Misunderstanding Islam

In the wake of September 11, the reading interests of the American public have changed. To a lesser extent, so have the interests of readers throughout the Western world. This may not rank as one of the more significant consequences of the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, but it does reflect a new awareness on the part of millions of people--an awareness of just how ignorant they have been about Muslims.

Reflecting this shift, the American best-seller lists are now populated by books about the Taliban, biological and chemical warfare and Islam. More than a year ago Karen Armstrong--a former nun and author of several superb books on religion--published "Islam: A Short History." In both England and the United States, it was respectfully reviewed. Now, it is selling thousands of copies each week.

For many readers, Armstrong's slender volume is the only source of information about a religion and culture that shapes the lives of 1 billion people around the world. That fact hasn't gone unnoticed. The book has been re-evaluated, and Armstrong is being criticized for blaming the West for fundamentalist resentment. Armstrong argues that the West has contributed to the development of "extreme forms of Islam... [that] have cultivated... violence." A year ago, when the book was first published, that raised few hackles. But with the violent attack on civilians in the United States, this view of the link between Western expansion and fundamentalist violence is no longer treated so benignly. It strikes many people as an excuse that lets Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and Al Qaeda off the moral hook.

That probably wasn't Armstrong's intent. Her point about the West is a small part of a survey of Islam from the time of Muhammad in the seventh century A.D. to the present day, and much of the book covers events of the distant past. But she displays a strong underlying bias. Rather than focusing on Islam as a faith and describing its doctrines, Armstrong presents Islam as a religion rooted in history. "One of the chief characteristics of Islam," she writes, "has been its sacralization of history."

What does that mean? According to Armstrong, Muslims view history as evidence of the purity of their faith. A community of believers that lives "according to God's law should prosper, because it is in harmony with the fundamental principles of existence." The reverse also follows: if the believers aren't prospering, it's because God's law is being ignored. Hence, the economic and political weakness of the Muslim world in the past 200 years is evidence of God's displeasure.

Enter the fundamentalists, who say that only when religious purity is restored will the community thrive once again. The obstacles are corrupt leaders in the Muslim world and their allies--the powers of the Western world. Eliminate the support of the West, say the fundamentalists, and the corrupt leaders will fall.

That may be the formula that guides fundamentalists, but Armstrong gravely distorts the degree to which that is a universal Muslim view. To be fair, her book is an excellent primer on the basic elements of Islam. But unfortunately, it reinforces a misguided notion that for Muslims, religion is everything. That is simply not true, and Armstrong mistakenly applies the theology of the fundamentalists to Islam in general. It is primarily the fundamentalists who contend that Islam "sacralizes history." It is the fundamentalists who view contemporary politics as a reflection of a displeased Allah who is punishing Muslims for their immorality. And it is fundamentalists who seek revenge on the West for the current economic and social stagnation of substantial parts of the Muslim world.

But neither all, nor even a sizable minority, of Muslims are fundamentalists. In fact, only a portion of fundamentalists subscribe to the extreme positions of Osama bin Laden. Hundreds of millions of Muslims relate to Islam as simply one part of life--an important part to be sure--but in ways not so different from how Irish Catholics or Southern Baptists integrate their faith with personal, family and social concerns. A Muslim cobbler in Pakistan, lawyer in Indonesia, software programmer in India and shopkeeper in Egypt do not necessarily look to history for proof of God, nor do they sit around obsessing about the United States as a modern-day plague. You would never know that from Armstrong's book. She may blame the West, others may blame Islam, and lost in the fray is Islam as it is actually practiced and Muslims as they actually are.

Join the Discussion