Karen Armstrong tells us to ignore history and doctrine, focus on platitudes about peace and love.
By Raymond Ibrahim
Islamic apologist extraordinaire Karen Armstrong is at it again. In an article entitled “Balancing the Prophet” published by the Financial Times, the self-proclaimed “freelance monotheist” engages in what can only be considered second-rate sophistry.
The false statements begin in her opening paragraph:
Ever since the Crusades, people in the west have seen the prophet Muhammad as a sinister figure.… The scholar monks of Europe stigmatised Muhammad as a cruel warlord who established the false religion of Islam by the sword. They also, with ill-concealed envy, berated him as a lecher and sexual pervert at a time when the popes were attempting to impose celibacy on the reluctant clergy.
This is just an obvious error of fact. Armstrong and others try as a routine to tie European sentiments toward Islam to the Crusades, but in fact, “people in the west” had something of a “dim” view of Mohammed half a millenium before the Crusades. As early as the 8th century — just a few generations after Mohammed — Byzantine chronicler Theophanes wrote in his Chrongraphia:
He [Mohammed] taught those who gave ear to him that the one slaying the enemy — or being slain by the enemy — entered into paradise [e.g., Koran 9:111]. And he said paradise was carnal and sensual — orgies of eating, drinking, and women. Also, there was a river of wine … and the woman were of another sort, and the duration of sex greatly prolonged and its pleasure long-enduring [e.g., 56: 7-40, 78:31, 55:70-77]. And all sorts of other nonsense.
It wasn’t only during the Crusades — when, as Armstrong would have it, popes desperately needed to demonize Mohammed and Islam in order to rally support for the Crusades — that Westerners began to see him as a “sinister figure.” Many in the West have seen him as that from the very start. So, claims of Mohammed being a “lecherous pervert” were not due to any “ill-conceived envy” on the part of 12th-century popes trying to “impose celibacy on the reluctant clergy.” (Indeed, this last notion posited by Armstrong — an ex-nun — appears to be more telling of her own “ill-conceived envy” against the Church.) Despite the oft-repeated mantra that the West is “ignorant” of Islam — dear to apologists like Armstrong — this passage reveals that, from the start, Westerners were in fact aware of some aspects of the Koran.
Having distorted history, she next goes on to distort Islamic theology:
Until the 1950s, no major Muslim thinker had made holy war a central pillar of Islam. The Muslim ideologues Abu ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), among the first to do so, knew they were proposing a controversial innovation. They believed it was justified by the current political emergency [emphasis added].
Even better than a “major Muslim thinker,” Allah himself proclaims: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor forbid what has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger [i.e., uphold sharia], nor embrace the true faith, [even if they are] from among the People of the Book [Jews and Christians], until they pay tribute with willing submission, and feel themselves utterly subdued” (Koran 9:29). Mohammed confirms: “I have been commanded [by Allah] to fight against mankind until they testify that none but Allah is to be worshipped and that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger” (Bukhari B2N24; next to the Koran, the second most authoritative text in Islam).
This and countless other Koranic verses and oral traditions of Mohammed, not to mention the course of conquest the first “rightly-guided” caliphs followed, have given Islam’s jurists and theologians cause throughout the ages to reach the consensus — binding on the entire Muslim community — that whenever the Muslim world is militarily capable, it must go on the offensive until it subsumes the entire world. Moreover, this world-view was postulated well before Armstrong’s blame-all — the Crusades — ever took place.
Qutb and Mawdudi were certainly not, as she puts it, “the first major Muslim thinkers to do so.” Their claim to fame is that they were great articulators of jihad who awoke the umma to its obligation — an obligation, however, which was formulated by the great sheikhs of Islam (such as revered scholars Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim of the 13th century) who, in their turn, based it on the words of the Koran and Mohammed. But Armstrong is right in that they did stress jihad due to the “current political emergency” — but not in the way she means (i.e., “self-defense”): In their lifetime the Ottoman empire — which, until its last moribund centuries, waged one jihad after another, terrorizing and conquering many of its Christian neighbors — fell and there was no longer a central Muslim sultanate, or “caliphate,” to maintain even a semblance of Islamic power, authority, and expansion. This needed — and still needs — to be rectified under Islam’s worldview.
