For those who know very little about Islam, two authors offer very different introductions. One author bends over backward to give Islam and Mohammed the greatest benefit of any possible doubt, while the other contains every argument ever made against Islam.
The apology (or defense) is Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong, a former nun, who previously wrote a best selling biography of God. In her telling, Mohammed is the very soul of compassion, who brought enlightenment to the pagans of Arabia and improved the status of women.
In this book and also in Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, Armstrong’s general thesis is that Mohammed never did anything wrong, and if he did, everyone else was doing it too, and in Europe at that time they were even worse. Seriously, this is the level of her analysis.
In her spiritual autobiography, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness she describes her seven years as a nun, an experience which she says left her scarred emotionally. It is difficult to summarize her current religious beliefs, but basically she thinks all the great religious traditions are trying to approach the same God, and if you don’t take what they say literally, they are equally valid. She says that compassion is the supreme virtue and the one we must honor when speaking of anyone else’s religion. She believes this requires her to accept at face value everything Muslims say about Muhammad and Islam, so she accepts without question every dodgy excuse Muslims have ever made to excuse the barbarous cruelties of their prophet. For instance, Muhammad had two concubines, more correctly known as sex slaves, one of whom he enslaved after defeating her tribe in battle, and then executing her husband and father. Armstrong says, “The emancipation of women was a project dear to the prophet’s heart.” And on the same page she adds, “…Muhammad was one of those rare men who truly enjoy the company of women.” (Islam: A Short History, pg. 67) In short, Karen Armstrong might as well be a muslim missionary.
However, if you can’t bear to think ill of anyone and sincerely want to believe that the billion muslims of the world follow a religion of love, then Karen Armstrong should be your guide. While she doesn’t admit to being a convert to Islam (and I doubt that she is) she is careful to say nothing that could possibly offend even the most moderate muslim. Miracles and legends that would strain the credibility of a gullible ten-year old are related by Armstrong as obvious truth. This kind of self-censorship is common among some writers on Islam. It is often presented as compassion towards the sensitivities of others, but in reality is nothing but hypocrisy. A real scholar of Islam, Maxime Rodinson, explains what seems to me a more honest position as follows,
“May any muslims who happen to read these lines forgive my plain speaking. For them the Koran is the book of Allah and I respect their faith. But I do not share it and I do not wish to fall back, as many orientalists have done, on equivocal phrases to disguise my real meaning. This may perhaps be of assistance in remaining on good terms with individuals and governments professing Islam; but I have no wish to deceive anyone. Muslims have every right not to read my book or to acquaint themselves with the ideas of a non-muslim, but if they do so, they must expect to find things put forward there which are blasphemous to them. It is evident that I do not believe that the Koran is the book of Allah.”
It is worth mentioning that many violent jihadist websites recommend Karen Armstrong’s books. I can’t help but wonder if she has ever stopped to think how miserable her life would have been if she had been born in any muslim country.
The contrary view on Islam is given in Why I Am Not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq, a readable guide to every argument ever made against Islam. The author was raised as a muslim, then became an atheist. He attacks every claim made by muslims about their faith and leaves not one stone standing on another. The Koran is not infallible, not the word of God, it is not even good Arabic. Mohammed was a mass murderer, a pedophile and a fraud. Islam despises women and hates science. If this sounds harsh, you should be aware that all the facts presented by Ibn Warraq come from canonical Muslim sources. I believe his arguments are irrefutable and that they should be read by anyone who wants to discuss Islam in public. Aside from the fraudulent nature of the Koran and the reprehensible character of Mohammed, Ibn Warraq discusses two important areas which are commonly shrouded in myths: Science and Women.
It is widely believed that there was a period of time lasting several centuries when Islamic civilization was exceptionally tolerant of other religions and that there was a great flourishing of science and art. Ibn Warraq debunks this myth completely. Of course there are some grains of truth around which the myth is built. There were some great scholars in Muslim countries who preserved manuscripts of classic Greek philosophers and mathematicians, manuscripts which would otherwise have been lost to humanity. However, most of these men were not muslims. They were Christians or Jews who lived in Muslim countries. Their names are Arabic, because they were born in Arab countries and Arabic was their native tongue, but they were not muslim. They and the few muslims who shared their interests were not actually tolerated, in the usual meaning of that word. Almost every one of them was persecuted, some were executed, some were exiled. Others had to write in allegorical language or leave their works to be published posthumously. If these men survived unscathed, it was by accident, or because they lived in seclusion. In every case, their accusers were the leading Islamic scholars of the day, who denounced them for the simple crime of reading non-Islamic books. It has long been a fundamental belief in the muslim world that all books written by non-muslims are useless and probably dangerous. The argument given is that if by chance the book contains material that agrees with Islam it is redundant and therefore superfluous. If it contains material contrary to Islam then it is evil. This single idea is responsible for the cultural egotism and widespread ignorance in the muslim world. A few years ago a United Nations study counted all the books translated into Arabic in one year. It was equal to the number of books translated into modern Greek. Since the Arab countries have 30 times the population of Greece, these majority muslim countries clearly suffer from a profound lack of curiosity about the rest of the world. This, as much as anything, explains the widespread ignorance, lack of development, and intolerance among muslims. Simply put, Islam is hostile to all education except the study of the Koran and other Islamic texts. There never was and never will be a great age of science in the muslim world until this self-imposed narrow mindedness disappears.
As Ernest Renan observed, we do not give the Catholic Inquisition the credit for the works of Galileo, so why should we give Islam the credit for the achievements of a few scholars whose lives were lived in constant fear of Islamic persecution?
Ibn Warraq also gives a full account of the status of women in Islam, throughout history and throughout the Muslim world today. I thought I knew most of the indictment here, but I was wrong. The truth is much more horrible. Reading the catalog of horrors against women committed in the name of Islam is very much like reading about the Nazi death camps, and it must be emphasized again and again, the misogyny starts with Mohammed. It’s there in the Koran. It’s in the hadith, the biographical sketches of the prophet’s life, where it is obvious that to Mohammed, women were not fully human in the same way that men are. For Mohammed, women were nothing but sex toys. Hatred of women is not a perversion of Islam, it is Islam. For example, Al-Ghazali, an Islamic scholar sometimes called the second greatest muslim after the prophet, was a sick misogynist. Ibn Warraq provides a short summary of Al-Ghazali’s pronouncements on women, and reading it, I hope, will make you throw up. And the story never gets better. In every century and in every Islamic country, women have been treated like livestock.
For additional current information on the lives of women in Islamic countries, see my next post, “Books on Islam, pt. 2” which contains reviews of “Infidel” by Ayan Hirsi Ali, “Now They Call Me Infidel” by Nonie Darwish and the books by Jean Sasson, “Princess,” “Sultana’s Circle,” and “Sultana’s Children,” and others.