Karen Armstrong: Accused of ignoring history and mouthing platitudes

Historians in the News

Islamic apologist extraordinaire Karen Armstrong is at it again.  In an article entitled “Balancing the Prophet” published by the Financial Times, the self-proclaimed “freelance monotheist” engages in what can only be considered second-rate sophistry.

The false statements begin in her opening paragraph:

Ever since the Crusades, people in the west have seen the prophet Muhammad as a sinister figure.… The scholar monks of Europe stigmatised Muhammad as a cruel warlord who established the false religion of Islam by the sword. They also, with ill-concealed envy, berated him as a lecher and sexual pervert at a time when the popes were attempting to impose celibacy on the reluctant clergy.

In fact, “people in the west” have had something of a “dim” view of Muhammad for nearly half a millenium before the Crusades. As early as the 8th century — just a few generations after Muhammad — Byzantine chronicler Theophanes wrote in his Chronographia that:

He [Muhammad] taught those who gave ear to him that the one slaying the enemy — or being slain by the enemy — entered into paradise [e.g., Koran 9:111]. And he said paradise was carnal and sensual — orgies of eating, drinking, and women. Also, there was a river of wine … and the women were of another sort, and the duration of sex greatly prolonged and its pleasure long-enduring [e.g., 56: 7-40, 78:31, 55:70-77].  And all sorts of other nonsense.

This passage totally contradicts Armstrong’s claims: 1) It wasn’t only during the Crusades — when, as Armstrong would have it, popes desperately needed to demonize Muhammad and Islam in order to rally support for the Crusades — that Westerners began to see him as a “sinister figure.” Many in the West have seen him as that from the very start.  2) Thus claims of Muhammad being a “lecherous pervert” were not due to any “ill-conceived envy” on the part of 12th-century popes trying to “impose celibacy on the reluctant clergy.” (Indeed, this last notion posited by Armstrong — an ex-nun — appears to be more telling of her own “ill-conceived envy” against the Church.) 3) Despite the famous mantra that the West is “ignorant” of Islam — dear to apologists like Armstrong — this passage reveals that, from the start, Westerners were in fact aware of some aspects of the Koran.

Having distorted history, Armstrong next goes on to distort Islamic theology:

Until the 1950s, no major Muslim thinker had made holy war a central pillar of Islam. The Muslim ideologues Abu ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), among the first to do so, knew they were proposing a controversial innovation. They believed it was justified by the current political emergency.

1) Even better than a “major Muslim thinker,” Allah himself proclaims: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor forbid what has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger [i.e., uphold Sharia], nor embrace the true faith, [even if they are] from among the People of the Book [Jews and Christians], until they pay tribute with willing submission, and feel themselves utterly subdued” (Koran 9:29). Muhammad confirms: "I have been commanded [by Allah] to fight against mankind until they testify that none but Allah is to be worshipped and that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger” (Bukhari B2N24; next to the Koran, the second most authoritative text in Islam). The word “until” in both quotes should demonstrate the perpetual nature of these statements: there are still Jews and Christians who have yet to be “subdued”; and all of mankind has yet to “testify that none but Allah is to be worshipped and that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger."

2) Based on the above (as well as countless other Koranic verses and oral traditions of Muhammad, not to mention the course of conquest the first “rightly-guided” caliphs followed), Islam’s jurists and theologians throughout the ages have all reached the consensus — binding on the entire Muslim community — that whenever the Muslim world is militarily capable, it must go on the offensive until it subsumes the entire world.  Moreover, this world-view was postulated and acted upon well before Armstrong’s blame-all — the Crusades — ever took place.

3) So Qutb and Mawdudi were certainly not, as she puts it, “the first major Muslim thinkers to do so.” Their claim to fame is that they were great articulators of jihad who awoke the umma to its obligation — an obligation, however, which was formulated by the great sheikhs of Islam (such as revered scholars Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim of the 13th century) who, in their turn, based it on the words of the Koran and Muhammad. But Armstrong is right in that they did stress jihad due to the “current political emergency” — but not in the way she means (i.e., “self-defense”): in their lifetime the Ottoman empire — which, until its last moribund centuries, waged one jihad after another, terrorizing and conquering many of its Christian neighbors — fell and there was no longer a central Muslim sultanate, or “caliphate,” to maintain even a semblance of Islamic power, authority, and expansion. This needed — and still needs — to be rectified under Islam’s worldview....

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