Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong
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Islam: A Short History
ISBN: 0307431312
Islam: A Short History
No religion in the modern world is as feared and misunderstood as Islam. It haunts the popular Western imagination as an extreme faith that promotes authoritarian government, female oppression, civil war, and terrorism. Karen Armstrong's short history offers a vital corrective to this narrow view. The distillation of years of thinking and writing about Islam, it demonstrates that the world's fastest-growing faith is a much richer and more complex phenomenon than its modern fundamentalist strain might suggest.

Islam: A Short History begins with the flight of Muhammad and his family from Medina in the seventh century and the subsequent founding of the first mosques. It recounts the origins of the split between Shii and Sunni Muslims, and the emergence of Sufi mysticism; the spread of Islam throughout North Africa, the Levant, and Asia; the shattering effect on the Muslim world of the Crusades; the flowering of imperial Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries into the world's greatest and most sophisticated power; and the origins and impact of revolutionary Islam. It concludes with an assessment of Islam today and its challenges.

With this brilliant book, Karen Armstrong issues a forceful challenge to those who hold the view that the West and Islam are civilizations set on a collision course. It is also a model of authority, elegance, and economy.
—from the publisher's website

TRANSCRIPT
Islam: A Short History
Program Air Date: September 22, 2000

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Karen Armstrong, can you remember the first time you were interested in writing about God?
Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG (Author, "Islam: A Short History"): At first, I'd no intention ever being a writer in the first place. For many, many years, I thought I'd finished with God. After I left the convent, I went through a long, dark period when I really was weary of religion and--and wanted nothing more to do with it. I thought that period in my life was over, and I fell into all this by accident, more than anything else.

I had been a schoolteacher, and I lost my teaching job because I'm an epileptic, and I had already published a volume of autobiography, which wasn't about God--it was about me and my--what I thought was a lost quest for God, the God I didn't find. But I--because on the strength of that s--I got off of television work in Britain in the field of religious broadcasting. I was invited to make a documentary series on St. Paul, and I began all this in a very, very skeptical spirit.

I went to Jerusalem and I worked with Isr--an Israeli film company on St. Paul, and I--my--my purpose was a bit debunking, that none of this was obviously true, could--you know, there were all kinds of discrepancies and religion had done some awful things in the past. That was my general line, but something was beginning to happen to me subliminally, because in Jerusalem, I came in contact with other faiths, really, for the first time. My own religious background had been essentially Roman Catholic, and I found that I knew nothing whatever about Judaism. I had seen it simply as a prelude to Christianity or Islam, but in Jerusalem, where these three faiths jostle uneasily side by side, you can't really avoid thinking about them and you begin to see the profound interconnection between the three religions. And so I began, really, to--I--I was curious, and I started to read and my broadcasting career at that time involved perhaps interviewing Jews and Muslims, and it started to get to me.

I began to see that there was much more to monotheism, to the idea of God that--than--than I'd thought, despite my religious background. When I began to research my history of God--it was a long period of research that lasted for about three or four years--I began--still began in this skeptical spirit. I mean I thought that I was going to find that over the centuries Jews, Christians and Muslims had adjusted the idea of God to suit their particular needs, and in a way I did find that, but I found a lot more and a lot deeper things, astonishing things, things that I'd never thought about. And I began to see that there was a lot in these monotheistic traditions that were really speaking to me, that I could really relate to. And in the course of writing and studying, therefore, I came back to a sense of the divine. And so I--I owe a great debt of gratitude to these other religions, which also gave me back a sense of what my own tradition, the tradition I'd been born into had been trying to do at its best.
LAMB: Where are you at this stage your life?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I usually describe myself, perhaps flippantly, as a freelance monotheist. I--I draw sustenance from all three of the faiths of Abraham. I can't see any one of them as having the monopoly of truth, any one of them as superior to any of the others. I--each has its own particular genius and each its own particular pitfalls and Achilles' heels. But recently, I've just written a short life of the Buddha, and I've been enthralled by what he has to say about spirituality, about the ultimate, about compassion and about the--the necessary loss of ego before you can encounter the divine. And I--the--all the great traditions are, in my view, saying the same way--the s--much the same thing, coming--despite their surface differences.

