Karen Armstrong: Islam’s Hagiographer

Karen Armstrong has been described as “one of the world’s most provocative and inclusive thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world”. Armstrong’s efforts to be “inclusive” are certainly “provocative”, though generally for reasons that are less than edifying. In 1999, the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles gave Armstrong an award for media “fairness”. What follows might cast light on how warranted that recognition is, and indeed on how the MPAC chooses to define fairness.

In one of her baffling Guardian columns, Armstrong argues that, “It is important to know who our enemies are… By making the disciplined effort to name our enemies correctly, we will learn more about them, and come one step nearer, perhaps, to solving the… problems of our divided world.” Yet elsewhere in the same piece, Armstrong maintains that Islamic terrorism must not be referred to as such. “Jihad”, we were told, “is a cherished spiritual value that, for most Muslims, has no connection with violence.”

Well, the word ‘jihad’ has multiple meanings depending on the context, and it’s hard to determine the particulars of what “most Muslims” think in this regard. But it’s safe to say the Qur’an and Sunnah are of great importance to Muslims generally, and most references to jihad found in the Qur’an and Sunnah occur in a military or paramilitary context, and aggressive conceptions of jihad are found in every major school of Islamic jurisprudence, with only minor variations. Mohammed’s own celebration of homicidal ‘martyrdom’ makes for particularly interesting reading.

The Muslims who do commit acts of terrorism do so, by their own account, because of what they perceive as core Islamic teachings. The names they give themselves – jihadist, mujahedin, shahid – have no meaning outside of an Islamic context. But Armstrong would have us ignore what terrorists repeatedly tell us about themselves and their motives. One therefore has to ask how one defeats an opponent whose name one dare not repeat and whose stated motives one cannot mention.

In another Guardian column, Armstrong insists that, “until the 20th century, anti-Semitism was not part of Islamic culture” and that anti-Semitism is purely a Western invention, spread by Westerners. The sheer wrong-headedness of this assertion is hard to put into words, but one might note how, once again, the evil imperialist West is depicted as boundlessly capable of spreading corruption wherever it goes, while the Islamic world is portrayed as passive, devoid of agency and thereby virtuous by default.

According to Armstrong, Mohammed was, above all, a “peacemaker” who “respected” Jews and other non-Muslims. Yet nowhere in the Qur’an and Sunnah does Mohammed refer to non-Muslims as in any way deserving of respect as equals. Quite the opposite, in fact. Apparently, we are to ignore 1400 years of Islamic history contradicting Armstrong’s view, and to ignore the contents of the Qur’an and the explicitly anti-Semitic ‘revelations’ of Islam’s founder. Has Armstrong not read Ibn Ishaq’s quasi-sacred biography of Mohammed? Has she not read the Hadiths? Does she not know of the massacre of the Banu Qurayza and the opportunist raids against the Bani Quainuqa, Bani Nadir and Bani Isra’il and other Jewish tribes? Does she not know how these events were justified as a divine duty, one which formed the theological basis of the Great Jihad of Abu Bakr, setting in motion one of the most formidable military expansions in Islamic history? Does she not know how these theological ideas established Jews and Christians’ subordinate legal status throughout much of the Islamic world for hundreds of years?

In her latest offering, Armstrong is again given free rein to mislead Guardian readers and, again, rewrite history. Armstrong asserts that, “until recently, no Muslim thinker had ever claimed [violent jihad] was a central tenet of Islam”. In fact, contemporary jihadists draw upon theological traditions reaching back to Mohammed’s own murderous example. The Fifteenth Century historian and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, summarised the consensus of five centuries of prior Sunni theology regarding jihad in his book, The Muqudimmah: “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the… mission to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force… Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.” Shiite jurisprudence concurred with this consensus, as seen in al-Amili’s manual of Shia law, Jami-i-Abbasi: “Islamic holy war against followers of other religions, such as Jews, is required unless they convert to Islam.”

Given that Armstrong is regularly described as a “respected scholar” and an “expert on Islam”, she must surely know of Khaldun and his sources, and must surely know how Mohammed himself conceived jihad primarily as an expansionist military endeavour. Armstrong must also be aware of the jihad campaigns of religious ‘cleansing’ throughout the Arab Peninsula, in accord with Mohammed’s death bed words. Likewise, the five centuries of jihad campaigns in India, during which tens of millions of Hindus and Buddhists were slaughtered or enslaved to further Islamic influence, along with similar campaigns in Egypt, Palestine, Armenia, Africa, Spain, etc. All of these campaigns are thoroughly – indeed, triumphantly – documented by Muslim sources of the period and are available to any serious scholar. (For a detailed overview, see Andrew Bostom’s Legacy of Jihad.)

If Armstrong does not know of such things, in what sense can she be considered a “respected scholar” of this subject? For what, exactly, is she respected? For reaffirming popular misconceptions and PC prejudice, even when her claims are demonstrably false and egregiously misleading? It is, I think, more likely that Armstrong is aware of these inconvenient details and has chosen not to divulge them. Either way, Islam’s foremost hagiographer and shill has found an audience among Muslims and those on the left with little appetite for unflattering facts and a preference for being told whatever they wish to hear.

© David Thompson 2006

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