Saturday, January 05, 2013

No. 2 (Really!): Karen Armstrong, History of Islam

Last April, having posted over 300+ book reviews on Amazon, I began a duel series of my ten most popular and most unpopular.  I couldn't keep it to ten each -- so many books, so little time, as they say.  But I finished in late October with the most-hated list, with Lynn Bachmann's awful The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin, perhaps the least significant of eleven or twelve on that list.  I have now reviewed twelve books for my "Ten Best" list -- my reviews have, after all, been pretty popular, having received over 8000 "helpful" votes, so there were more to choose from.  Among writers who appeared on that list, which is this list, have been Howard Zinn, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Michael Martin, G. K. Chesterton, Rodney Stark, Jay Budziszewski, Daniel Dennett, John Esposito, Sam Huntington, Michael Behe, NT Wright, and Chesterton again, from bottom to top -- all serious, influential books, as it happens.  Though I do dabble in the occasional novel, that, apparently, is not what people like best. 

But I now repent of the funny math!  We're really and truly almost at the end, finally.  The next post in this series will be my most popular review on Amazon ever - since ham radio was invented, since termites munched wood, since the Earth cooled!  (I'm counting, in case you forget, by total number of positive votes, for the popular reviews, and a combination of negative votes and percent negative, for thumbs-down reviews.)

So here's my Number Two Most Popular review in thirteen years of posting Amazon reviews.  It happens to be a negative review, and garnered a few negative votes, as well.  Can you guess why?

"Quakers in a Hurry" 

(**)  272 + / 89 -
The core of this book is a competent, moderately well-written (but never eloquent) account of the central events, figures and movements of Islamic history. Take the word "short" in the subtitle seriously, rather than by analogy to H. G. Well's infamously long "Outline of History." The book is 180 scrawny pages. Despite the length, or lack thereof, and the vast history it presumes to abbreviate, Armstrong does seem to manage to cover the most critical happenings in a concise manner.

The main stylistic problem I found was that the book tends to become top-heavy with names and Arabic words. Armstrong introduces terms, then uses them on another page, maybe three in a sentence. In the early going you begin to wonder if, by the end, the whole book won't be in Arabic. Several readers have commented on Armstrong's agenda. She wants to prove that Islam is not inherently uncivilized or dangerous. Every religion allows for a variety of interpretations, and the best way to read Islam is in terms of the brotherly, open lifestyles that she proves Mohammed and his early followers followed. Actually, she doesn't prove this, or anything else, not having room for serious argument in this "short history."  She claims it.  We're apparently supposed to deduce that she knows what she's talking about from the fact that she's famous, and that there are a lot of references in the back of the book. (We're left to find out for ourselves that not all of them agree with her thesis.)  If one could parody the message of the book as, "Islam is Quakerism in a hurry," then one can summarize her style by saying Armstrong is a "historian in a hurry." Armstrong argues that the pernicious idea that Islam is a religion of war, is based on a "stereotypical and distorted image of Islam" that is actually a reflexion of Western vice.  "It was when Christians instigated a series of brutal holy wars against the Muslim world that Islam was described as an inherently violent and intolerent faith."  Oddly, however, it was also described that way before the Crusades -- which is why the Crusades were launched in the first place, in frank imitation of Muslim Jihad.  (See Pope Urban's speech in The First Crusade, edited by Edward Peters.)  Is Armstrong suggesting, as some mystical fans of quantum physics have, that sometimes result precedes cause?

At times Armstrong's selection of facts and interpretation of them borders on overt dishonesty.  Many of the evils she puts down to later imperialists -- such as making it a capital offense to criticize Mohammed -- were in fact initiated by the prophet himself.  Armstrong should have known that if she read the books she recommends in her bibliography.  (See, in particular, Rodinson's Mohammed.)  While Armstrong's post-hoc, self-indulgent arguments verge on the inane at times, fortunately most of the book is straight history.  (Though sometimes even there Armstrong oversimplifies terribly.)  You might find it useful, as an outline, if you supplement it with a books that cover specific aspects of Islamic history in more depth and honesty.  A few I'd recommend are Jihad, by Paul Fregosi, (really amazing), the Crusades Through Arab Eyes, (for the Muslim side), and God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam.  There's a interesting chapter in the Oxford History of Islam on Islam in subSaharan Africa, though even more than Armstrong, the authors of that book tend to look the other way when Muslims are doing things that would reinforce the alleged "stereotypes."  I'd also like to find a good history of Islam in India, if anyone has any recommendations. 


