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History in Review

Islam: A Short History

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Islam: A Short History. By Karen Armstrong. (Modern Library; Revised Edition: 2002. Pg. 272.) ISBN: 081296618X

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - August 19, 2002

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the world, and it is, perhaps, also one of the most misunderstood. In Islam: A Short History Karen Armstrong has attempted to give the reader a comprehensive, yet brief, overview of Islamic history, from its founding to the modern day.

Beginning in the beginning, this book commences with a brief biography of Muhammad and how the Quran came into being. From there, the text moves onto the actual founding of Islam as a religion and how, and why, the new faith attracted so many followers as quickly as it did. Throughout, the reader will be mesmerized by the numerous battles fought to acquire new followers, a fact that has given rise to the idea, rightly or wrongly, that Islam is a religion that proselytizes by the sword. During some periods, it was not unusual for 'would-be' converts to be given the option of converting to Islam, or dying!

Within the scope of this book, Armstrong discuses the political structures that grew up around Islam, and how religious and secular institutions became interwoven, so that even today there is not 'separation between church and state' in Islamic countries. She also talks about the numerous civil wars and division that erupted within the Islamic community over time, including the fracturing of Islam into two groups, Sunni and Shi'ite.

To help the reader to better follow the history described in this book, Armstrong has included a detailed chronology that outlines the history of Islam. This time line starts in 610, the year Muhammad ibn Abdallah became the conduit through which the Quran was given to the world. The timeline concludes in 1998, the year that a fatwah was levied against Salman Rushdie. Besides this chronology, also included is a list of key figures in Islamic history. Included with this list are short biographical descriptions that help to illustrate what made each person listed such a monumental figure. Most helpful is the inclusion of a glossary of Arabic terms, as well as suggestions for further reading on the subject. This book does not, however, include an index.

Armstrong is well suited to have written this book, in so far that she has written a number of books on religion and the middle east, including a biography of the Prophet Muhammad. Throughout, Armstrong tries to provide an unbiased and detailed overview of Islamic history. For instance, during her discussion of Islamic fundamentalism, she balances this discussion by also looking at the commonalities that exist among fundamentalist groups across of broad spectrum of religious faiths. This is a topic that Armstrong expanded upon in her book, The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although this book is well written and detailed, Armstrong herself comes across within its pages, as if she is looking at Islam with rose-colored glasses. In short, she tends to delve more upon the theoretic aspects of how the religion is suppose 'to work', rather than on how its teachings are put into practice.

This book will be of interest to anyone who desires to learn more about Islamic history and religious practices, in a nonreligious manner. In other words, this book is not designed to convert anyone to Islam, rather to simply explain its history. This book is suitable for readers of all ages, and for general readers as well as those who are scholastically inclined. Also included in this book are a few maps that highlight areas under discussion.

Originally published in 2000, this book does not directly touch upon the issues surrounding Islamic terrorism. It does however, touch upon Islamic fundamentalism. And it is through an understanding of the various forms of fundamentalism that have grown up around the pillars of Islam that one can begin to understand how someone can justify carrying out acts of violence against noncombatants - and even by taking their own life, such as in the case of suicide bombers.

Terrorism and related issues are perhaps most paramount in people's minds at the moment. This book is not a commentary on current events. Rather, the focus of this book is to convey the essence of Islamic history in a readable and readily understandable manner. This is a task that Armstrong carried out skillfully. Within the pages of this book you will find insights into the golden age of Islamic civilization, and the richness of the Islamic contributions to the sciences, philosophy, and art. You'll also acquire an understanding of the basic tenets that underpin the Islamic faith, as well as insights on how these tenets have affected the day to day life of Muslims throughout time. But, most importantly you will be able to follow the development of Islam, and Islamic society from its founding to the modern day.

Related Reviews:

Understanding Islam: An Introduction to the Muslim World, By Thomas W. Lippman.
This book not only offers the reader a detailed introduction to the tenets of Islamic faith, but it also covers its founding, the various factions that exist within Islam, and the role that Islam plays in the internal and external affairs of Islamic countries.

A History of the Arab Peoples, By Albert Hourain.
This book offers a sweeping glimpse of Arab culture and society, presented within an historical framework that spans almost thirteen centuries.

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