Thursday, October 26, 2006

Worst book on Islam you can read

Sid mentioned a nice read here, that makes a strange recommendation,
Islam: A Short History, by Karen Armstrong, 2000. Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, who commanded American troops in the Middle East, once argued that "a fundamental rule of counterinsurgency is to make no new enemies." Ignorance of the religious and cultural beliefs of a society makes such mistakes inevitable -- and dangerous. Armstrong's book is a strong antidote to ignorance.
No, no, no, no. I read this book earlier this year, and if this is your guide, you are lost. I have to respond. I have dug around some and this give me a chance to hit two birds with one stone. Zinni and Armstrong. The fact that Zinni would recommend this book putseverything he says about the Muslim world in question. That fact that Karen is considered such a source of knowledge on the same should make you worry - alot.

Let's start with the book. I read it so you don't have to.

Islam: A Short History
by Karen Armstrong
Modern Library Edition

The Modern Library Editorial Board
(At the time of this book's publication)

Maya Angelou
Daniel J. Boorstin
A.S. Byatt
Caleb Carr
Christopher Cerf
Ron Chernow
Shelby Foote
Stephen Jay Gould
Vartan Gregorian
Charles Johnson
Jon Krakauer
Edmund Morris
Joyce Carol Oates
Elaine Pagels
John Richardson
Salman Rushdie
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Carolyn See
William Styron
Gore Vidal

Of note about this book; it was written pre 11 SEP 01. This is important in many ways. First, it gives an insight into what was the pre-911 mindset of the Ivory Tower elite towards Islam and religion in general, and should give some insight why it was, and in many ways still is, very difficult for self-described "highly" educated people to understand Islam - especially those who make a living telling everyone how educated they are. It is also handy that this is from the pre-German American Bund...umm...I mean C.A.I.R. days. There are some wonderfully blunt statements that would not pass the editor today. Those quickly fade though. As a passing interest and why you should educate your children about Islam because the schools won't - follow some of the links to the Modern Library Editorial Board members. Plenty of folks the Right wouldn't care for -- but the Left? Fair and balanced?

It is a short book; a small book; a quick read; a flawed creation. Well, we started strong; mentioning the fact that Allah is actually Al-Lah, the head of the pagan Arab pantheon. The moon god.
Some had come to believe that the High God (sic) of their pantheon, al-Lah (whose name simply means "The God "(sic), was the deity (sic) worshipped by the Jews and the Christians, but he had sent the Arabs no prophet and no scripture in their own language. (pp. 3)
And we define our terms correctly.
The new sect would eventually be called islam (surrender) (pp. 5)
Once again, Islam does not mean "Peace," unless of course you think peace is the absence of opposition. Then we have a good description of the "holy" city of Mecca, the Kabah, and where the Hajj and all the fun activities come from. Yes, this was pre-Islam. Sound familiar?
..the Kabah, the cube shaped shrine in the heart of Mecca, the most important centre of worship in Arabia. It was extremely ancient even in Muhammad's time...but it was still loved by the Arabs, who assembled each year for the hajj pilgrimage fro all over the peninsula. They would circle the shrine seven times, following the direction of the sun around the earth; kiss the Black Stone embedded in the wall of the Kabah, which was probably a meteorite that had once hurtled to the ground, linking the site to the heavenly world. These rites (known as the umrah) could be performed at any time, but during the hajj pilgrims would also run from the steps of al-Safa beside the Kabah across the valley to the al-Marway, where they prayed. They then moved to the environs of Mecca: on the plains of Arafat, they stood all night in vigil; they rushed in a body to the hollow of Muzdalifah; hurled pebbles at a rock at Mina, shaved their heads, and on the Id al-Adha, the final day of the pilgrimage, they performed an animal sacrifice(pp. 10-11)
Sound familiar? He didn't change much from ...
Officially, the shrine was dedicated to Hubal, a Nabatean deity, and there were 360 idols arranged around the Kabah...
...but then is starts.
...Muhammad was one of those rare men who truly enjoy the company of women. (pp.15)
Quite. Oh, the whole behind the rock and talking tree stuff? Things really start to go down hill.
Anti-semitism is a Christian vice. Hatred of the Jews became marked in the Muslim world only after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent loss of Arab Palestine.
Don't tell the Jews of Hebron.

