Islam: A Short History
by Karen Armstrong
New York: Modern Library, 2000. 222 pp. $19.95.
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly
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.
Related Topics: History, Islam | Daniel Pipes | Fall 2001 MEQ
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