The religious experience of humanity has been remarkably unanimous. And that I find very endorsing, because instead of seeing your own tradition as one lonely little quest, idosyncratically crying in the darkness, you can see it as part of a giant, human search for meaning and value in a flawed and tragic world. I'm st--I haven't arrived anywhere as yet. I feel I'm still searching. And yet perhaps that's one of the things I learned from my study o--of the divine i--is that you--of course you--there is no last word about God. Once you say, `Well, now I've arrived. Now I--I don't need to think about anything else,' then you've really lost the plot, because the divine, or the ultimate, is--is infinite, and so I'm--I--I--I've--I've moved a long way, but I feel I'm still moving.
LAMB: We asked you here to talk about this little book "Islam," but as you know, we can also talk to you about this book, a big book, called "The Battle for God," which has been out this year, and you just mentioned another book, a small book--for Penguin, I guess.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Penguin. It's part of the Penguin Live series.
LAMB: Where do you live?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I live in London.
LAMB: Lived there all your life?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: No. I--I--I grew up in the Midlands, Worcestershire, and then moved into Birmingham and I was educated in the convent school in Birmingham.
LAMB: How many Catholics are there in Great Britain?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I'm not sure, but certainly we were very conscious of being a minority and Catholicism is extremely un-British with all its smells and bells and extravagances and gestures, you know, regarded as really pretty bad taste by the British. So it's a thing I often share with Jews, that you never really feel quite English growing up as a Catholic, at least in--in the 1950s in Britain. We were very--we kept very much to ourselves, we had our own schools, we didn't mix much socially. We weren't encouraged in those days even to attend other people's religious services. So you did--it was a sort of little tight subculture. We looked at what we call the non-Catholic world with sort of aversion. It was a rather--it was a ghetto kind of experience.

Much of our education, religious education, was geared up to answering all the hostile questions that we were certain were going to assail us whe--as soon as we left the gates of our convent schools and went into u--universities that--and--and learning answers about why we go to confession or why believe in the infallibility of a pope. But, of course, I didn't--didn't go to university at that point. I--I went into a convent instead.
LAMB: What year did you go into the convent?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: 1962.
LAMB: How long did you stay?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Seven years. I went in at the ludicrously young age of 17 and left in 1969, having entirely missed the 1960s. I heard my first Beatles' record in 1970.
LAMB: Were you cloistered?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: We--it was not a cloistered order, it was a teaching order. But in those days--this is before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council had taken effect--we were--we were cloistered while we were training, so that we never read the newspapers. I'd never heard of Vietnam, for example, when I left the--the convent, and found in Oxford, where I was at the university, everybody was marching and protesting about this place I'd never heard of.

So it was--it was a strange experience coming out into a totally transformed world, a bit like the story of Rip van Winkle, who goes to sleep for 100 years and wakes up and finds society transformed around him. And that may be a process of leaving the religious life, which I'd done with great regret, much harder. I hadn't leapt out of my convent thinking, `Great, now I can sort of fall in love and wear beautiful clothes and earn lots of money and travel.'