Alejandro Rodríguez said...

The Crusades are a black mark on Christian history and in fact alot of the worst crimes that come from the Crusades come from Christians. Also, Islam practiced more tolerance of religion than Christianity, has a much lesser anti-semitic history, and actually saved Western Europe which while not completley backward, had definetlye fallen behind. The fact is, Karen Armstrong is right when she says there is nothing inherently more evil or violent in Islam. In fact, the Bible, which is a much larger book by the way, contains much more violence than the Quran does. Not even the hadith contains the same level of violence as in the Bible. And as Loon Watch has analyzed, Muhammad's life is no more violent than that of Biblical figures like Moses and Joshua, heck, even Abraham. You shouldn't fall for the Anti-Islamic righ-wing discourse, which is serves only to further a political agenda that is very destructive of people's lives.

Alejandro Rodríguez said...

As for Islam supposedly spreading by the sword, the Quran makes explicit condemnations of killing the innocent and even has the famous "There should be no compulsion to religion" so that alone puts doubt on whether they really converted the people they conquered by violent means. Also, the Muslim Conquests should be looked in the context of the Byzantine and Sassanid wars.

David Marshall said...

Alejandro: I disagree with pretty much all those claims. Let me recommend a couple books to you: Rodney Stark, God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, and Paul Fregosi, Jihad. Also maybe Maxime Rodinson, Muhammed.

Mohammed raped, tortured enemies, married and had sex with a 9-year old girl, started wars against many neighbors, enslaved those he conquered, and massacred 700 unarmed men, whom he claimed were thinking rebellious thoughts, which frankly they should have, if they weren't. I don't recall Moses, Abraham, or even Joshua doing all those things. If it could be historically proven that they did (I'm not at all committed to their historical existence, even), yes I would agree that they were bad men, too. Is that so hard?

Mohammed himself "killed the innocent," by any reasonable standard. Do as I say, not as I do, eh?

Your sentence, "As for Islam supposedly spreading by the sword" ends with a purported Koranic exegesis. Didn't you notice that that is complete a non sequitur? That's like saying, "As for the supposed Crusades supposedly killing people in Jerusalem, the Bible has the verse, 'Love your enemies as your self,' so obviously that couldn't have happened, or couldn't have anything to do with the Bible otherwise."

Alejandro Rodríguez said...

Rodney Stark is clearly a guy with an agenda since he said that only Christianity provided the framework to develop science because of it being monotheist, which is bogus considering the same happened with Islam, so he is a dubious source. As for the Crusades, you can't justify all the massacres that ensued, not to mention that the goals in the end were far from noble and that there were Crusades such as the Albigensian Crusade (where some 20,000 people were slaughtered) that weren't directed against muslims but pagans and heretics. So you really can't make a case for them other than just explaining why they happened. And Moses enslaved virgins in Numbers and also led some battles like the one in Exodus against the amalekites, and Joshua supposedly killed everyone in the city of Canaan. Abraham also fought in at least one battle as described in Genesis. I don't know of any hadith that says Muhammad raped someone, and scholars debate the authenticity of some of the events of Muhammad's life such as the one where him marrying a 6 year old and later having sex with her at 9, muslim scholars say the hadiths narrating these events are false and fabricated and here,, David Liepert explains how Aisha couldn't have been a young girl when Muhammad married her. And your analogy fails because the massacres that occurred in the Crusades are well documented, while we have reasons to believe that the same wasn't done in the Muslim conquests. As for Paul Fregosi, just reading through a couple of pages and you already see the inherent bias of his work. He is defining jihad as any aggression perpetrated by Muslims as religiously motivate. It's like saying the USA's invasion of Iraq was motivated by Christianity because those that commanded them were christian, or that the Byzantine and Sassanid wars were for religion, when neither is of course the case. And among his sources is Bat Yeor, a well known right wing nut that supports the completley discredited concept of Eurabia. For instance, Sidney Griffith writes of her book The Decline of Eastern Christianity: "[quotations] are presented out of context, with no analysis or explanation. One has the impression that in their bulk they are simply meant to undergird the contentions made in the first part of the book". Another of his sources is an Encyclopedia of Islam from 1913. Talk about outdated. Not only this, Fregosi says that Jihad is like a sacrament that a devout muslim has to perform if called upon. Not only is this false, it is downright dehumanizing by portraying muslims as more prone to violence than others. It is like saying jews are under obligation from God to commit herem.

