Islam: A Short History
Karen Armstrong, ISBN 0-8129-6618-X, Modern Library, 2000
History by definition denotes all the events that happened in the past but recorded, as Winston Churchill puts it, by the victors. When we look back at history, we see that not all the victors were on the right side. To purify the past, or to at least appropriate it, many historians had chosen adjectives that celebrated the victors and demonized the fallen. Even to this day, records of wrongdoings of the powerful are either concealed or destroyed. But history never had a single bystander. No matter how much power or terror is employed in order to re-write the past to suit a dogma or doctrine, there will always be efficient explorers meticulously digging to revive and re-tell the real history. Because, unlike the ruler, history does not follow a hierarchical trajectory; it's linear and is found tethered to an uncut thread. As a keen explorer of religious history, Karen Armstrong has tried to untangle the tumultuous history of Islam and get the patchwork done using a single linear thread in her book Islam: A Short History so that it becomes reliable, concise and easy to understand.
Karen Armstrong writes, “An account of the external history of the Muslim people cannot, therefore, be of mere secondary interest, since one of the chief characteristics of Islam has been its sacralization of history.” One might be too quick to question her biases, that she just attacked a religion that has billions of followers, just like any typical European who colonized people and looted their property and history. Reading along they will soon find out how patiently she has studied Islamic history and how carefully she has positioned herself to analyze it. She has dissected the history of the followers of Islam from its doctrines. This balanced look on history has kept the ideologies of Islam uninfected from its renowned followers.
She repeatedly mentions how simple Muhammad's (PBUH) message was and how peaceful was the purpose of his revelation. Allah's guided Prophet wanted to bring a system to the fallen Arabs so that it could expel anarchy and put Islam on the map. She points out that unlike the followers of nearby Christians and Jews, Arabs had no revelation of their own. Muhammad, after taking over Mecca from the Qurayesh without shedding a drop of blood, destroyed the idols from Kabah, and linked Islam with the story Abraham, Hagar and Ismail. According to her analysis, it did not just happen co-incidentally. It happened because of Muhammad's ability to make connection with what he had learned from the Jews about Abraham, Hagar and Ismail and what had been revealed to him by the archangel Gabriel. What Muhammad did after winning Mecca might arouse suspicion such as he had rushed to misappropriate his power to propagate his religion. But Karen Armstrong's thorough analysis clarifies that.
The Holy Quran's message for a new system and Muhammad's sayings were later propagated by the rashidun, the “rightly guided” caliphs namely Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. The difficulties on part of the caliphs to retain power in the right way and promulgate the religion to the believers as it had been revealed to Muhammad are shown in Armstrong's analysis. Here she differs a great deal with some conventional authors who write about Islam and caliphate. She shows that the way Islamic history unfolded before and after the death of Prophet was unprecedented. There were internal feuds, first and second fitnah (the time of temptation), the challenging task of the Quran's compilation, separation of sayings from the revelations, and deaths of many who have memorized the Quran. Instead of merging with the characters that she had portrayed or celebrating the might and the will of the followers, Armstrong keeps her focus on the history as a bystander.
In the book, she has touched upon the very controversial issue of fundamentalism in Islam. How Islam has been made victim to the ideas of enlightenment and modernity can be traced from her narrative. In a similar tone of Said's Orientalism, she observes, in the name of developing the East and Southeast Asia, the West and Europe are urging them to imitate their process of development. Armstrong describes how this method had been applied by many. She uses examples of Mustafa Kemal Atatiirk (1881-1938) in Turkey, Abd al-Nasser (1918-1970) in Egypt, and Reza Shah Pahlavi (reigned1921-41) in Iran. These leaders are known as enlightened leaders but their methods and ideologies are closer to the western ones. She also notes how they used force and oppression to wipe out Islamic ways of life often freely chosen by people.
Throughout the book, one might feel Karen Armstrong's objective and deep respect for the Quran, Muhammad and a fascination for Sufi mysticism. Her reference to the Islamic revolutionaries, thinkers, poets, and leaders with relevant remarks all contribute to the making of her brief yet brilliant needlework called Islam: A Short History (2002).
Rabiul Islam is an Alumni of Department of English & Humanities, ULAB.