In my review of Robert Spencer's The Truth About Muhammad, I wrote: "In his book, Islam and the West, the historian Bernard Lewis argued: 'We live in a time when… governments and religious movements are busy rewriting history as they would wish it to have been, as they would like their followers to believe that it was.' This urge to sanitise unflattering facts is nowhere more obvious than in biographies of Muhammad, of which, Karen Armstrong’s ubiquitous contributions are perhaps the least reliable." I've since received a number of emails asking me to clarify why Armstrong is unreliable in this regard. To that end, here's a brief catalogue of Ms Armstrong's errors and distortions, a version of which was first published by Butterflies & Wheels. Some of her rhetorical airbrushing is, I think, quite spectacular.
"Armstrong would have us ignore what terrorists repeatedly tell us about themselves and their motives. One therefore has to ask how we defeat an opponent whose name we dare not repeat and whose stated motives we cannot mention..."
Karen Armstrong has been described as “one of the world's most provocative and inclusive thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world.” Armstrong’s efforts to be “inclusive” are certainly provocative, though generally for reasons that are less than edifying. In 1999, the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles gave Armstrong an award for media “fairness.” What follows might cast light on how warranted that recognition is, and on how the MPAC chooses to define fairness.
In one of her baffling Guardian columns, Armstrong argues that, “It is important to know who our enemies are… By making the disciplined effort to name our enemies correctly, we will learn more about them, and come one step nearer, perhaps, to solving the… problems of our divided world.” Yet elsewhere in the same piece, Armstrong maintains that Islamic terrorism must not be referred to as such. “Jihad”, we were told, “is a cherished spiritual value that, for most Muslims, has no connection with violence.”
Well, the word ‘jihad’ has multiple meanings depending on the context, and it’s hard to determine the particulars of what “most Muslims” think in this regard. Doubtless countless Muslims would recoil from connotations of violence and coercion. But it’s safe to say the Qur’an and Sunnah are of great importance to Muslims generally, and most references to jihad found in the Qur’an and Sunnah occur in a military or paramilitary context. Aggressive conceptions of jihad are found in every major school of Islamic jurisprudence, with fairly minor variations. The notion of jihad as warfare against unbelievers is affirmed by Maliki, Hanbali, Hanafi and Shafi'i traditions, to which the majority of Muslims belong. And Muhammad’s own celebration of military jihad and homicidal ‘martyrdom’ makes for interesting reading. How these ideas are reconciled by believers is not entirely clear.
Muslims who do commit acts of terrorism and intimidation do so, by their own account, because of what they perceive as core Islamic teachings. The jihadist movements in Indonesia, for example, refer to theological imperatives and the names they give themselves – jihadi, mujahedin, shahid – have no meaning outside of an Islamic context. Mukhlas Imron, the Bali bombing ‘mastermind’ and leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, explained his actions not as a response to Iraq, Bush or Blair, but as intended to advance the creation of a vast Sharia state covering Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. Imron pointedly cited Muhammad as his inspiration: "You who still have a shred of faith in your hearts, have you forgotten that to kill infidels and the enemies of Islam is a deed that has a reward above no other? Aren't you aware that the model for us all, the Prophet Muhammad and the four rightful caliphs, undertook to murder infidels as one of their primary activities, and that the Prophet waged jihad operations 77 times in the first 10 years as head of the Muslim community in Medina?"
In his book, Robert Spencer argues, “If peaceful Muslims can mount no comeback when jihadists point to Muhammad’s example to justify violence, their ranks will always remain vulnerable to recruitment from jihadists who present themselves as the exponents of ‘pure Islam’, faithfully following Muhammad’s example.” But Armstrong would have us ignore what terrorists repeatedly tell us about themselves and their motives. One therefore has to ask how we defeat an opponent whose name we dare not repeat and whose stated motives we cannot mention.
In another Guardian column, Armstrong insists that, “until the 20th century, anti-Semitism was not part of Islamic culture” and that anti-Semitism is purely a Western invention, spread by Westerners. The sheer wrong-headedness of this assertion is hard to put into words, but one might note how, once again, the evil imperialist West is depicted as boundlessly capable of spreading corruption wherever it goes, while the Islamic world is portrayed as passive, devoid of agency and thereby virtuous by default.
According to Armstrong, Muhammad was, above all, a “peacemaker” who “respected” Jews and other non-Muslims. Yet nowhere in the Qur’an and Sunnah does Muhammad refer to non-Muslims as in any way deserving of respect as equals. Quite the opposite, in fact. Apparently, we are to ignore over 13 centuries of Islamic history contradicting Armstrong’s view, and to ignore the contents of the Qur’an and the explicitly anti-Semitic ‘revelations’ of Islam’s founder. One therefore wonders whether Armstrong has read Ibn Ishaq’s canonical, quasi-sacred biography of Muhammad. Has she not read the Hadith, most notably Bukhari? Does she not know of the massacre of the Banu Qurayza and the opportunist raids against the Bani Quainuqa, Bani Nadir, Bani Isra’il and other Jewish tribes? Does she not know how these events were justified as a divine duty, one which formed the theological basis of the Great Jihad of Abu Bakr, setting in motion one of the most formidable military expansions in Islamic history? Does she really not know how these theological ideas established the subordinate legal status of Jews and Christians throughout much of the Islamic world for hundreds of years?
In her latest offering, Armstrong is again given free rein to mislead Guardian readers and, again, rewrite history. Armstrong asserts that, “until recently, no Muslim thinker had ever claimed [violent jihad] was a central tenet of Islam." In fact, contemporary jihadists pointedly draw upon theological traditions reaching back to Muhammad’s own example. The Fifteenth Century historian and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, summarised the consensus of five centuries of prior Sunni theology regarding jihad in his book, The Muqudimmah: “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the… mission to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force… Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.” Shiite jurisprudence concurred with this consensus, as seen in al-Amili’s manual of Shia law, Jami-i-Abbasi: “Islamic holy war against followers of other religions, such as Jews, is required unless they convert to Islam.”
Given that Armstrong is regularly described as a “respected scholar” and an “expert on Islam”, she must surely know of Khaldun and his sources, and must surely know how Muhammad conceived jihad primarily as an expansionist military endeavour. Armstrong must also be aware of the jihad campaigns of religious ‘cleansing’ throughout the Arab Peninsula, in accord with Muhammad’s purported death bed words. Likewise, the five centuries of jihad campaigns in India, during which millions of Hindus and Buddhists were slaughtered or enslaved, along with similar campaigns in Egypt, Palestine, Armenia, Africa, Spain, etc. These campaigns are thoroughly – often triumphantly - documented by Islamic sources of the period and are available to any serious scholar. (For a detailed overview, see Andrew Bostom’s Legacy of Jihad.)
If Armstrong does not know of such things, in what sense can she be considered a “respected scholar” of this subject? For what exactly is she respected? For reaffirming popular misconceptions and PC prejudice, even when her claims are demonstrably false and egregiously misleading? It is, I think, more likely that Armstrong is aware of these inconvenient details, at least to some extent, and has chosen not to divulge them. Either way, Islam’s foremost hagiographer and shill has found an audience among those with little appetite for unflattering facts and a preference for being told whatever they wish to hear.
Update: Over at Butterflies & Wheels, the second half of this seems relevant.
Update 2: Via the comments, Francis Sedgemore and I wonder how and where realistic discussion can take place. And who'll be denouncing those who take part.
Update 3: More on Armstrong over here.
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