I left with great sorrow. I had really wanted to be a nun, and I was--knew I would be a bad one. I just didn't--very few people can live a life of complete chastity forever, of ne--poverty, never, never owning anything and obedience, always doing somebody else's will and remain mature and whole. And there were a few nuns in there who really had done that, and they were superb human beings and have remained an ins--personal inspiration to me, but I knew I wasn't going to be one of them. I was going to be one of those other nuns that I saw taking back little satisfactions here and there.
LAMB: You've written quite a few books. How many of the books that you've written--I counted 11 or so, maybe...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I suppose it might--there are some more than have been published not in this country, but only in--in the UK.
LAMB: How many have been published in this country?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I'm not sure, to be honest. I think probably about eight or nine.
LAMB: Are they all still available?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: One of them is not. The publishers have asked if they could do it, and I haven't wanted to do it. It's the sequel to my first book. My first book was an autobiographical account of my life in the convent. The sequel to that, which I called "Beginning the World," was about the six years after leaving the convent, which was wi--the worst and lowest point of my life. I existed at that time in a state of pure grief and I was suicidal and utterly miserable, but I don't think I wrote about it very well. I think I wrote about it far too closely on--close to the experience, and so I--it's not a good book, in my view, and I haven't wanted it republished.
LAMB: Which one of your books has sold the most?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: "History of God."
LAMB: Any idea how many?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: N--oh, I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I think--I think it must be about half a million copies, but it's also, see, been translated into 30 other languages, so I've no id--I--I try to keep out of all that, to be honest. I have agents who check those sales figures with absolutely eagle eyes, but I'm usually immersed in the next project, the next book.

You can, easily as a writer--and I've noticed people getting obsessive about figures and whether their books are in the sh--book sho--bookstores and, you know, why it hasn't sold here, and why it's--and I think you're best leaving that alone. There are other people who love dealing with that stuff and are good at it and I--I personally don't. But I think that the figures have been remarkable and it was a surprise to us, because I couldn't find a publisher in Britain when I first proposed the idea, and the first publisher in the United States to see it turned it down. So its success has been a delight to me, but it--a surprise, too.
LAMB: If you go to the World Book, they'll show you that there are six billion people in the world. If there are two billion Christians, of which a little over--just a tiny bit over a billion are Catholics, Roman Catholics, that more than Roman Catholics are about a billion one--are Islamic, about 700 million are Hindus. I'm doing this for a reason--to ask you why--why would the--and this just came out in a notice from the Catholic Church, where they said that they were the true church...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah.
LAMB: ...again, stated that. Why is that necessary to say something like that? What's behind the motive on that?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Fear, I think. I think--I--I read that statement and I felt only sadness, because I think one of the great gifts of the 20th century was the discovery of the depth of other people's traditions, and there are wonderful movements going on whereby people in faith communities that were normally--used to be at--at odds with one another, that where people are reaching out and beginning to see the profundity of other people, learning from other people, not leaving their own traditions, necessarily, but drawing nourishment from more than one.

More Christians, I believe, read Martin Buber than Jews, and Jews read Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox. Now I like this. I've found faith--h endorsed by knowing oth--that millions of other human beings are doing the same and having the same ideas, and it tells me something very profound and important about our humanity. That these are the questions, these are the kind of solutions we reach for when we're looking for significance in a dark and sorrowful world full of pain. And I found that the--thi--this pluralism, this growing pluralism endorsing and helpful, as I--I've--as I've tried to say, but other people find it profoundly threatening.
LAMB: I didn't mention, you know, we go through the numbers again--there are a million Roman Catholics, a million Islamics, 700 million Hindus, 15 million Jews--only 15 million Jews. How is it that 15 million Jews can be--have--have so much dialogue over the years about being Jewish? What is that about?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, of course in the--Jews have had a very tragic history, and especially the last thousand years in Europe since the time of the Crusades, Jews have been threatened with--you know, their very existence has been threatened. Therefore, perhaps Jews are thrown up more than most of us against those ultimate questions: Why am I here? Is there a God? What--why be Jewish when it--it brings so much suffering and--and persecution?
LAMB: Do you know why, and from all your study, that the Jews have been so persecuted? What--what's the reason behind it?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: It's very--it's complicated and it's not universal. In--though--Jews were not persecuted in the same way in the Islamic world at all. This was a European disease, and I think it has more to--had more to do with the embattled European identity.

