Karen Armstrong’s Balancing of the Prophet of Islam
25 April, 2007
Karen Armstrong stands out as a scholar of Islam as well as its foremost western apologist. Her views on Islam are by now well-known and I did not expect any surprises in her review of three recently published books on Islam and its Prophet, appearing in the Financial Times (Balancing the Prophet, April 28, 2007). It is nevertheless useful to go over some of the arguments that she presents in the review. Armstrong rightly seeks a balanced approach in the books she reviews. It is unfortunate therefore that in her criticism of what she considers lopsided views of Robert Spencer (The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion, Regnery, 256 pages) and Eliot Weinberger ( Muhammad, Verso, 64 pages) in particular, she significantly tips the scale the other way.
Armstrong draws attention, for example, to the Koran’s purported “condemnation of all warfare as an ‘awesome evil’, its prohibition of aggression, [and] its insistence that only self-defence justifies armed conflict.” In fact, nowhere in the Koran does one find statements of general principles that support such a statement, though it is almost always possible to quote selectively from the book for support, a practice that she decries in others. On the other hand, there are historical facts that contradict such a statement as do important verses of the Koran.
The battle of Badr, the first and crucial conflict between the Muslims, based in Medina, and the polytheist of Mecca, was, for example, not a defensive battle. Its immediate cause was the Muslim design to raid a Meccan caravan that was returning from Syria laden with valuable merchandise. What was originally a raid for booty turned into a battle only when the Meccans sent armed men to defend their caravan. The two major battles of Uhud and the Trenches were defensive but were clearly a sequel to Badr. The expulsion of a number of Jewish tribes from around Medina by the Prophet was not an act of defence because the tribes never attacked the Muslims, though they were antagonistic to them. The expulsions have been viewed as defensive in Islamic tradition, in the sense of pre-emptive action. But this surely is an extremely elastic interpretation of the concept of defence. Furthermore, the war strategy that this envisions raises the perception of these conflicts to the purely political level and, at the same time, divests them of their all important divine dimension. Neither is it valid to argue, as is often done, that the major Jewish tribes-- Banu Quaynuqa, Banu Nadir and Banu Quraiza--broke the treaty Muhammad worked out soon after his emigration to Medina, because these tribes were not parties to the treaty. The slaughter of the entire male population of Banu Qurayza was hardly self-defence. And the assassinations of K’ab bin Ashraf and Abu Rafi the Jew on Muhammad’s orders can be called defensive only on the most vulgar sense of the term.
On jihad (holy war), one of the most important verses of the
Koran is: “Fight those who believe not in God…. until they pay the
jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” ( IX:29)
. The provision for jizya (a tax imposed on non-believers in return
of assurances of safety and security) and the emphasis on subduing
the enemy do not support the hypothesis of defensive war Armstrong
advances. They also provide the verse a strong sense of general
principle, unlike some of the other verses which can be said to be
relevant to particular circumstances. Armstrong’s emphasis on jihad
as “reform of ones own society” rather than armed conflict in
defence of Islam is equally overblown, even misleading, and is not a
part of the “mainstream Muslim tradition.”
In a lighter vein, and looking for a lack of balance in the writing of Weinberger, Armstrong points to the latter’s use of the traditions (hadith) which decry poetry. “Without knowing their provenance”, she asks, “how can we respond to such statements as “He [Muhammad] said, “Filling the stomach with pus is better than stuffing the brain with poetry”? It is unclear what “provenance” one should be looking for here, but, putting aside the inconvenient traditions on the subject, the Koran itself decries poets. There is even a sura named Shu’ara , the Poets, which has this to say of the bards of the time: “And the poets,--and it is those straying in Evil, who follow them.” ( XXVI:224)
Deploring “a lack of balance that is so often lacking in western narratives,” Armstrong writes: “Until we all learn to approach one another [meaning Muslims and non-Muslims] with generosity and respect, we cannot hope for peace”. In that context Armstrong refers approvingly to Tariq Ramadan’s position (In The Footsteps Of The Prophet: Lessons From The Life of Muhammad, Oxford, University Press/ Allen Lane, 256 pages) on Islam and its Prophet, which appears similar to hers. She also hopes that it will be well received in the west. I believe, however, that it is at least as important for Muslims, to read “unbalanced” books such as those by Spencer and Weinberger, even if it means gritting their teeth, as for westerners to read books by Islam’s protagonists and apologists.