The Danes may disagree with the following.
Muhammad was never venerated as a divine figure, .. (pp.24)
Remember the whole Religion of Peace stuff?
A century after the Prophet's death, the Islamic Empire extended from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas. ... Where Christians discerned God's hand in apparent failure and defeat, when Jesus died on the cross, Muslims experienced political success as sacramental and as a revelation of the divine presence in their lives.(pp. 29)
I am not quite certain what is more insane about this passage. The total misunderstanding of Christian basics is dumbfounding. Christ's crucification a defeat? Huh? Who taught her Christian theology? That I will let pass as I don't think Karen is a Christian - but - note how the capture by the sword is a "political success." I still have trouble reading that and not thinking that this is a brilliant ignoramus or someone who is intentionally telling a fib. Perhaps both?

How about this reading of history?
...when Muslims had established their great empire ... (they) accepted that they had reached the limits of their expansion by this date, and coexisted amicably with the non-Muslim world. ... some of the Roman Christians, who had been persecuted by the Greek Orthodox for their heretical opinions, greatly preferred Muslim to Byzantine rule.(pp. 30-31)
Like that twist? This this one on for size.
When Charles Martel defeated the Muslim troops at Pointiers in 732, this was not regarded by Muslims as a great disaster. Western people have often exaggerated the importance of Pointiers, which was no Waterloo. The Arabs felt no compulsion -- religious or otherwise -- to conquer western Christendom in the name of Islam. Indeed, Europe seemed remarkably unattractive to them: there were few opportunities for trade in that primitive backwater, little booty to be had, and the climate was terrible. (pp 50)
Ummm. Yea. Much rather be in Yemen than southern France. Yep.

Speaking of unnecessary exaggeration. The Soviets would be so proud.
Muslim scholars made more scientific discoveries during this time than in the whole of previously recorded history. (she is talking about a century to a century and a half after the death of Muhammad) (pp. 56)
Ok. They aren't perfect are they?
The three great (Islamic) empires were all in decline by the end of the eighteenth century. This was not due to the essential incompetence or fatalism of Islam, as Europeans often arrogantly assumed. (pp. 136)
The last 25% of the book is a long set of excuses for the failure of most Muslim nations to stagger into the modern world, and it is tiresome to read. I'll pick out just a very few to chew on. The blindness and misstatements are legion. You fans of the Catholic Church will love the following.
Politics had never been central to the Christian religious experience.
We also have this old bit that the formally Christian people of Byzantium, Egypt, and the Maghreb would find interesting.
.... it was Christians who had instigated a series of brutal holy wars against the Muslim world, that Islam was described by the learned scholar-monk of Europe as a n inherently violent and intolerant faith, which had only been able to establish itself by the sword.
....and that is inaccurate how? What would the Zoroastrians of Persia, the Hindu of the sub-continent and the Buddhists of the Hindu Kush say about that? Anyway, you know whose fault it all is.
... the West has certainly contributed to this development and , to assuage the fear and despair that lies at the root of all fundamentalist vision, should cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam in the third Christian millennium. (pp. 187)
How would you propose that, Karen?

Ungh. This is what passes as enlightened work. If you really want to get depressed, read the description of Karen at the back of the book.
Karen Armstrong is one of the world's foremost scholars on religious affairs. She is the author of several bestselling books, including The Battle for God, Jerusalem, The history of God, and Through the Narrow Gate, a memoir of her seven years as a nun. She lives in London.
Oh, dear.

This book also added more weight to why I have little faith in the value or opinion of General Zinni.

I want you to look at the friends Zinni and Armstrong have. Search for their names here, here, here, here, here, and here. Zinni has been on an anti-Bush run since they fired him for his complete failure as an envoy. Classic guy who thinks it is best to make yourself look so smart by attacking those who have found your skills wanting. Armstrong? I don't know. Self-hating former Nun? The fact that Marines read her crap makes me sad in some way.

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