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on 18 January 2011
I apologize as this is not my own review by rather that of Daniel Pipes, but I believed that it conveys an important message to any who would consider buying this book for historical usage:

The Modern Library has attempted to stage a comeback by launching a large and ambitious series of handsomely produced volumes, most of which are indeed by leading authorities. Not so this slim work on Islamic history, a scandalously apologetic and misleading account written by a former nun with an ax to grind.

The apologetics start with the Prophet Muhammad and conclude with the present day. Armstrong goes out of her way to soften every hard edge, explain away every unpleasantness, and hide what she cannot otherwise account for. The massacre of the Jewish tribe of Qurayza she acknowledges a "horrible incident" but urges the reader not to judge it by the standards of our time; has moral relativism sunk so low? As for hiding what she cannot account for, the author has the temerity to characterize Muslims living in the West as "beleaguered and endangered," without making the slightest reference to the likes of such fanatics as the blind sheikh of New York or Cemaleddin Kaplan, known as the "caliph" of Cologne. And if Muslims are oppressed in the West, why do they wish to immigrate there in record numbers?

Inaccuracies also permeate this foully dishonest text. Armstrong's account of the breaking of the treaty of Hudaybiya ("the Quraysh violated the treaty by attacking one of the Prophet's tribal allies") gets the facts wrong (it was not Quraysh itself that attacked but one of its tribal allies, the Bani Bakr) and so mangles the whole import of this incident. Nor can she keep track of time: "On the eve of the second Christian millennium," she pronounces with her wonted pomposity, "the Crusaders massacred some thirty thousand Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem." But the eve of that millennium was 999 and the Crusader massacre took place in 1099. Turning to the present day, she states that Malcolm X "became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam ... when he discovered the moral laxity of Elijah Muhammad." Well, "became disillusioned with" is one way of putting it, but a more accurate verb might be "expelled from." Likewise, she ascribes to Malcolm X the founding of the American Muslim Mission, an institution that in fact did not come into existence until 1981, or sixteen years after his death.

These represent but the smallest fraction of faults early and late, large and small, of omission and commission, that mar Armstrong's dreadful book. Avoid it at all costs.
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on 23 April 2016
The authoress interprets Islam according to her own romantic delusions. The facts of history cannot be changed by concealing or distorting the evidence. She mistakes the most important facts: that Allah is not Almighty God, and entirely misinterprets the Qur'an and Islamic laws.
Islam is the religion of Allah, not a religion of Abraham. And Islam must reign supreme.
Allah in Arabic and English is 'the god' the one pagan god of Arabia and Islam.
This is absolutely clear in the Qur'an, Hadith-traditional stories, and Islamic law.
In Arabic and the entire Qur'an, the title of Almighty God is Ilah. Fi sabil illah, in the path of God.
The names of Ilah- Almighty God in the Qur'an are Ar Rahman, the Beneficent, the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious.
Qur’an 41:84 It is He Who is the only God in the heaven and the only God on the earth.
Ibn Kathir: This means He is the God of those who are in the heaven and the God of those on earth.
Qur’an 43:84 It is He Who is Ilah, God in the heaven and on the earth.
Qur’an 19:65 Lord of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, so worship Him and abide patiently in His worship. Do you know of any other with His Name?
Ibn Kathir: Ibn Abbas says, ‘There is no one named Ar-Rahman (the Most Beneficent) other than Him, Blessed and Exalted is He. Most Holy is His Name.’
See Quran chapters 19, 21, 25, 26, 36, 37, 41, 43, 67, etc.

