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Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong sample essay

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Before I proceed with the summary of the book, I would like to point out that Karen Armstrong succeeded with giving brief and clear, interesting and useful information about the religion, which has lately struggled from rather disastrous reputation. People tend to fear something they know little about. I believe the book was especially important at the time when September 11th tragedy happened, because it eliminated some hysteria over Islam.

My summary is going to be based on the first ninety two pages of Armstrong’s book, which are dedicated to the historical summary on how the Muslim community was founded and shaped. The summary is divided into sections in accordance to the issues raised by Armstrong in the first part of her book.

Basic principles of Islam

From the very beginning of the book Armstrong provides basic information about Muslim culture and the principles of Qur’an. The Islam image presented by the author can be surprising to many of her readers, since Armstrong depicts it very sympathetically, which is rather rare nowadays. Armstrong gives the following introduction to the world of Islam,

“Their sacred Scripture, the Qur’an, 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” (Preface, xi).

Discussing fundamental principles of Qur’an and explaining its peculiarities Armstrong say that, “The Qur’an did not put forward any philosophical arguments for monotheism; its approach was practical, and as such, appealed to the pragmatic Arabs. The old religion, the Qur’an claimed, was simply not working. There was spiritual malaise” (8).

Armstrong claims that this pragmatic approach of having a “single God and unified unmah (Muslim community), which [would be] governed by justice and equity” (8) was meant to unite the people and to raise their spirits.

Armstrong obviously is sympathetic to Islamic principles, as she constantly repeats that Qur’anic main principles are those of justice and equity. The author refers to cruelty, which is claimed to be characteristic for Islam, as to a stereotype, and condemns extremists of being unislamic liars, who do not really take their ideas from the Qur’an.

Muhammad, the Prophet, and the Qur’an

The central principle of Islam says that there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad is His Prophet. The author reveals surprising information that according to Qur’an, “Muhammad had not come to cancel the older religions, to contradict their prophets or to start a new faith. His message is the same as that of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, or Jesus” (8).

Armstrong explains that Qur’an is vied by Muslims as the latest message from God, which was delivered through Muhammad. The Qur’an mentions all of the said figures of Christianity and refers to them as to mere prophets, including Jesus, who lived before Muhammad. Qur’an refers to the messages they made, but Christian theology experts state that those messages have some considerable deviations from the Bible.

Armstrong briefly tells the story of Muhammad, the great prophet of Islam, and his family who left Medina in the seventh century. Armstrong describes the life of the Muslim community going from the first successors of Muhammad to their followers at the times of Umayyad dynasty and the early Abbasids period. The author tells how the first mosques were founded, and how the religion spread over the vast territories. Through the process of Islam formation, the religion split into the two branches, Shiism and Sunnism, and a Sufi mysticism was created.

Armstrong says that, “Muhammad never asked Jews or Christians to accept Islam, unless they particularly wished to do so, because they received perfectly valid revelations of their own. The Qur’an insists strongly that ‘there shall be no coercion in matters of faith’ (Sura 2:256) and commands Muslims to respect the beliefs of Jews and Christians” (10).

Nevertheless, Armstrong also tells her readers about the means by which Islam was spread and how much violence and cruelty there was. However, the author tries to show a different side of the historical events. She wants to break the single impression about Islam being the religion of violence. Unfortunately, many say that Islam came with violence and many people still commit crimes, saying that they act in accordance to the words of Qur’an. Armstrong did her best to show that this is a wrong impression, which I will speak more about later in the text of my summary.

Armstrong’s attempt to break stereotypes

I think Armstrong’s book is important because it shreds light on those aspects of Muslim culture, which are often misunderstood and thus are often used for criticism of the religion.

Among the popular subjects of Islam criticism are inferior position of women and polygamy in Muslim communities, violence and wars as the ways to solve problems, etc. Armstrong provides a non-bias view and gives her readers the opportunity to find out what stands behind one or the other Muslim tradition. It gives the readers a chance to see how those traditions were logical and positive reactions to certain historical situations.

Armstrong provides information on the principles of Islam and claims that violence, which goes through the history of Islamic countries, does not come from Qur’an. Actually violence is against the norms of Islam. Thus wars are more an inherited problem rather than the norm taught by the religion.