David B Marshall said...

Alejandro: Stark is one of the world's foremost thinkers on religion: please don't dimiss his argument without reading it, as you don't seem to have done. It would be the height of arrogance to dismiss a detailed historical argument en toto by such a fleeting and I think mistaken ad hominem against so eminent a scholar. Anyway, you misrepresent what he says about Christianity and science, I think.

But it sounds like you're prepared to fire ad hominems at any scholar who criticizes Islam. If you dismiss everyone who criticizes Islam, then I guess criticism of Islam will be wrong by definition.

Bat Ye'or is an Egyptian Christian. Considering the abuse Christians in Egypt put up with from the majority, I'm inclined to cut her more slack than her critics.

Islamic scholars in Iran justify men consummating marriage with girls at 9. Do you think that's a coincidence?

Of course people inspired by ideologies that justify subjugating outsiders militarily, are "more prone to violence" than those who are not. Far from "de-humanizing" them, that lends people the dignity of chosing beliefs that really matter in this world.

Alejandro Rodríguez said...

"Theological assumptions unique to Christianity explain why science was born only in Christian Europe. Contrary to the received wisdom; religion and science not only were compatible; they were inseparable. … Christian theology was essential for the rise of science. — Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God (2003)"
This ignores that Islam shares the same theological assumptions and that Islam was the one that passed the mantle of science to Western Europe. And I never committed any ad hominem at him. I merely said he was a dubious source due to ideological bias, the same with Fregosi, only him is clearer due to repeating the same anti-islamic tropes that are now common, such as Islam being at war with the western world and being the cause of terrorism, when neither is true. And as I said, his thesis is clearly wrong due to the fact that he counts wars perpetrated by muslims solely as jihad and religiously motivated, which is like saying the colonization of America by the Spanish and the Portuguese was mainly fueled by an impulse to convert the sugjugated to Catholicism, which is obviously false. And yes, I do not deny the reality of child marriage and the fact that muslim theologians used those fabricated hadiths as their justification for it, however it is not relegated solely to islamic societies. In India, you find similar practices, for instance. And how common is it anyway? I doubt the majority of muslims do it, just as how the majority of muslims don't practice poligamy nor involved in any sort of violence. And yes, it is dehumanizing to say that muslims are more prone to violence. You say: "Of course people inspired by ideologies that justify subjugating outsiders militarily, are "more prone to violence" than those who are not." which is simply not true because you forget that Islam actually practices religous tolerance and this can be seen by the fact that you still have several Christian communities in the Middle East. Sure, in some Muslim countries they are persecuted, but that would go against their quranic mandated status of people of the book, not to mention this same countries persecute their own muslim population almost as much anyway. It's not the product of Islam but of dictatorship and it's no different than Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, Ngo Din Den's Vietnam or Franco's Spain. So you are wrong in this respect. And then you say that it doesn't dehumanize them, but it actually lends dignity to them. Which doesn't make sense in light of the fact that Islam is not violent and that it is a form of cultural supremacy. "Our religion and our culture is better and superior, theirs is worse and inferior". That's what you are implying when you say that muslims are more prone to violence than others. As for Bat Yeor, again, she is a discredited pseudoscholar that supports nutty concepts like Eurabia. Also, you probably seem to think that Copts are harrassed at every moment, when it's only extremists doing that. For instance, muslims protected copts going to Church to celebrate Christmas, You will never hear Bat Yeor talking about talking about this. What you are doing is like saying that the Rakhine Buddhists that harass and persecute the Rohingya Muslim minority represents the whole of Buddhism. That would be totally false and quite absurd. But hey, this is what you constantly hear from RW Christians and antitheists.

Richard said...

Bat Yeor is actually Jewish, born in Egypt:'or

Karen Armstrong`s work is weak on Islam and generally considered an apologia.

I found Tom Holland`s recent book ``In the Shadow of the Sword`` to be quite valuable in showing the development of the monotheistic religions and the influence each had on the other in the geopolitics of the time.

David Marshall said...

Alejandro: What you're saying is, I think, almost completely untrue. There is, I acknowledge, a very thin slice of tolerance built into Islam. (Along with several thick slices of justified aggression, violence, and suppression.) I think your comments deserve a full post, though -- I'll look for the time to do that this week.

I'm curious about your motivations, though. Are you, yourself, Muslim? Are you a Christian or a secularist who has accepted the idea that criticizing Islam is somehow bigoted? You seem to have read plenty of pro-Islamic, what I would call propaganda. What have you read from the opposing position?

