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The Concept of Rescue

Islam's Hagiographer

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..."

Shilling_for_islam_1Karen 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.

Mukhlas_imronMuslims 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.

An_alternative_history_lessonIn 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.”

Legacy_of_jihadGiven 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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Francis Sedgemore

There's a short response to this piece here:


Ms. Armstrong should marry an Arab man, then fly to Saudi. I bet after she was made to put that burka on, or get a good beating, she would change her tune on the religion of peace PDQ.



Although I agree wholeheartedly with your views, I have to point out a problem with this:
"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? "

It seems you've not read "Islam: a Short History," in which Armstrong does deal with the massacre of the Banu Qurayza- and it's even worse than you might think. I don't have the book with me, so can't quote it directly- but her words are something to the effect of: 'yes it was a bad incident, but it was typical of behavior of that era, and the religion couldn't be expected to put up with a direct threat to its existence.'

I would prescribe this book to anyone interested in how the "intelligentsia" comes to an "understanding" of Islam. This is one of the most widely-read books on the subject of Islamic history, and is rife with what one might charitably term "errors."



Y posted: 'yes it was a bad incident, but it was typical of behavior of that era, and the religion couldn't be expected to put up with a direct threat to its existence.'

I can think of no religion in the accepted sense of the word, except Islam, that would to put to the sword those who disagreed with it. With Islam that is the normal MO.

Look around the world anywhere where Muslims are in a majority. Non-Muslims have to take care not to advertise that fact, and to conduct their lives in a manner that does not in anyway challenge the dominance of Islam. Despite that undertaking, non-Muslims find themselves persecuted by officialdom and by Jihad by mob violence, just to remind the Infidels of their lowly status in society.

I do not blame Muslims for doing what they sincerely believe in. It is not their fault that they have to abide by the Koran, for they themselves will fall prey to the jaws of Islam if they stray.


very good expose' - need more like 'em cuz lot of skillful liars out there!


Bill Warner, writes

Look at the question: what is the real jihad, the jihad of inner, spiritual struggle or the jihad of war? Let’s turn to Bukhari (the Hadith) for the answer, as he repeatedly speaks of jihad. In Bukhari 97% of the jihad references are about war and 3% are about the inner struggle. So the statistical answer is that jihad is 97% war and 3% inner struggle. Is jihad war? Yes—97%. Is jihad inner struggle? Yes—3%

What Muslims do very conveniently, is to use Jihad 97% of the time, and when criticised that Islam is a violent religion, come back with the 3% that is not violent, and expect the world to swallow it.

Pavlov's dog

David and Y.,

Here is my review of Karen Armstrong's "Muhammad"(1992) for the Amazon website. From this review you can see that she was not only well aware of the Qurayzah massacre, she pretty much thinks they had it comming. Behold:

Goebbels Couldn't Have Said It Better, July 9, 2005

Nelson Mondragon - See all my reviews

When Muhammad and his followers first moved to Medina in 622 (an event that is referred to as the "Hijra"), this city was also inhabited by three large tribes of Jews; the Nadir, the Qaynuqah, and the Qurayzah. By the time Muhammad consolidated his power over Medina in 627, both the Nadir and the Qaynuqa had been expelled to Khaybar with little more than their lives. The Qurayzah were even less fortunate; Following Muhammad's victory over the Meccans during the Battle of the Trench, all the men were beheaded and all the women and children were sold into slavery. Karen Armstrong's unsympathetic portrayal of the Qurayzah merits special attention; "In the early seventh century, an Arab chief would not be expected to show any mercy to traitors like the Qurayzah" (p 208).

The Qurayzah are charged with "treason" due to their negotiations with the Meccans during the Battle of the Trench. Armstrong does not take into account the dubious circumstances under which the other Jewish tribes had been expelled. She also makes no mention about the assassination of two Arab poets who had merely ridiculed Muhammad's divine mandate (an old man and a young mother of five). In effect, non-Muslims had become de facto second-class citizens in their own land, even though Muhammad's so-called "Constitution of Medina" is said to have guaranteed equal rights to all.

It could be argued from a practical standpoint that Muhammad's total annihilation of the Qurayzah was a matter of self-preservation: Had they been merely expelled, they could have later re-grouped with the Qaynuqah and Nadir (who were to clash with the Muslims the next year in Khaybar). Hence, like cowboys and Indians, the co-existence of Jews and Muslims on the Arab Peninsula had become a zero-sum game. Yet nobody in their right mind refers to the Native Americans who resisted the conquest of their territories as "traitors." Anyone familiar with Karen Armstrong's other books will recognize this vilification of the Qurayzah as part of her trademark double standard against Christians and Jews.

People looking for an effortless crash course in Islamic history will be strongly attracted to Karen Armstrong's "Muhammad" (Maxime Rodinson's "Mohammed" provides a much more objective and meticulously researched biography). Unfortunately, that is precisely what makes this book so dangerous. Nonetheless, even if you know absolutely nothing about Islamic history you have to be extremely jaded not to notice that something is amiss. Take for example this passage describing the events following Muhammad's final victory over Mecca: "Muhammad had no wish to eliminate the Quraysh ...he would treat the prisoners fairly. Immediately after the attack he had two of the prisoners killed because they had mounted a formidable intellectual attack on him before the hijra: we have seen that Muhammad found this kind of critical challenge deeply threatening" (p 179). In other words, if you win a war it's fair game to kill people who once hurt your feelings. Goebbels couldn't have said it better.


Francis Sedgemore wrote:
>Ms. Armstrong should marry an Arab man, then fly to Saudi. I bet after she was made to put that burka on, or get a good beating, she would change her tune on the religion of peace PDQ.>

That's nothing, I mean the easy part. She might get killed by a Muslim fanatic man for taking part in the public life (such as politics), as she is violating the rules established in the Koran regarding women's role.

Francis Sedgemore

"Francis Sedgemore wrote:
Ms. Armstrong should marry an Arab man, then fly to Saudi. I bet after she was made to put that burka on, or get a good beating, she would change her tune on the religion of peace PDQ."

No I didn't.


"No I didn't", then talking to a man with that tone will get you 12 lashes in the public square. Are you eye balling me?



I would be prepared to read anything written by Karen Armstrong when she writes a book with this title: "Why I am Not a Muslim" by Karen Armstrong. That's all. sweet and simple. Just write that book, Karen, and I'll read it. Ibn Warraq wouldn't mind you borrowing the title from his book, I'm sure.

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