Europe, unlike the Greek Orthodox world of Byzantium, fell to the barbarians. The--the Roman Empire fell; civilization virtually came to a halt for hundred of years, and Europe entered a period known as the Dark Ages, but it wa--they--it was a struggle and people were starving, couldn't farm the land adequately, and it was sort of regarded as a little pagan backwater.

In--at the time of the Crusades, we began to make our comeback on the international scene. The--the Crusades were the first cooperative act of the new Europe as she struggled back onto the world stage. And eventually, Europe, and later the United S--what would become the United States, overtook the other core cultures, the ci--other civilizations. And this has been--this is an unparalleled phenomenon, for an out group to overtake so spectacularly, so in the process I think there was great strain.

Europe had to build a new identity. We felt inferior, and we ha--we didn't just hate Jews. We hated everybody, everybody else. We hated Muslims. We hated Jews. We hated the Greek Orthodox Christians of Byzantium, who looked down on us as though were we were thugs. We were--we were trying to forge a new Christian identity and that often meant using other people as a foil to show us what we were not, and very often the fantasies that we evolved about both Jews and Muslims reflected buried worries about our own identity and our own behavior.

It was at the time of the Crusades, for example, when Christians were fighting their own brutal holy wars in the Middle East against Islam that Christian scholars, monk scholars in Europe de--declared Islam to be an essentially violent faith that--you know, it was projecting worries about their own behavior, which was hard to square with the compassionate ethic of the Gospel, with putting it onto Muslims.

With Jews, I think those strange myths that grew up about how Jews would kill little children at Passover and use their blood to make matzos, this is a really biz--it's a bizarre fantasy and shows the disturbance in the European psyche, that such an ob--an extraordinary idea should take such deep hold. But I think this Jew as--this image of the Jew as the child slayer shows an almost oedipal fear of the parent faith, an absolutely visceral fear of the faith from which Christianity was born. And it also perhaps even reflects bu--buried worries about the Eucharist, and so these are not rational fears, and later Hitler was able, in his secular crusade, to use the--all these weird, folk--terrifying, awful, hag-ridden folk myths to fuel his Nazi Holocaust.

So it--it's nothing to do with Jews. I mean, they--they would just have the misfortune to be living in Europe. What--we found it--we found it, in Europe, v--almost impossible to live side by side with people of other religions, as the Crusades showed. And later, you know, even Catholics and Protestants started fighting one another. And it was what--for--for all these reasons, this cycle of religious violence that your founding fathers at the period of the Enlightenment separated church and state, and Enlightenment philosophy was an attempt to get beyond all this darkness of the past, and enter, as we thought, a new period of light and reason.
LAMB: This small 200-page book published by the Modern Library, called "Islam," I want to ask you something about this. How did it come about, because there's a whole series of new small books like this.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, and it seems to be the thing and they're lovely to write, you know, because it--it--they're not too burdensome and it gives you a chance to relook at something that you--you know well, because I've studied Islam now for years, but write an extended essay upon it. And I think when I was asked--I was--I was approached by a British publisher with whom I'd worked for some time and asked if I'd like it do this in this series, and it seemed to me a very good idea, because I do think we need to know more about Islam in the West.