Allah is always and only named Allah in Arabic and English.
Qur’an 6:3 And He is Allah in the heavens and in the earth.
Ibn Abbas: He is the One who is called Allah in the heavens and on the earth.
The Shahada, the Muslim pledge of faith, denies God:
La ilaha ill-Allah, there is no God/god but Allah.
The sentence comprises a denial and an affirmation.
Negation: 'La ilah' negates all forms of God or god.
Affirmation: 'illAllah' affirms that there is only Allah.
Before you can say ‘I believe in Allah’(illa Allah) you have to reject or disbelieve in any other god or God (La illaha).
Question 179 Islam Q&A [...]
Questions 114, 6703, 11819, 20239, 20815
The phrase la ilaha illa allah in the Qur’an: in Mecca 37:35, 38:4-10 and Medina 47:19.
In these it means religious war for supremacy against all disbelievers.
Qur’an 47:19 Muhammad So know that La ilaha illallah, there is no god except Allah.
Maududi says: This was at the time of the battle of Badr. It is also entitled al-Qital, the Fighting, because it gives the firm command for Jihad, and its theme is to prepare the Muslims for war against disbelievers and to give them instructions about those who kill and those who are killed.
Qur’an 9:29 Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
Qur’an 9:111 Verily, Allah has purchased of the believers their lives and their properties for (the price) that theirs shall be the Paradise. They fight in Allah's cause, so they kill and are killed.
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on 5 November 2015
This book is interesting and revealing as all Karen Armstrong’s books are, but also disturbing. Her rather uncritical admiration of Islam is expressed when she says; “Look what had happened once they (Muslims) had surrendered to God’s will! Where Christians discerned God’s hand in apparent failure and defeat, when Jesus died on the cross, Muslims experienced political success as sacramental and as a revelation of the divine presence in their life”. It is a revealing description of the patriarchal origin of Islam from a clan based society where it is the steady power of a strong leader who don’t compromise that is needed in order to unite the society, as apposed to the rather feminine softness of a Jesus. In this context, it is understandable that the prophet had to shop the heads off some seven hundred Jews in the massacre of Qurayzah, since they did not obey. She explains Islam as a total belief system and “if their community was humiliated by apparently irreligious enemies, a Muslim could feel that his or her faith in life’s purpose and value was in jeopardy.” Such a feeling could inspire to fight and revenge though. It is interesting that pride and humiliation plays such an important part of traditional clan society’s power struggles as shown from history and e.g. social anthropology. To handle those personal feelings have therefore been rather important issues in other world religions.

Islam is the first and only purely monotheistic religion with many taboos attached to it, like that the prophets face should not be portrayed. With taboos follows that you can punish those who break them, which is why taboos play such an important role in tribal politics for example. Armstrong explains how Islam grew out of a tribal society and streamline tribal rules and practises. She does not see this as a problem or something to analyse. But she writes about the fights between different factions who have different interpretation of the truth. To me, any ideology that claims to have monopoly of the truth and that justify punishment of those who does not comply will end up in trouble. The medicine for this is reason and critical thinking.

The Islamic law, Sharia does not distinguish between divine law and secular law like in Christianity where a process to separate religious faith from common law started with Anshelm in the 12th century. The reduced influence of religion into worldly affairs contributed to the emerging enlightenment and scientific revolution. The sharia law leads back to interpretation of the Prophet’s custom, the hadith, and is as such not based on reason. It should have been interesting if the author would have discussed the consequences of a belief system where law is based on faith rather than reason.

The author expresses some astonishing patronizing attitude towards Muslims. They are always victims. Her idea towards mans ability to create their society is deterministic when she says: “When resources were limited, it was impossible to encourage inventiveness and originality in the way that we do today in the modern west”. But where does inventiveness and creativity come from? Is it not from ideas of our minds that are governed and inspired by the belief systems in where we live? According to Karen Armstrong, the decline of Muslim power was due to the economic base, which was agrarian in the Muslim world. It had nothing to do with ideology, and if anyone dares to indicate that it has - is arrogant! Armstrong is consistently apologetic about Muslims to the extent that she bends the truth when she says that there is evidence for only one attack on one monastery during the conquest of India. This is a very different story than the destruction of Hindu temples accounted for in numerous history books about India and from what you see on the ground.

The description of Islamic science and the Sufi philosophy is a good overview (although no thought about why Sufis are so hated by orthodox hardliners), but what about the fact that none of the great Muslim intellectuals never challenged the ultimate belief in one god, in a monotheistic belief system? Wasn't it when even the ultimate truth could be questioned that the scientific revolution was allowed to happen?

