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In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, American's have been struggling to understand the religion behind them. In ISLAM: A SHORT HISTORY (Random House, $19.95) Karen Armstrong examines the fastest growing religion in the world, revealing a much more diverse faith than its modern fundamentalists would have you believe.
The word "Islam" comes from "shalom," which means "peace" and "health"--a word common to both Hebrew and Arabic. That Islam is a great religion with a glorious past and many achievements doesn't need to be said. That many people feel scared of Muslim fundamentalism--another self-evident truth. That most victims of Muslim fundamentalism are Muslims--another truth.
The problem is, in setting out to be an apologist for Islam, Armstrong writes a lot of fibs and distortions. She makes assertions without backing them up, and juxtaposes absurdities with apparent seriousness. For example, on the same page that she dismisses yet another early Muslim massacre of local Jews as the product of an earlier, more barbaric time, she states that Islam had to import its Jew-hatred from Christianity. No, Karen, you've just described how that hatred was home-grown. Likewise, it doesn't make sense that Arab countries didn't start hating Jews until the creation of Israel in 1948. How would that explain the Babylonian pogrom of 1942? The Muslim Brotherhood's alliance with the Nazis? The expulsion from Arab countries of almost all the Jews--a greater number than the Arabs who left the former Palestine? Logically, people who really didn't hate Jews wouldn't kick them out of their own countries, leaving them nowhere else to go except Israel.
Islam didn't create religious intolerance--it's found around the world , including in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian gospels. Better to admit the truth than to play make-believe. There's enough good stuff in any religion to combat hatred, if we let it.
Armstrong's erudition and scholarship are on full display here, originally written in 2000. Her focus is on the origins, Muhammad as a person and the context in Arabia out of which his movement arose. Then she turns to the explosive expansive of the religion and its political system in the centuries after Muhammad's death. She also emphasizes cultural aspects of Islam, including contributions to science, technology, astronomy, and the arts. With all this, something must get slighted, and it seems to be the geographic scope of Islam. While she mentions its spread to Spain, it's only a mention, and there's no mention that countries like Indonesia are the most heavily Muslim in percentage terms. The 2002 date is apparently for the large print edition, and this book calls out for a revision after the events of 9/11. Still, for a brief introduction, it's highly informative.