David Marshall said...

Richard: Thanks for the recommendation, and the correction on Ye'or. I didn't know there were any Egyptian Jews left; but maybe it's been a while since she lived there. Utter destruction of so large a community over the centuries ought to enlighten Alejandro about how "marginal" Islamic (or, yes, Polish Catholic) bigotry is, IMO.

Alejandro Rodríguez said...

I'm just someone who is very interested in religion in general. I like Islam even though I'm not a Muslim. I simply cannot stand the bigoted attacks against Islam because it reminds me of the bigotted attacks by antitheists on Christ. People who criticize Islam most of the time don't know what they are saying, haven't read the Quran or Hadith or any serious scholarship on the matter and most of the time are biased. I really want to know where you get this "thick slices of violence". Muhammad preached peace, he taught that only wars for just purposes could be waged, released slaves, promoted reason and knowledge, managed to bring gender equality to Arabia and end alot of bloody pagan practices there. The Quran for instance repeats the jewish teaching that if you kill one innocent is as if you kill the whole of the world, and if you save one innocent, is as if you saved the whole of the world and also says one should meditate, think and reflect. In one Hadith, Muhammad was so reluctant to execute a woman whom he tried to convince to continue living that he only did it after she insisted for 4 years. In another it relates how he was being attacked but didn't retaliate at any point. He taught that the ink of the scholar is more important than the blood of the martyr. He praised the Mary the Mother of Jesus and Joseph, the son of Jacob as examples of great virtuous people. For all this reasons is why I simply cannot take seriously the claim that Islam is violent and that Muhammad was an evil individual and can't tolerate all those attacks on it.

David Marshall said...

Alejandro: I care only about what is true. I dislike Mohammed because I think he was a bloody, war-mongering tyrant, not because he founded a competing religion. (I like Confucius and Lao Zi, and have mixed feelings about the marginally historical Buddha.)

I regard your pacifist notion of Mohammed's career to be completely contrary to the facts. But I appreciate the fact that you've read scholarship on YOUR side, though you still haven't admitted to reading much (any?) on the other, having in your own mind found reasons to dismiss those you don't agree with.

This is not to say Islam always follows Mohammed's reprehensible lead, of course.

But I don't have time to go into detail on this right now; I'll have to revisit it later.

Alejandro Rodríguez said...

I already showed why people like Paul Fregosi aren't to be trusted. You also have not provided me with the evidence of Muhammad being a war-mongering tyrant as you say, you only assert it as if it were as clear as water. It is true there are divergent views, but you cite clearly biased authors who only want to demonize the prophet. And I know the "scholarship" of the other side which includes loonies such as Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Ayan Hirsi Ali, David Woods, Ali Sina or Geert Wilders. all of whom advocate far-right positions such as forbidding muslims from entering a country or some even downright advocating their expulsion, banning the Quran, some have implied that we should invade them or even nuke them, and their propaganga includes such jewels like calling Muslims savages. Not to mention that for them every crime committed by a Muslim is done because or in the name of Islam. So now you know the level of looniness that this kind of people have.
Finally, so you don't accuse me of hypocrisy for not citing sources, here Sami Zatari talks about how Islam improved the status of women,, here he is also debunking the argument that the crusades were defensive wars, The story of Muhammad wanting to save the woman from the death penalty comes from an essay by M. Cherif Bassiouni found in the book Hacia la Abolición de la pena capital by Luis Arroyo. The ink of the scholar saying appears to be fabricated though. The mention of killing one innocent is as if you killed the whole of the world is in Quran 5:32. Sahih Bukhari, Book 73, Number 111 shows Muhammad's patience and pacifism.

David B Marshall said...

Alejandro: I already explained that I don't have time to do that right now, but plan to explain the reality (which in my view, diverges radically from your presentation in this thread) later. I probably won't be able to get to it until March: the first few months of the year look crazy busy.

I don't know why you're mentioning people who want to nuke Muslim countries or ban the Koran: I have neither advocated those things, nor cited anyone who advocates them. The scholars I recommended were Stark and Rodinson; also Paul Fregosi's book, which is an excellent read, and offers important historical information that you seem to want to ignore. So that's just a straw man.

What little I have read of Bukhari showed no such thing as "patience and pacifism." You must be using this latter word in some very special sense, if we are talking about the same Mohammed.

But again, this will have to wait until later.