I’ve been trying to decide whether or not to read a translation of the Quran and if so, which one to read. This title keeps showing up on the short lists of good histories of Islam. It is also on a list of highly-recommended books from the State Department. Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History was a good read. I haven’t read her since A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I may go back and re-read that now or at least one third of it. Islam was very readable and had some great reference tools in it: a glossary of Arabic terms, a chronology of Islam, a list of key figures in the history of Islam and lots of clear maps. Armstrong is a respected religious history writer with a clear way of describing some of the complexities of the changes in Islam throughout its development.
My only complaint with the book, and I knew this coming into it thanks to a side comment from Christopher Hitchens back in 2006, is that Armstrong writes about dieties, theologies and religious experiences as if they are verifiable facts. I guess the Faylasufs (see p. 71) and I will just have to get over that. Also, the book happens to have been published in 2000, so her mention of “sacred violence at the end of the second Christian millennia” is eerie. I would like to know how the events since September 11, 2001 have changed her thinking on the role of fundamentalism in Islam and the way forward.