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
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
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,
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.