Karen Armstrong: Islam’s Hagiographer

Historians in the News

Karen Armstrong has been described as “one of the world's most provocative and inclusive thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world”. Armstrong’s efforts to be “inclusive” are certainly “provocative”, though generally for reasons that are less than edifying. In 1999, the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles gave Armstrong an award for media “fairness”. What follows might cast light on how warranted that recognition is, and indeed on how the MPAC chooses to define fairness.

In one of her baffling Guardian columns, Armstrong argues that, “It is important to know who our enemies are… By making the disciplined effort to name our enemies correctly, we will learn more about them, and come one step nearer, perhaps, to solving the… problems of our divided world.” Yet elsewhere in the same piece, Armstrong maintains that Islamic terrorism must not be referred to as such. “Jihad”, we were told, “is a cherished spiritual value that, for most Muslims, has no connection with violence.”

Well, the word ‘jihad’ has multiple meanings depending on the context, and it’s hard to determine the particulars of what “most Muslims” think in this regard. But it’s safe to say the Qur’an and Sunnah are of great importance to Muslims generally, and most references to jihad found in the Qur’an and Sunnah occur in a military or paramilitary context, and aggressive conceptions of jihad are found in every major school of Islamic jurisprudence, with only minor variations. Mohammed’s own celebration of homicidal ‘martyrdom’ makes for particularly interesting reading.

The Muslims who do commit acts of terrorism do so, by their own account, because of what they perceive as core Islamic teachings. The names they give themselves – jihadist, mujahedin, shahid – have no meaning outside of an Islamic context. But Armstrong would have us ignore what terrorists repeatedly tell us about themselves and their motives. One therefore has to ask how one defeats an opponent whose name one dare not repeat and whose stated motives one cannot mention.

In another Guardian column, Armstrong insists that, “until the 20th century, anti-Semitism was not part of Islamic culture” and that anti-Semitism is purely a Western invention, spread by Westerners. The sheer wrong-headedness of this assertion is hard to put into words, but one might note how, once again, the evil imperialist West is depicted as boundlessly capable of spreading corruption wherever it goes, while the Islamic world is portrayed as passive, devoid of agency and thereby virtuous by default.

According to Armstrong, Mohammed was, above all, a “peacemaker” who “respected” Jews and other non-Muslims. Yet nowhere in the Qur’an and Sunnah does Mohammed refer to non-Muslims as in any way deserving of respect as equals. Quite the opposite, in fact. Apparently, we are to ignore 1400 years of Islamic history contradicting Armstrong’s view, and to ignore the contents of the Qur’an and the explicitly anti-Semitic ‘revelations’ of Islam’s founder. Has Armstrong not read Ibn Ishaq’s quasi-sacred biography of Mohammed? Has she not read the Hadiths? Does she not know of the massacre of the Banu Qurayza and the opportunist raids against the Bani Quainuqa, Bani Nadir and Bani Isra’il and other Jewish tribes? Does she not know how these events were justified as a divine duty, one which formed the theological basis of the Great Jihad of Abu Bakr, setting in motion one of the most formidable military expansions in Islamic history? Does she not know how these theological ideas established Jews and Christians’ subordinate legal status throughout much of the Islamic world for hundreds of years?...

Read entire article at David Thompson at Butterfliesandwheels.com (blog)

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Tim R. Furnish - 8/23/2006

Excellent column. Armstrong seems to have decided that Muslims are simply (as Martin Kramer once said), "Quakers in turbans" and anything that contradicts that ahistorical view is condemned. As for anti-Judaism in Islam: do not forget that al-Dajjal, the Islamic equivalent of the anti-christ is a Jew in the the Hadiths!