Islam a militaristic faith? What does the Quran have to say about just and unjust wars? Given the context of his times, did Muhammed set a particularly violent or nonviolent example?
5. What does the Quran teach about the importance of converting people of other faiths? Does Islam condone coerced conversion? How does its theological stance on conversion compare to the teachings and practices of the other major world religions?
6. What does the Quran have to say about the place of women? How forward or backward-thinking was Muhammeds treatment of women for his time? What accounts for the persistence of a practice such as female veiling in the modern-day Muslim world?
7. What are the differences between Sunni and Shii Muslims? What were the origins of this split within Islam? Did it have theological underpinnings or was it merely politically motivated?
8. What is the primary meaning of the word jihad? Explain its significance in Islam. How did Muhammed understand it? How do some modern-day fundamentalists understand it?
9. What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalism? How does Islamic fundamentalism compare to fundamentalist movements in other faiths? Are there certain of its precepts that make Islam more prone to religious fanaticism? What historical factors have contributed to anti-Western fundamentalism in Islam?
10. What have been some of the successes and failures of modern-day Islamic nation building? What particular challenges do postcolonial Islamic states face? What has been a common problem with the way secularism has been imposed in the Muslim world?
11. What are some of the greatest challenges facing the Islamic faith today?
12. What are the most common misperceptions about Islam and the Muslim world in the West?