In fact, Qutb was a staunch opponent of those apologists of Islam in his day who were — just like Armstrong — trying to reinterpret jihad into a defensive movement. Nearly half a century ago, Qutb wrote:
As to persons who attempt to defend the concept of Islamic jihad by interpreting it in the narrow sense of the current concept of defensive war… they lack understanding of the nature of Islam and its primary aim… Can anyone say that if Abu Bakr, Omar, or Uthman [the “rightly-guided” caliphs] had been satisfied that the Roman or Persian powers were not going to attack the Arabian penninsula [in the 7th century], that they would not have striven to spread the message of Islam throughout the world?
During the reign of the “rightly-guided” caliphs, Islam burst forth from Arabia as far west as Spain, as far east as Afghanistan through the sword alone.
Armstrong then spends an inordinate amount of time criticizing author Robert Spencer and his new book The Truth about Muhammad:
The traditions of any religion are multifarious. It is easy, therefore, to quote so selectively that the main thrust of the faith is distorted. But Spencer is not interested in balance. He picks out only those aspects of Islamic tradition that support his thesis. For example, he cites only passages from the Koran that are hostile to Jews and Christians and does not mention the numerous verses that insist on the continuity of Islam with the People of the Book: ‘Say to them: We believe what you believe; your God and our God is one [29:46]’.
But is Armstrong not herself being a bit disingenuous by assuring the people of the West — primarily Christian — that the Koran’s notion of God “insists on continuity” with theirs? What about the other koranic verses: “Infidels are those who say Allah is one of three… [i.e., the Christian Trinity; ]” (5:73). “Infidels are those who say Allah is the Christ [Jesus], son of Mary” (5:17). The divinity of Christ — anathema to Islam — is fundamental to the Christian view of God. Surely Armstrong has not forgotten this from her days at the convent.
Moreover, if writers like Spencer are guilty of quoting Koranic verses “that are hostile to Jews and Christians” that may well be due to Islam’s pivotal doctrine of abrogation — verses revealed later in Mohammed’s career (all the violent and intolerant ones such as 5:73, 5:17, 9:5, and 9:29) supercede and annul any contradictory verses revealed earlier, such as Armstrong’s 29:46 and most of the other peaceful ones which apologists try to make the cornerstone of Islam.
Finally, if books like Spencer’s focus on the violent side of Islam without devoting enough attention to Islam’s more “positive” aspects — is that not only natural? Let us be perfectly clear: Most people in the West interested in learning more about Islam had their interest piqued by the 9/11 attacks, perpetrated by a Muslim group — al Qaeda — who insists that Islam informed its actions. Westerners are primarily interested in how Islam affects them, as non-Muslims. So it should be understandable if books written about Islam in the West focus more on that which concerns it — jihad — than on Islam’s more peaceful side.
Armstrong’s lament that “there is widespread ignorance of Islam in the west,” and that we should rectify this by developing a more “balanced” and “nuanced” understanding of the Koran is as ridiculous as asking Muslims living in Palestine and Iraq to overlook the “Crusader” presence there and instead consult the Bible itself to see how many portions of it accord with peace and justice. (Indeed, such a proposition is worse than ridiculous, since the Bible comes nowhere near to theologically justifying violence against the “Other” in perpetuity as found in the Koran.
In the final analysis, Armstrong’s historical and theological “discrepancies” (to be polite) are baffling — particularly her many oneline sentences that simply defy historical fact: “Muhammad was not a belligerent warrior.” “The idea that Islam should conquer the world was alien to the Koran…” “Muhammad did not shun non-Muslims as ‘unbelievers’ but from the beginning co-operated with them in the pursuit of the common good.” “Islam was not a closed system at variance with other traditions. Muhammad insisted that relations between the different groups must be egalitarian.”
Still, in the end one can sympathize with Armstrong’s closing sentence: “Until we all learn to approach one another with generosity and respect, we cannot hope for peace.” But we should also hasten to add the more important virtues of honesty, sincerity, and truthfulness.
— Raymond Ibrahim is the editor of The Al-Qaeda Reader, translations of religious texts and propaganda. He works for the Near East section of the Library of Congress.