Islam: A Good Primer

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1

Islam: A Good Primer

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1

Islam: A Good Primer
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 7 2001 1:38 PM

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1


Dear Geraldine and Judith,


After reading your exchange, I'm almost relieved that I did not read Germs—I have trouble enough sleeping. Instead, I went in a more narcoleptic direction—the reading of history, the drier the better. When a book is dull enough, I can honestly begin my book review: "This book knocked me out!"

Like many bibliophiles seeking to understand the transformed world we inhabit, I'm now in the addled position of reading several books about Islam simultaneously. A logical place to start seemed to be Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History. You can't argue with the title, all four words of which promise a no-nonsense approach to a no-nonsense topic. And truly, it's a lovely book to look at—an elegantly designed Modern Library Chronicles book with a translucent slip cover and a spare black-and-white photograph of two men praying.

By and large, Armstrong delivers on her promise. She offers an economic treatment of what we all know to be an enormously sweeping topic. It is easily readable, and a mere 187 pages long. There is a helpful chronology of the major events since 610, when the Prophet first received the revelations of the Quran, and a glossary of terms in Arabic. All this is in keeping with the purposeful simplicity of the Modern Library Chronicles series, which like the Penguin Lives, gives you what everyone wants—a famous writer, an important topic, and not too much work in digesting it.

Karen Armstrong is not quite what her blurb says—"one of the world's foremost scholars on religious affairs." But she has carved out a nice career for herself as a writer of wide-circulation books on religion, based on her seven years in a convent and a writing style that communicates directly, if not inspiringly. This book, prominently displayed on all the "current events" tables that bookstores are setting up near their front doors, will serve as a starting point for thousands of infidels who know little of Islam.

By my calculations, if you write 187 pages on 1,391 years, that gives you a little more than seven years to a page. To give her credit, she gets the job done. It's more or less in chronological order, and she tells the whole story, from the scene just before Muhammad received his revelations to the modern period, with its obligatory ruminations on fundamentalism and Islam's disconnection to the globalizing world.

But you can probably tell already what I'm going to complain about. It's just too little space to get a comprehensive grasp of the topic. Not only that, but I found her strategy added to the problem. To compensate for the book's brevity, she packs the information in rapid-fire paragraphs that list so many names, dates, and Arabic terms that it becomes difficult to follow the thread of the narrative. I was a little surprised by her heavy focus on arid historical factoids. Given her experience as a nun, I thought she'd be exactly the opposite and provide illumination on the spiritual side, while skipping the details of which sect was angry at which other sect in which century.

But by and large, this is a political history of Islam. That is of course useful and part of the exercise (certainly we are interested for political reasons). But it overlooks a compelling reason for curiosity: the fact that this faith, considerably newer than Christianity and Judaism, traveled faster and further after its introduction than any other has before or since. The three faiths are often linked in broad conversations, and Armstrong has written on fundamentalism in all three faiths in a book titled The Battle for God. But Islam seems different to me in some important ways, and I think it is arguable that it exercises a more complete hold on the average believer than the other great faiths. Certainly the extraordinary demands expected of its followers exceed what Christians and Jews are comfortable performing in the way of prayer and submission to religious authorities. I'd like to know more about the spiritual pull that makes these sacrifices not only bearable, but positively wondrous for so many hundreds of millions of devout people.

I had quibbles with her apportionment, as well. There's a tiny section (two paragraphs) on the Crusades, which strikes me as an important subject for a book designed largely for non-Muslim readers. There are two sentences on the creation of Israel in 1948 and its effect in the Muslim world. There's nothing on oil. There's a little but not enough on Turkey, which I think is rising in importance every day, by dint of its position as a strategic ally and its proof that a secular Islamic nation can survive and even prosper.

Having complained, I'll backtrack a little and say that I liked her coverage of the early spread of Islam. I was interested to learn that women were crucial to its dissemination (Geraldine will know far more about this than I do). Likewise, I was intrigued to learn of the occasional alliances between local Jews and early Muslims as the new religion spread. I appreciated her frequent reference to the radical egalitarianism of Islam—a fact that has always stood in strange contrast to the anti-egalitarianism of most Muslim political regimes.

Near the end, Armstrong mentions some interesting Islamic reformers who have tried to integrate their faith with democracy and the spread of information. Her section on the Taliban is short (the book was written in 2000, so it's not her fault), but it contains some helpful thoughts on how the Taliban is misreading Islam in their ethnic rage and their mistreatment of women. Her final paragraphs calling on Westerners to exert themselves more to understand Islam will I hope hit home with readers. In a different part of the book (Page 105), I underscored a quote I liked from a 14th-century Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun that explains why so many people now are reading books on Islam for the first time: "When there is an entire alteration of conditions, it is as if the whole creation had changed and all the world had been transformed, as if there were a new creation, a rebirth, a world brought into existence anew."

In my own pilgrimage toward an elusive Mecca of better understanding, I have also been reading two books by the famous Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, which I hope we will be able to discuss later. Though obviously academic, they have left me with more to reflect on than Karen Armstrong offers in this primer. Obviously, you have to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as any, but I think that readers should enter this book understanding that it is very far from the final word on the subject.