From the bestselling writer of ‘The History of God’ and the widely acclaimed ‘Islam – A Short History’ comes Karen Armstrong's ‘Muhammad’.
Muhammad was born in 570 C.E., and over the following sixty years built a thriving spiritual community, laying the foundations of a religion that changed the course of world history. There is more historical data on his life than on that of the founder of any other major faith, and yet his story is consistently misunderstood, and subject to much distortion and error. This story is more relevant now than ever, offering crucial insight into the true origins of an increasingly radicalized Islam.
An acclaimed authority on religious and spiritual issues, Karen Armstrong offers a balanced portrait of this revered figure. Through comparison with other prophets and mystics, she illuminates Muhammad's spiritual ideas; she uses the facts of his life, from which Muslims have drawn instruction for centuries, to make the tenets of Islam clear and accessible for modern readers of all faiths.
This is an immaculately researched new biography of Muhammad that dismantles centuries of misconceptions to reveal the man at the heart of Islam.
Praise for ‘The Spiral Staircase’:
‘The book deserves many readers…Karen Armstrong must be a Woman of Iron to have survived, made a career and a life.' Hilary Mantel
‘A subtle and funny memoir.’ Sunday Telegraph
‘An exceptionally impressive autobiography…Karen Armstrong’s account of her spiralling journey provokes thought and inspires respect.’ Daily Telegraph
About the author
Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun and now teaches at the Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and the Training of Rabbis and Teachers. A regular reviewer for the Sunday Times, her books include ‘A History of God’, ‘Holy War’, ‘The Gospel According to Women’, ‘The Battle for God, Islam: A Short History’ and ‘Through the Narrow Gate’. Her work has been translated into forty languages. She is the author of three television documentaries. In 1999 she was awarded the Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award. Since September 11, 2001 she has been a frequent contributor to conferences, panels, newspapers and periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic on the subject of Islam and fundamentalism. She lives in London.
In a meticulous quest for the historical Muhammad, Armstrong first traces the West's long history of hostility toward Islam, which it has stigmatized as a ``religion of the sword.'' This sympathetic, engrossing biography portrays Muhammad (ca. 570-632) as a passionate, complex, fallible human being--a charismatic leader possessed of political as well as spiritual gifts, and a prophet whose monotheistic vision intuitively answered the deepest longings of his people. Armstrong ( The Gospel According to Woman ) refutes the Western image of Muhammad as an impostor who used religion as a means to power, an attitude encapsulated in a psychotic dream episode in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Denying that Islam preaches total intransigence, she finds in the Prophet's teachings a theology of peace and tolerance. The ``holy war'' urged by the Koran, in Armstrong's reading, alludes to each Muslim's duty to fight for a just, decent society. She draws significant parallels between the spiritual aspirations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Awesome. Inspiring. Refreshing from a non Moslem
Feeling increasingly confused by so many contradictory messages about Islam I thought I'd do some research. I started reading the Quran (alongside a commentary on the text) and began a dialogue with a local Mosque. I also read this book by Karen Armstrong (KA) as the reviews recommended it for its balance, readability and scholarship.
The book is written to help Westerners gain a better understanding and sympathy of Islam and it's founder and seeks to address the common criticisms about such things as Islam and women, violence/jihad and it's treatment of minority's especially Christians and Jews (the 'People of the book'). My main problem with the book however is that it seemed to bear little resemblance to what I was reading in the Quran. Given that the Quran is almost certainly an accurate representation of what Mohammad believed to be Allah's message to mankind and that every word is held sacred by every Muslim then I find that KA's subtitle 'A prophet for our time' to be very disconcerting.
Just let me comment on 3 of the main topics:
Women in Islam. The book was quite helpful in putting Mohammad's life and message into the context of 7th century Arabia and I can see how such things as polygamy, the veil, purdah and such like might be justified in such a situation. The argument that Mohammad was a social reformer for women at the time may well be true but I do not gain the impression from what I have read in the Quran that women are much more than property and at nearly every level are regarded as inferior to men. A 'prophet for our time'? I think not.
Islam and violence. Arabia at the time of Mohammad was certainly a very violent place and one must keep that in mind when attempting to understand the man and his message. But the oft repeated maxim in the book that Mohammad 'abhorred violence' doesn't seem to do justice to either the text of the Quran (Wikipedia lists 166 references to Jihad- not all of which it seems to me can squeeze into the self-defence excuse) or even to the story that KA tells. Unprovoked attacks on the Meccan caravans and the slaughter of recalcitrant tribes may have been part of everyday life at the time but once such actions take on the nature of 'sacred' history in an inviolable text then it's little wonder that believers with a penchant for the drastic solution can find justification for all kinds of atrocities.
Treatment of non-Muslims. Much is made by KA about the sympathies of the Prophet to the 'People of the book' and how he saw himself as the continuation of the same prophetic tradition. However, the main impression I gain from reading the Quran is hostility and suspicion towards the Jews and Christians. One does come across some amicable messages (KA quotes some of these) but there seems to be an awful lot of condemnation and even abuse.
I gather from further reading that much of what is most admirable to our modern sensibilities in the life, character and teaching of Mohammad (at least in relation to the topics I've discussed) comes from the earlier period before political power was gained in Medina. It would seem to me that throughout history the words and actions of spiritual, moral or political reformers and their followers nearly all show a marked deterioration once some measure of power is gained. The message and behaviour of a persecuted and vulnerable prophet/reformer and his reviled companions rarely survives it's pristine clarity and attractiveness once it is exposed to the temptations of power and I am tempted to believe from what I have read in the Quran that this was also the Prophets fate. In his case however the whole of the story (both the glory and the shame) has become the template and inspiration for over a billion of the occupants of the planet. If Mohammad had never made the Hirja to Medina I would be much happier to endorse KA's book. The power of his character and message from those earlier struggles/jihads is certainly attractive even to our 21st century western mind set. But if he'd never made it to Medina we would probably never have heard of him. And when I watch the news these days I sometimes wish that were true.
This is indeed the best biography/story I have ever read during 25 years. Armstrong is a faithful lady/writer.