As a conclusion, the book is somehow amazing, because Karen Armstrong describes the core problems within Islam, but seems to do so unintentionally. The absence of analysis and reflexion is also somehow revealing .
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on 15 April 2009
I tend to the latter. As a summary of the history of Islam this is probably as good and as detailed as most people can digest. Even then it is so littered with names, dates, theological splits etc and has so little real narrative it is difficult to absorb.

However my main complaint is the bias ( white guilt? ) of the author. To cut what could be a long point short the premise seems to be that muslims killing people should be understood, taken in context, a necessary evil etc. The crusades where the West was defending itself against the slow, at the point of the sword, spread of Islamic tyranny was dismissed as a wicked, despicable episode in Western History.

If anything the book just goes to show how much the original teachings have been twisted, manipulated and contrived to meet the needs of rulers who wish to control the people. The history of Islam is a tangled mess, and a violent mess at that. Not sure if that will ever change given world events.
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on 19 February 2009
Armstrong achieves a remarkable feat with her presentation of over 1400 years of Islamic history into a succinct and very readable mere 160 pages. The different strands of Islamic development in intellectual, spiritual and political dimensions are systematically chronicled to present the picture of a faith with a long, vibrant and chequered past. Major events such as the Crusades and the Mongol conquest and their implications on the Muslim world are nicely covered.

Several useful appendices add significantly to the value of this book. These include a very detailed chronology recording every major date, event and development, an alphabetical list of key figures, a glossary of Arabic terms and a detailed list of suggested further reading material

The book is worth reading for the value of the final section alone entitled "Islam Agonistes" where Armstrong moves out of her abstract "narrator" mode and provides a profound analysis of the contemporary Muslim situation vis-à-vis the West, modern technological society and the challenges of secular modernity for Muslims. Her conclusion is that many Muslim societies have commitments and attachments to their faith which they are unwilling to jettison wholesale similar to Christians in the West. They would like to participate in the modern world but on their own terms, whilst remaining faithful to the central tenets of their own religious understanding.

I gave the book 4 stars as opposed to 5 because - as a practising Muslim who has experienced being a member of the faith for many years - I was unable to relate fully with Armstrong's central thesis - namely that the supreme Islamic mission is the establishment of a just society. Her assertion is that Muslims have experienced history as a divine theophany, a manifestation of God's historical presence and the supreme Muslim challenge is to incarnate the principles of the Quran into their political and social institutions. Her research (which needless to say will be much greater than mine) has probably led her to this conclusion but my experience of being a member of this faith prevents me from fully attesting to this.

There was also the conspicuous lack of mention of the "Tabligh Jama'at" in the closing pages of her book where she detailed brief sketches of the significant religious movements animating the Muslim world since the last century. Although she talks about the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) at length (which has lost much of its impetus in recent decades) she remains conspicuously silent about the Tabligh Jama'at which exerts one of the most significant global influences on Muslim masses today. Recent sociological studies (see Yoginder Sikand) have indicated Tabligh Jama'at participants as being around 80 million worldwide, and the Jama'at is ubiquitous in the majority of Muslim lands as well as most Muslim minority communities in the West. Maybe Armstrong's lack of mention is due to the movement's avowedly apolitical nature which contravenes the central thesis around which this book revolves: that the supreme Muslim duty is the incarnation of Quranic principles into a political reality.

