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.
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In Part I, Ms. Armstrong a self-described “freelance monotheists”, discussed how she came to be one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers of religious history. In this section she talks to me about her book The Battle for God and the rise of fundamentalism around the world.
FAITH L. JUSTICE: In The Battle for God, you discuss how religions have evolved in the past millennia, could you explain the essential differences between pre-modern and modern society/religion what you call “mythos and logos”?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: The basic change is economic. During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries the West began to develop a kind of civilization that was entirely new and without precedent in the world. Instead of based economically on the surplus of agriculture, as all premodern societies have been, it was based on technology which could be replicated ad infinitum, or so people imagined. During this time science achieved such spectacular results that the old mythical way of looking at religion became entirely discredited.
Today in popular parlance the word “myth” means basically something that’s not true. If a politician is accused of some peccadillo he will often say that this is a myth — it didn’t happen. In the premodern world, myth was a primitive form of psychology, an event that in some sense happened once and which also happened all the time. This is a concept for which we have no word in our language because we’ve lost that sense. We think of history in terms of a succession of unique events. In the premodern world people knew that what they called myth and logos –scientific rationalism — were distinct and entirely separate. You needed both. You needed myth to give yourself the meaning that human beings require from life, because we’re meaning seeking creatures and fall very easily into despair. But you also needed logos — practical, scientific, rational, logical reason to sharpen an arrow correctly or run your societies. But you did not mix the two. Both had complimentary tasks. Each had its own particular area of competence.
Once myth had been discredited, religion had to be rethought. In America, in particular, the fundamentalists became extremely concerned that if the truth of religion were not historically demonstrable and scientifically verifiable facts, then they couldn’t be valid. That’s been a crucial thing in the West. In the Jewish religion people are less concerned with dogma and doctrine than Christians are. This dogmatic concern is a peculiar and unique aspect of Christianity. Judaism and Islam are both religions of practice. People are more concerned to make their religions function effectively in the world and often use the truths of religion as a blueprint for action in a way that usually would not deemed advisable in the premodern world. So religion has changed because our society changed. We rethought the old truths of religion. Fundamentalism is just one of the many attempts to say how we can be religious in the modern world.
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Ms. Armstrong, who calls herself a “freelance monotheist,” is among the foremost religious historians, writers, and thinkers in the world. A former Catholic nun, she’s written biographies of Buddha, the Prophet Mohammed, and St. Peter as well as the best-selling books The Battle for God, A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. Ms. Armstrong talked to me about her writing and research process, her struggles with life after leaving the convent, religious fundamentalism in all its many forms, and Islam in the modern world.
FAITH L. JUSTICE: When did you start to write?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: My first book, about my life in the convent, was published in 1981 — it was a long time after leaving. I found people tended to introduce me at parties and suppers as, “Here’s Karen. She used to be a nun.” I would spend the entire meal being questioned about it and I didn’t have time to explain why — the interior stuff and the rationale that made sense of all these things. So I told funny stories and trivialized the experience. After awhile, I wanted to remember it as it was and try to deal with it in some way. The first drafts were very angry. My agent at the time asked, “If it was that bad, why did you stay so long?” The book was a way of coming to terms with the experience and seeing the positive side as well as the negative. Now writing is my living. It’s what I do.
FLJ: Why did you take up the religious life?
KA: For a number of reasons, because motivation is never simple. There was a religious aspect to it — I wanted to find God, or what I thought might be God. I had a teenage oversimplified view: I would find the divine, be filled with peace and serenity, lose all that adolescent anguish and misery, and overnight become a wise saint. I was also very shy and very uncomfortable socially. I was okay at lessons and exams, but socially and emotionally? In the early 60’s, before things loosened up, it was a bad time to be a woman, if you weren’t pretty. Now you can find your own style.
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