15 October 2007

Karen Armstrong's Islam - 1

I read the book last week. Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who has written many books on the three Semitic religions. In this one she takes on the history of Islam. It is not easy to cover 1400 years in just 200 pages. But she does a good job, taking us through all the major developments - the Prophet, the first four Caliphs, the Umayyad Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongol invasions, the three empires (Ottoman, Safavid, Moghul) and European colonisation.

So what does Karen Armstrong say? Critics have called her an apologist for Islam. In this book she does paint a totally positive picture of the religion (the unkind would call it a whitewash). Take the key (and controversial) issue of violence. She does not deny the violence in Islam's history, but offers justifications and explanations for it. So the massacre of the Jewish Qurayzah tribe (in Medina, 627 AD) was due to extenuating circumstances. And when the Arabs poured out of their peninsula to invade and conquer their neighbours, it was not out of an urge to spread Islam, but because they needed wealth.

Further, Karen Armstrong takes care to point out the positive aspects of Islam. Two such 'positive' features that she talks about, at some length, are the concepts of Ummah (community) and Tawhid (unification).

1. Ummah
Islam is not a personal/private faith. It is a communal/societal one. It is not enough for a Muslim to live by the rules of Islam. It is also important that he live in a society/community that also lives by these rules. Islam is not something you observe just within the four walls of your house. It is something you live everywhere - at school, at work, on the street, everywhere. Living in such an Islamic community is necessary for Muslims to achieve the ultimate goal of perfect 'Islam' (submission to God's will).

2. Tawhid
Islam is a 'total religion'. It is not just a way of worship. It is a way of life. Since it covers the whole ambit of life, all spheres of human activity - religion, culture, society, politics, economics - must be unified to achieve complete 'Islam'. The Quran is the Word of God that teaches people not only how to pray, but also how to eat, drink, sleep, work, marry, raise children, resolve disputes, make laws, collect taxes, distribute wealth, wage war, sign peace treaties, etc. One consequence of this is that secularism (separation of religion and politics) is ruled out.

Note that these two are not peripheral ideas in Islam. They are among its core concepts. What to make of them? No doubt they are beneficial in some ways: they foster a spirit of brotherhood and God-consciousness. In a predominantly Muslim country, pursuing these two ideals may not be much of a problem. But what when Muslims are a minority in a country? What if they insist on Ummah and Tawhid (as their religion requires them to)? These are problematic questions. But Karen Armstrong doesn’t seem to be too bothered by them.


Tom Heneghan said...

If you’re interested in Karen Armstrong, you might want to look at her latest interview on Pakistan, Islam and secularism in the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld -- http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld.

Indian said...

Tom Heneghan is one of the writers at the above blog. I don't know how he found my blog.