One of the most demanding challenges of the West is "to cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam in the third Christian millennium." That is the view of Karen Armstrong, one of the world's foremost scholars on religious affairs and author of The Battle for God, The History of God, and Through the Narrow Gate, a memoir of her seven years as a nun.
Whereas many of the world's religions have tried to wall themselves off from the taint of history, Islam has sought the sacralization of history. Or, as Armstrong cogently puts it, "In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Quran, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God's will."
Armstrong begins with a very helpful and succinct 22-page chronology that provides an overview of the time frame she covers, from 610 when Muhammad received the first revelations of the Quran in Mecca through 1997 when Iran's President Khatami dissociates his government from Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwah against British author Salman Rushdie. Armstrong surveys the ups and downs of the Muslim community including civil wars, assassinations, rival dynasties, the Crusades and their dire effect on the faithful, the blossoming of imperial Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism with its enmity for the West. Along the way, she introduces us to the split between the Shii and Sunni Muslims; the growth of Sufism as Islam's mystical tradition; and the constantly changing currents of Islamic philosophy, law, and spirituality.
Islam continues to grow in the United States and abroad. Still it remains the world's most misunderstood religion with many Westerns seeing Muslims as basically conservative, intolerant, and violent. It is time to cast aside these false stereotypes. Hopefully, Armstrong's accessible and well-written history will reveal the inner wellsprings of Islamic compassion as well its thirst for justice, hospitality, courtesy, and devotional richness.