Overall, an excellent snapshot of 1400 years of Islamic history.
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on 8 November 2003
One of the greatest barriers for Muslims, like myself, in reading books such as these, is that they have been written by a non-muslim. This is largely because, in many conservative Islamic societies, reverence is ingrained to such an extent from childhood that the one hesitates to question - in fear of potentially weakening faith. As a result, most of what I have read and heard has been largely from Islamic sources, whose own devotion to the faith has sometimes meant an approach where they have chosen to overlook or omit historical facts, which may be unpalatable from a western standpoint - since there is awareness that Muslim readers are increasingly exposed to western education as well.
I therefore picked up armstrong's book with some reservation, but only to overcome it in the first few pages. The author's approach is disciplined in the acamedic sense and yet takes ample care in use of language so as not to offend (this is especially evident in the description of revelations to the Prophet). The general Arab context within which the religon and it's beginnings are described is amazingly well written.
I would rate this book highly and recommend it to people of all faiths. It is an excellent resource for a short overview of the history of Islam and tackles the spiritual aspect incredibly well, with the result that it is neither a sermon, nor a rejection - it is a well balanced view and description of history.
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on 26 June 2016
Laughably bad. For example: "we must realize that democracy is [only] made possible by an industrialized society which has the technology to replicate it's resources indefinitely". Er, what?
Seriously, if you want to foster a warm fuzzy feeling about Islam and have no critical faculties whatsoever, read this book. Otherwise steer well clear.
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on 30 August 2001
Islam is a religion of many cultures and traditions spread over more then 1400 years in time. And for an out sider (as I assume Karen to be), she seems to have a vast amount of knowledge on the subject.
The book is written in a very approachable manner and would be understandable to even the beginners. But having said that, there are so many details covered in this one book (even if as brief references) that I couldn't help but admire the effort put into her work. I started off not expecting too much (thinking I know it all any way), but ended up finding so much new stuff and refreshing what I knew before to be true. And the best thing was that it gives us a different prospective of things. It makes us think about things we usually take as a given (either for religious or social reasons), hence closing our minds to them. Also makes us think logically about historical facts we believe to be true but usually tend to look at them just from a religious view point and hence not being able to appreciate them to the full.
So all in all, I very much recommend this book to any one who would like to study the fastest growing religion in the world. It takes away a lot of stereo types about Islam (and made me want to further study a lot of personalities and events mentioned in this book.) and brings things into prospective.
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on 18 April 2011
This book would have been better titled a Defence of the History of Islam.

The two attributes any historian needs are Perspective and Balance. Here Karen Armstrong is deficient in both.

Firstly, perspective. Karen Armstrong, a former nun, has a religious, monotheistic, spiritualistic, starting point with an apparently Predestined (in the religious and philisophical sense) perspective of history. Most modern historians try and place themselves in the time but Karen Armstrong writes this History as though Islamic hegemony in the Middle East and beyond is predestined.

Secondly, balance. This book is, by no definition of the word, balanced. Karen Armstrong provides every Islamic misdeed with an excuse.Perhaps misdeed is the wrong word but every invasion, every massacre, every murder seems to be explained sympathetically.

And so when the Muslims Conquer Jerusalem in 638 AD, Karen Armstrong mentions it in passing as though no one was inconvenienced by this invasion (page 25). However, when in 1099 AD, after continued Turkish Muslim encroachments on the Byzantine Empire (as Ms Armstrong herself concedes) and the Pope calls for a Crusade this is described as "disgraceful"," tragic", an aggressive western intrusion" (page 79-80). Karen Armstrong mentions that Jerusalem was the "third holiest City in Islam" at the time of the Crusades but fails to mention that it was the primary holy City for Christians and Jews in 638 AD.

Unfortunately, this unbalanced example is indicative of the book as a hole.

It's completely uncritical. I don't think a history needs to be critical just for the sake of it but this really is a toothless and servile account.

I'll assume that the names and dates are correct but I've had to discount any personal opinion the author ventures.

When the 'Rashidun' invade neighbouring countries that's excused but when the Mongols do it Ms Armstrong explains why that's different, it's because the Mongols didn't bring "spirituality" with them. I bet that was a consolation to the husbands of raped wives and fathers of murdered children. I bet they said to themselves afterwards "at least that invasion force brought with them spirituality".

If I'm angry it's just because a fair and balanced history of Islam would be welcome.

Unfortunately, this fawning, grovelling effort isn't it. This is a sanatised history fit for any Iranian, or Taliban male only school.
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on 9 September 2001
Karen Armstrong writes a fascinating insight on a subject that has historical, political and spiritual connotations on a world level today. From the cave of Hira where it was suggested the Prophet Muhammad first received the 'revelation' to Islamic 'fundamentalism' and the contentious role of the media, this publication provides a short, succinct comprehension into a faith generally misunderstood outside its own circles.
Chronologically developed the writer attempts to explore Islamic history and challenge misconceptions of its current climate.
The insight allows the reader an understanding into contemporary world issues on the faith through objective historical analysis. A must for one looking for an impassionate summation on the subject, as a lead to further research or alternatively for a genuine understanding of the religion and it's effect on the world.
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