Islam | Karen Armstrong

Summary of: Islam: A Short History (Modern Library Chronicles)
By: Karen Armstrong


In ‘Islam: A Short History,’ Karen Armstrong traces the complex history of the Islamic faith, exploring its unique blend of spiritual and political aspects. This summary delves into the origins of the religion, the life of its prophet Muhammad, the rise and fall of empires, and the tensions between Western influences and Islamic values. Amid these complex historical developments, we will explore the diverse interpretations of this faith and the interrelationship between politics and religion in the context of Islam. Get ready to unravel the rich tapestry of a faith that has left lasting impacts on societies across the globe.

The Dual Nature of Religion

Religion is a complex concept that combines spirituality and external history. While believers search for transcendence, they are also forced to confront the realities of power politics. However, all religions strive for survival and expansion while regarding it as a necessary evil that corrupts their sacred ideals. The Enlightenment philosophers argued for the separation of church and state to protect religion from political rivalries but did not want to banish it from public life. Each religion is a product of its time, and people turn towards faith when they feel that their present is unjust. The author terms this as “earthing,” which means that real objects can become gateways to the ultimate truth, leading to the encounter of the divine. While Christianity and Hinduism consider historical events as meaningless compared to the eternal truths of faith, Islam is a uniquely political faith, seeking to create a just society in the present, with political action viewed as a sacrament imparting spiritual grace.

The Birth of Islam

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, received his first revelation in 610 during his annual retreat. He belonged to the Quraysh tribe, which had displaced older values, causing religious restlessness among the Arabs. Muhammad presented his “recitations” in 612, emphasizing the egalitarian ethos and focus on justice. Early Muslims adopted rituals such as zakat and salat. While Islam won a small following, the ruling class in Mecca wasn’t happy about its growth.

The Rise of Islam in Mecca

Muhammad’s preaching initially did not gain much attention from the ruling class of Mecca who saw it as an unimportant sect led by a fraudulent prophet. However, this changed when two key issues arose: Islam’s opposition to cutthroat capitalism and the suspicion that Muhammad sought a political position. These issues had both theological and political dimensions, and the Meccan elite, who largely practiced paganism, saw themselves condemned for their greed and failure to take care of the poor. Abu al-Hakam, a member of the Quraysh, was the figurehead of opposition to Islam and initiated a boycott against converts, leading to the financial ruin of Muslim traders and food shortages that contributed to the death of Muhammad’s wife. The situation for Muslims worsened when Muhammad’s uncle and protector, Abu Talib, died. However, a delegation of chiefs from nearby Yathrib proposed a pact with Muhammad, which changed the history of Islam forever.

The Rise of Islam

The book follows the history of Islam from its beginning as a small community of believers in Yathrib to a dominant religion in the Arabian Peninsula. The Yathrib leaders reached out to Muhammad to settle their conflicts, leading to the migration of Mecca’s Muslims and the establishment of the Islamic community based on ideology instead of kinship. Although the multi-religious community was held together by its members’ promise to respect a drafted constitution, the Muslims were at its core, and Medina became known as “the city,” representing the ideal of a truly Islamic society. As Medina grew, conflicts arose between Muslims and their enemies in Mecca, leading to battles such as the Battle of Uhud and the Battle of Trench. However, the Muslims’ victories impressed Arabia’s nomadic Bedouin tribes, leading to their conversion to Islam and swelling the ranks of the Muslims’ army. By 630, Muhammad marched on Mecca, and virtually all of Arabia’s tribes converted to Islam, bringing an end to centuries of violence.

The Story of the Rashidun Caliphs

The Rashidun caliphs, the “rightly guided rulers,” had to grapple with the puzzling issue of their authority as regular humans after the death of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, who had been divinely inspired. Bakr, the first caliph, faced a rebellion that he quashed, but his successors, Umar and Uthman, wanted a more lasting solution. They answered the question by implementing a policy of raiding non-Muslims outside of Arabia, which was successful. Although Islam is often perceived as a “religion of the sword,” the empire’s growth was accidental and pragmatic in nature. Conversion was discouraged, and Muslims lived in separate garrison towns. Jews and Christians, viewed as people of the Book who believed in the same God as Muslims, were protected and able to practice their own faith by paying a special poll tax. This policy also allowed non-Muslims to hold top positions in the empire. Many Christians even preferred their Muslim rulers to their old Byzantine masters, and this policy proved beneficial to the empire.

Islamic Politics

The struggle to reconcile Islamic values with centralized rule and absolute monarchy during the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates is explored in this book summary. Despite efforts to put Islam first, practical economic matters often stood in the way. As a result, many Muslims began to pay closer attention to the Shariah, leading to the emergence of a new class of religious experts and a counterculture movement against current injustices.

Want to read the full book summary?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed