In Part I, Ms. Armstrong talked to me about her journey in becoming a world renowned writer and thinker on all things religious. In Part II, she discussed her book The Battle for God and the rise of fundamentalism. Now she talks to me about her book Islam: A Short History and Islam in the modern world.
FAITH L. JUSTICE: How did you get involved in writing Islam: A Short History?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: One of the editors had worked with me on Jerusalem as a sub-editor before he got into the hierarchy. He knew my work and thought Islam would be good for me. So it was simply knowing the right people. They wanted a short, slim volume to give you somewhere to start, with lists of books for further reading, so you can explore further on. I think it’s a good idea. Forty thousand words is a lovely length, but for Islam it’s hard to compress 1500 years. I had to find the theme and tell the story.
FLJ: Other than get people started, what do you want to accomplish with this book?
KA: To correct some of the imbalance. The long history of Western prejudice ever since the Crusades has troubled me ever since I became interested in Islam, way back in Jerusalem. Islam was like the United States. Europe was an undeveloped country — way behind the big civilizations after the Dark Ages and the collapse of the Roman Empire. Everywhere you looked there was Islam — Turkey, the Middle East, India, Japan, China, Southeast Asia. It was a far-flung empire. In the 16th Century, it was the most advanced civilization in the world. In Europe, we were coming up, but we hated a lot of people, which we often do when we’re in a position of striving. We approached history with a hostility towards Islam.
It comes out in all sorts of ways. In the media they assume that Islam is quite fanatical, intolerant, violent and bad about women, but it’s no better or worse than any other major faith. People think fundamentalism is an Islamic tradition, whereas fundamentalism is in every major faith. And none of the great world religions is good about women! Islam has a much better record of tolerance than Western Christianity. It has a kind spiritual tradition, a philosophy of openness. I wanted to correct that distorted view, because we’ve leaned in the 20th Century it’s dangerous to hold any such inaccurate stereotypical view of people and religion. It damages our own integrity to support an intolerant culture. Islam has its flaws, but it also has great strengths.
FLJ: You’ve described Islam as more concerned with how life is lived rather than with religions credo – orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy.
KA: Each religion has ways of apprehending the divine. One of the chief ways that Christians have is formulating doctrine. Doctrinal activity, especially for the Greek Orthodox in the beginning of Christianity, is a bit like the tribal dance in other religions. They loved metaphysics, they loved talking about this stuff — it gave them a buzz. Doctrinal activity is an Achilles heel, because Christians can, and very often have, assumed that their doctrine is the last word about God. But God is infinite and beyond human speech, you can’t make God fit into human boundaries.
In other religions there isn’t that interest in doctrine. For example your theological opinions are a matter of total indifference to the Buddha. He couldn’t care less about what you believe about God. Buddhism is about living in a certain way and in that way you apprehend the divine. So is Judaism. In Judaism, you can within reason believe anything you want about God, but what you must do is observe the Torah — the Law of Moses. There are many arguments about that, just as Christians have doctrinal arguments, but nevertheless, by living a certain way, observing diet restrictions, you develop an attitude that makes you receptive to the divine. That’s the idea.
Islam is in that system. You have five core practices that help you develop that sense of the divine particularly by living together in community. The Koran is highly skeptical about the theological speculation that divided the Jews and the Christians. They think it is self-indulgent and disgraceful that Jews and Christians argue over something like the divinity of Jesus and how bad it is to split the religion of the One God into warring sects. So the Koran doesn’t give doctrine, but the message that it is good to share your wealth equally and bad to build up a private fortune. Your first duty is to build a just world where the poor and vulnerable are treated with respect. Your effort or struggle — jihad — is to achieve this world where you learn to lay aside your own selfishness and recognize the needs of the poor, elderly, sick and give them a priority over your own needs and selfish wants.
Jihad doesn’t mean holy war, but struggle or effort. Sometimes you might have to fight, but the Koran is against any kind of aggressiveness. It says that aggression is evil. A nation might engage in a just war to preserve these values, just as it was necessary to fight Hitler in WWII. But it’s very carefully hedged around that you must make peace as soon as the enemy offers and withdraw troops as soon as possible to bring peace back. Jihad is effort. The prophet Mohammed, in a very important teaching, said, “I am going home from the battle with my brothers. We are leaving the lesser jihad — warfare — to return to the greater Jihad — the struggle to implement the ideas of the Koran in our own society and our own hearts.” That is the greater Jihad. Warfare is the lesser jihad that you might have to engage in in this flawed tragic world.
FLJ: No society lives up to its ideals. Mohammed and his successors were warriors.
KA: They had nothing. They lived in the desert on the verge of malnutrition and when there are few resources, the tribes fought one another. The Prophet was able to stop this and give them a religion that united and gave them hope. It took a long time for them to come up with what they meant by Islam. At first it may just have been experience of having been united by the Prophet — it was so extraordinary, it happened so quickly — ten years. But gradually people began to deepen the experience and what was meant by the Koran. They applied it to conditions the Prophet couldn’t imagine.
It’s a struggle to implement any religions ideal. Christians are told to love one another and turn the other cheek, but nevertheless they ague with each other about that in the same way Christians argue about the divinity of Christ — the doctrinal arguments about whether Jesus was a God or man. The community is important in Islam. If the community is humiliated, corrupted or ruled by unworthy or unpleasant politicians such as Sadam Hussein; it’s the same as if the Bible were spattered or the Eucharistic host torn apart. In Islam, you have the concept of ummah — a sacrament — a sacred activity where you encounter the divine and make the divine function effectively in the world.
FLJ: How does ummah work in the modern world with a division of church and state?
KA: We’ve divided church and state for very good reasons. Whenever, in Europe, we’ve mixed religion and politics the results were catastrophic: persecutions, inquisitions, reigns of terror, horrible impositions of religion and the crusades. The 18th Century enlightenment produced the secular state which worked out well for religion. Religion flourishes in the U.S. much more than England where we have an established church. But there are also dangers to that approach. There’s that hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and the line about the Rich Man in his palace and the Poor Man at the gate as if this were part of God’s bright and beautiful plan for the world. Politics is a dirty business. That’s why most states have in fact — not in theory — separated religion and politics.
The ummah is an entirely different ethos and the sharia — the law of Islam — developed as a protest culture against the privilege, sophistication and inegalitarianism of the court. Rich caliphs lived in luxury and poor people struggled. Islamic theology moved forward by contemplating current affairs and politics. The scandal of the caliphs made Islam think about their religion and bring forward new Muslim philosophies, practices and literature. Those debates over who should be the caliph, who should be the man to lead the Islamic ummah were as formative in the early years as the ancient Christian debates about the divinity of Jesus in the early 3rd and 4th Centuries. Politics is something Muslims contemplate and agonize about but effectively have separated it from religion.
FLJ: Where are they at with that now?
KA: They’re still debating it just as Christians are still debating about who Jesus was and can’t agree. It’s difficult. No group has created an ideal faith where the poor and downtrodden are treated with respect, so the struggle goes on. People are trying it different ways. Pakistan is a Muslim state, but it is spends far too much money on arms and corruption. The Ayatollah has a state living by Islamic law and that has its problems. The Saudis are not religious at all. They are rolling in wealth and go off to drink alcohol in casinos in foreign countries while there’s huge poverty in an oil rich country. What does it mean?
The debate continues because people who go into politics are not usually the most self-effacing, generous of human beings. So the debate goes on about what it means to be a Muslim and how to be a Muslim in a predominately non-Muslim world. I’ll be speaking to a group in Los Angeles of young people that are determined to take part in American society and democracy and be Islamic. I tell them they can be a bridge between East and West and challenge Americans with their ideas and actions.
FLJ: What about democracy and Islam?
KA: Nobody can make legislation without consulting the community. Muslims have a problem with the slogan government of, by and for the people — but you don’t have to have that to be a democracy. Unfortunately, democracy has been espoused by the left, while the right has been promoting horrible atrocities like supporting the Shah — there was nothing democratic about his regime. The message is, “We believe in democracy but you have to have a tyrant.” That gives democracy a bad name. They are coming to it on their own because the pressure of the modern state demands that they become democratic, but they want to do it in an Islamic way not as bad copies of us.
FLJ: What’s Islam’s view on protecting minorities?
KA: Islam has always treated its minorities very well since its earliest conception — much better than the way Western Europe treated its Jews. It’s got a good tradition. They can do it. There is nothing incompatible about that and Islam.
FLJ: What effect did the Christian Crusades have on Islam then and now?
KA: Very little, except for those who died. We read about the Crusades and Richard the Lion Heart going off to battle in the Holy Land, but when they reached Jerusalem they massacred 40,000 Muslims and Jews, which even by the standards of the time was an atrocity. They said the blood came up to the knees of the horses. But with the communications at the time the only people who were really affected were in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Not Iran, or India or Central Asia because these were remote areas.
The new crusaders — the colonialists in the 18th and 19th Centuries with their missionaries trotting behind — brought modernization but only so far as it would advance their own mercantile interests. The majority of the Muslim world was not affected by early crusades because they were not there. They came back after the crusades and created something good and viable and creative.
FLJ: What’s their future?
KA: I was trying to show that the Islamic response to the West was not that peculiar to this century, but paradigmatic. The first people to experience the westernization of the world were Muslims, whether you are talking about Africa, the Middle East, India, Japan or China. They were the first people to bear the brunt of westernization and the dominance of Western capitalism. In the West, we had three centuries of revolution, ethnic cleansing, exploitation of poor and women and children in factories, despoiling the countryside and urban slums. Now we’re watching the same process in the Middle East, but worse, because they have to do it much quicker than we did.
Modern ideas of democracy remain among a small cadre of educated elite, but they haven’t had time to trickle down and they can’t do it according to their own agenda. What was difficult for us is difficult for them as well. The 20th Century is called the American Century and the 19th Century was the British Century. Maybe the 21st will be the Chinese Century where we have to learn the Chinese language and wear Chinese clothes.
FLJ: You’ve said “Religion is highly pragmatic. It’s far more important for a particular idea of God to work than to logically or scientifically sell it.” How does that fit in with Islam?
KA: Islam would have failed, people would not have followed the Prophet, the religion would not have taken off, if people had not found that by living according to the five core practices of Islam worked for them. Islam responded to various challenges — expulsion from Spain, corruption in its midst, Mongol invaders. In spite of these tragedies, people found that living this way brought hope to the community. Once a religion stops giving hope, it’s not fulfilling its mission. Churches are empty because people who go to church don’t find the sublime. That’s what happened to the old pagan religions. They stopped being able to respond to the new type of society that was developing and became obsolete. New religions with new symbolism took over. Islam is one of those.
FLJ: What’s your opinion of the current Mid-east peace talks?
KA: If there is not a settlement or solution to Jerusalem tensions will go on. It seemed possible in the past for the tree religions to coexist. Under Islam they did pretty well. It wasn’t Shangri La, but the three communities were able to live together in relative peace and harmony. Since 1966 a religious element entered the Middle-East conflict. Zionism began as an entirely secular movement. It was a rebellion against religion. The Zionists were absolute pragmatists. They were perfectly prepared to trade parts of the Jewish state and allow the Arabs to take East Jerusalem. There were pragmatists on both sides. But both sides experienced an upsurge of religious belief in 1965 or 1966. Every major proposition since has made religion a form of government. Jerusalem has become a fateful symbol bound up in absolute religious beliefs. In this mix no one can back down and that’s a tragedy because here are two peoples who need one another.
There are people on both sides who are willing to compromise but you can have war in five minutes. To bring peace closer takes a long time. Look at what happened in Northern Ireland. First you take three steps closer and think “Great” then someone knocks your hat off. You have to keep going and keep going and keep going until people decide that the war, the hatred, young people being killed are not worth it. I think it is that, rather than any nobility of the soul, that pushes people to the table. We’ve got a long way to go and its not just a question of time — these people have made war now for sixty years and it might take another sixty before they can settle.
FLJ: What advice would you give to the President to help make peace?
KA: I think he should first acknowledge that this is really hard and not just a question of bringing these people together. Any solution has to be from the people themselves. When people have been feuding for centuries, they are hurt and upset. High-handed tactics won’t work.
FLJ: You seem to have a great affection for Islam – where did that come from?
KA: My driver in Jerusalem was Palestinian. He would pick up some of his friends to give them a lift. These young men never went near the mosque. One night we were driving around drinking beer and the Koran came on over the radio. In the U.K., if I was driving around London with a bunch of beer drinking young men and the Bible came on, they would all be vying for the off button. But these young men were transfixed by the absolute beauty of the language. They tried to translate it for me — it’s very difficult to translate. I was impressed by the way they talked about Mohammed with real affection and love — not anything like what a Christian youth in Europe would talk about Jesus. They talked about him like he was a member of the family, somebody you really know and are fond of. This was impressive to me and I thought there must be something in this and I started looking.
When I left the convent and struggled all those years I was becoming atheist. What brought me back was the study of other faiths. Judaism was just as crucial to me in the rediscovery of myself as Islam. From both of these traditions, I got an inkling of what my own tradition tried to do. Muslims were the first people to treat me as more than a runaway nun. With Islam a Short History, people said, “You’ll end up like Salmon Rushdie. They won’t like that a western woman wrote it.” But I’ve found a huge generosity, appreciation and warmth of response. Yes I do have affection for Islam. They’ve been very kind to me. I teach at a Jewish rabbinical college in London and they’ve provided me with a whole community that is very warming. I owe a great deal to these faiths for giving me back my own.
FLJ: You told me about your new book on Buddha coming out, any other projects?
KA: I’m going to write a history of the Axial Age, that brief and extraordinary period when all the great major world religions came into being — monotheism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Greek Rationalism. The similarities between Buddha and Socrates are quite fascinating and show us important things about our humanity and what we are capable of. What those actual people were doing would be considered absolutely horrifying by some of our religious leaders today. They suggested no one can take anything on faith; that you find out things for yourself. Compassion was the main virtue, not keeping in line theologically. It’s a challenge to say how religion grows. It can’t be foisted onto people by human beings. It’s something that human beings find warm and pragmatic. People have found the best way to live is in love. Love in a disciplined way, not handing out a few flowers and saying, “We love you.”
FLJ: Thanks so much for your time.
KA: You’re welcome.
Note: Portions of these interviews appeared in “The Fundamentalist Battle for God” in Catholic Digest, and “The Roots of Islamic Fundamentalism: An Interview with Karen Armstrong” in In These Times.