Thursday, April 30, 2009

Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong

“Islam is a religion of peace.” Or so Armstrong would have you believe in this mostly worthwhile overview of the religion from inception to the early 2000s. She very usefully points out that fundamentalism exists all over the world and can be found in every religion so it is unwise and inaccurate to assume fundamentalism is an exclusively Muslim phenomena or that it is representative of the majority of views held by Islam’s followers. Through Qur’anic passages and details about (alleged) prophet Muhammad’s life, the book attempts to say that Islam supports helping the poor, is explicitly against forced conversion and eschews most violence (i.e., except in a war). I found the work informative but a bit dry; as with many works of history it contained the unavoidable procession of people and dates that usually seem to matter, but at other times seemed to not matter at all. It was helpful to be reminded that there is never complete agreement among a group of people, even if they self-classify into one category. All too often our simple brains just skip over complexity and nuance and assume all X people behave in Y way with Z thoughts – a stupid thing that is hard to prevent.

Given that I have little historical (or current) knowledge of Islam, the Qur’an and the Middle East, it is hard to evaluate the accuracy of the content. One need only check reviews to see that some find Islam wonderfully objective while others think it is terrible and biased. So it goes.

What I can do though is address the supposed coherence of the statement “Islam is really…” - a structure/style that Armstrong employs throughout the work. There could be a fundamental misunderstanding here or, alternatively, just a tactical move. I’m generally of the impression that is no “really” but just different ways of interpreting things. Now, some interpretations are better than others (i.e., it is generally true that people eat bananas instead of wear them as shoes), but the Qur’an, like any religious text, asserts conflicting ideas or at least lacks clarity at various points. Some passages supposedly instruct followers to be peaceful and just, but others could read the same passage and say “We should be just… and that involves violence and killing to achieve justice.” How should you read it? Which verses do you trust? Context is a good place to start, so you’d have to read the whole thing, which of course most don’t. So then you have one scholar pushing one view and another pushing another. This isn’t just a problem with religious texts, but also with other documents such as constitutions or laws; it is nearly inherent to any enterprise attempting communication and interpretation.
Being charitable, I will assume Armstrong doesn’t think there is a ‘really’ but more that there is an interpretation of the Qur’an that is more reasonable than others, and that interpretation is that the Qur’an promotes peace and helping others less fortunate.

Yet, I still find the whole thing hugely problematic because words in a book are being used to justify behaviour instead of detailed ethical arguments. Said a different way, there will always be problems if people follow texts that offer little reasoning behind their declarations instead of explicit, reasoned, ethical arguments. Sure enough, there will still be complications with the explicit ethical argument route, but issues can at least be debated more easily with the ideas themselves discussed instead of conversations being inhibited by the obfuscating burqa of the sacred.*

*In the final line I was going to use the word 'cloak' instead of 'burqa' as 'cloak' comes more naturally and it is what first came to mind. But then I thought 'burqa' would be more germane and nearly equivalent as it is a fabric/cloth that covers much of the body. I realize the burqa is not mentioned in the Qur'an, so I am not implying that either. I initially wrote this piece without the * even though I thought about it before posting. Subsequently, my intentions were misinterpreted so I thought this addendum might add clarity. I guess you'll be the judge of that.


Post a Comment

<< Home