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Islam

A Short History

By Karen Armstrong
18-minute read
Audio available
Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong

Islam: A Short History (2000) charts the meteoric rise of Islam from its birth as a small sect in seventh-century Arabia to a global religion with just under two billion followers. What makes Islam unique among faiths, Karen Armstrong argues, are its refusal to postpone justice to the next world and quest to create the perfect society in the here and now. She follows this thread in her fascinating tour of 1,500 years of Islamic history.

  • Believers and non-believers
  • History and politics buffs
  • Whoever seeks to understand Islam is beyond the headlines

Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a Catholic nun before becoming one of the most highly regarded experts writing on the history of major world religions today. She is the author of the bestselling A History of God as well as Jerusalem, The Battle for God, Buddha and Through the Narrow Gate. Armstrong currently teaches at the Leo Baeck College in London.

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Islam

A Short History

By Karen Armstrong
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong
Synopsis

Islam: A Short History (2000) charts the meteoric rise of Islam from its birth as a small sect in seventh-century Arabia to a global religion with just under two billion followers. What makes Islam unique among faiths, Karen Armstrong argues, are its refusal to postpone justice to the next world and quest to create the perfect society in the here and now. She follows this thread in her fascinating tour of 1,500 years of Islamic history.

Key idea 1 of 11

Islam is a religion uniquely concerned with creating a just society in this world.

What is religion? Well, it usually has two sides. On the one hand, there’s spirituality – a search for transcendence. Though believers might wish to withdraw from the world, a purely personal faith usually remains beyond reach. Religions also have an “external history,” in which they’re forced to confront the harsh realities of power politics.

All religions take part in the global battle for survival and expansion, but most regard this struggle as a necessary evil that corrupts their sacred ideal. Take Hinduism. It regards historical events as meaningless compared to the eternal truths of faith. Christianity has a similar view. That’s why Jesus reminded his followers that the Kingdom of God wasn’t a blueprint for a new society in this world, but a metaphor for personal salvation. Even the Enlightenment philosophers who argued for the separation of church and state didn’t want to banish religion from public life. Rather, they sought to protect it from political rivalries. Belief, they thought, was a personal matter too important to be dragged into everyday conflicts.

That said, every religion is a product of its time. After all, people usually turn to faith because they feel that the present is unjust. But transcendence is only possible by learning to see the divine in this world. This is what the author terms “earthing.” That’s another way of saying that real objects can become gateways to the ultimate truth. To understand this, just think of the role sacred rocks, temples, holy images and texts play in the great religions. These are earthly symbols through which the faithful encounter the divine.

Islam, unlike Christianity or Hinduism, doesn’t have religious icons. The symbols that really matter are the deeds of Muslims in this world. For Muslims, making history is a way of experiencing divinity. Islam is thus a uniquely political faith. Its highest aim is to create a just society in the here and now, and political action to achieve that ideal is seen as a kind of sacrament imparting spiritual grace.

That means Islam’s “internal” and “external” sides can’t be separated. To understand the religion, one has to grapple with its historical development, which is exactly what we’ll be doing in the following blinks.

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