The issue of Islamic cruelty

Armstrong gives quotes from Qur’an where we read, “Do not argue with the followers of earlier revelations otherwise than in a most kindly manner - unless it be such of them as are bent on evil-doing (Sura 29: 46)” (10). Thus Armstrong points out that Islam prohibit aggressiveness, particularly emphasizing the issue of previous religions.

Nevertheless, the history of Islam started from a lot of cruel battles. Armstrong’s point of view is that cruelty is not being limited to Muslims or principles of their religion. The author strives to demonstrate that the violence comes not from Islam. It is in fact more appropriate to say that even though the principles of the religion encourage peace and justice, cruelty still happens due to the cruelty of the world in general, which results in necessity to fight for some beliefs. This is the main impression the author tries to make while presenting her chronology of early history of Islam with reasons for every cruel action being taken.

Indeed wars and cruelty were really an inevitable part of the Muhammad followers’ endeavor to spread the word of the Prophet to all people. This is quite obvious from the historical chronology, provided by the author. Here are the main points of the early Islam history given by Armstrong:

622 - As Mecca refused to acknowledge Muhammad heavenly revelations. The Prophet and his followers went to Medina but vowed revenge to Mecca.

624 - The Battle of Badr took place between Muslims and Meccans.

627 - Muslims defeated the army of Mecca at the Battle of Trench and killed many people from the Jewish Qurayzah tribe, who had taken the side of Mecca in their battle against Muslims.

628 - Muhammad obtained the control over Arabia.

634-644 - Muslim troops went further to Syria, Iraq and Egypt to spread their religion and set of life.

638 - The Muslims invaded Jerusalem.

656 - Muslim soldiers killed Caliph Uthman.

656-660 - Civil wars started.

Trying to explain why there was so much violence even though Qur’an prohibits it, Armstrong claims that “Muslims developed their own rituals, mysticism, philosophy, doctrines, sacred texts, laws and shrines like everybody else,” (Preface, xi) but the political affairs of that time dictated their previously traditional norms of cruelty. Their enemies did not act according to Islamic principles either. Therefore, Muslims felt that their “faith in life's ultimate purpose and value was in jeopardy” (Preface, xi-xii) and they had to fight for their right to rule their own life the way they wanted, which, according to Armstrong, caused all those wars and violence.

Therefore, Armstrong’s position is that “the historical trials and tribulations of the Muslim community -- political assassinations, civil wars, invasions, and the rise and fall of the ruling dynasties -- were not divorced from the interior religious quest, but were of the essence of the Islamic vision” (Preface, xii).

Personally I find the issue of reaching good purposes by violent means being rather contradictory, but I will not criticize Armstrong’s writing, since my objective is to simply summarize her book.

Armstrong finds another excuse for the abundance of violence in the history of Islam saying that the initial meaning of Qur’an was later misinterpreted, either willingly or unwillingly (10).

There is no God but Allah

Of course, Armstrong also speaks on the other fundamental principle of Islam – the one God. The author presents Islam as historical shift from previously practiced paganism to the monotheism. Indeed, as I have already mentioned, one of the main principles of this religion is the statement that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His prophet.

Armstrong emphasizes the Qur’an and Islam being “focused on a single deity or supreme symbol of transcendence” (7). The manner, in which the author speaks of the Islamic principles, makes the impression that she agrees with most of it. Armstrong demonstrates all throughout the book how Islam, being also monotheistic and also encouraging the same principles of love, respect and equity, can relate to many of Christian principles.


The book described was intended to give information about the history of Islam and about many issues that are being misunderstood by both Muslims and non-Muslims. The book is based on historical, theological and anthropological researches in attempt to provide a brief and clear insight on how the religion was formed, what are the principles that Muslims follow and what are the fundamentals of the Islamic faith. I find it all highly useful, especially today, when Islam is so stereotyped and feared. Even though the book has many questionable issues, it surely succeeded at showing Islam to other people the way Muslims see it. It gives the internal view, which happens to be not as dreadful as many think. Thus the book really allows people to start understanding one another a little better, to see deeper than the surface and to realize that Muslim culture is logical and positive for some people and their historical background.


1. Armstrong, Karen. Islam, A Short History. The Modern Library, 2000. 1-92.
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