It's a religion about--we still haven't overcome our medieval terror of it yet. We haven't--we haven't done a revisionist look at Islam yet. People want to know about it, actually, in the West. They do, but they're not necessarily going to go and look at some huge three-volume majesterial tome about--you know, work about Islam. That's too daunting. This, I hope--I--and my intention was, this would give you a taste of some of the bare facts of what happened, what the truths are, how Islam evolved, what are its various moods, and--and so that--and--and give people sh--in the end, a list of what they can read, if they--if they're interested in finding out more.
LAMB: One of the great benefits to someone who knew not much is you have dates of when things happened, you have definition of terms and people. Can we start with the word `Islam?' Where's it--what's it mean?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: It means surrender. Islam--it requires human beings, men and women, to make an existential surrender of their entire being to allah, to God, and to give up the posturing and prancing ego that's always calling attention to itself. A Muslim is a man or a woman who has made that surrender of his being, and the first thing--one of the first things that Mohammaed, the prophet, asked his followers to do when they--they--they began to convert to Islam in Mecca in the early seventh century, was to prostrate themselves in prayer several times a day, facing, at that point, Jerusalem, because they were turning away from their pagan traditions in Mecca and reaching out to the God of the Christians and Jews, whom they were now going to worship, but it was hard for Bedouin Arabs, who didn't believe in kingship and courts, to grovel on the ground like a slave. They didn't do that. But the i--the--that characteristic prostration of Muslim prayer is designed, I think, to teach Muslims at a level deeper than the rational about the abandonment of what I call that posturing ego.
LAMB: What does the word--what does Muslim mean?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Muslim--it means--it's simply a--a ma--a--a person who makes Islam, a person who makes that surrender to God. It comes from the same root as Islam.
LAMB: Again, numbers--there are six million Muslims in the United States...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
LAMB: ...and about six million Jews in the United States.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: The--yes, and there's--there's--someone told me that soon they were going to...
LAMB: Get larger.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: ...they would get larger.
LAMB: Why do we hear so much more about Judaism in the United States than Is--Islam?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, it's because--Jews, because of their tragic history of living often in a hostile environment in Europe, have learned to organize very well as a community, as a minority. They--they are the world experts at living in minority, as a minority, and this is new to Muslims.

I know in London that at the time of the Salman Rushdie crisis, concerned Muslims asked the Jewish community in Britain to help them, to deal with this kind of thing, because--and you have it understand that Muslims in this country, as in Britain, have come from all--they're not--they're not a homogenous group. They come from all over the Muslim world, from India and Pakistan, as well as the Middle East, from--you know, from--from southeast Asia, from central Asia, from Turkey. And all of the people have their own ethnic customs, their own versions of Islam, and they--they're--they're new in the very difficult art of living as a minority, organizing, making their needs felt, getting a lobby together, you know. This is--this is something that they are--that--that they--that they are conscious, I think, many are conscious, that they need to learn and to ex--and--and they are, as I say, often turning to the Jews for help.
LAMB: Do Muslims have--believe in a hereafter?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, yes, yes, they do. And they have--yes, they believe that there will be a paradise and a hell and the last judgment.
LAMB: Let me ask you about all, then. How about Jews? Do they believe in a hereafter?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: In Judaism it's kind of optional, I--I re--that it--it's not so important. And personally myself, I--I think that the--the afterlife is a bit of a religious red herring, and it--if you gear your entire life in--and your ethical behavior entirely towards getting a reward in the afterlife, that's no more a religious activity than paying in your annual installments into your retirement annuity to secure yourself a comfortable life--retirement in the hereafter. It's--it--it religion's supposed to be about the loss of the ego, not ensuring its ultimate survival in optimum conditions.

So in most--most of the world religions, it's a bit of a--you know, in Buddhism, for example, it's a mystery. We don't know. This is what we have. Even St. Paul said `Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, nor hath it into the heart of man what--what--what is coming to us.'
LAMB: Can't remember the numbers on Buddhism, but it's not--it's smaller than Hindus. What's the difference between being a Buddhist and being a Muslim?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh. Well, being--being a Buddhist, being a Mu--Jews, Christians and Muslims ha--ha--share the same traditions. They share the same Abrahamic tradition...
LAMB: One God.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: One God, a divine being. A divine--one single deity. Supernatural deity. Buddhists, however, find that idea of God a bit limiting. That--that idea of the divine a bit limiting because it's very--and very often they--they are--they are putting their finger on something. Very often when Je--when Jews, Christians or Muslims som--talk about God, they can sometimes make him a bit like us. Just like one of ourselves writ large with likes and dislikes similar to our own. And sometimes this God has been used to bad effect. The Crusaders went into battle crying, `God wills it,' when they murdered Jews and Muslims. Obviously, God desired no such thing but the Crusaders were projecting their own loathing and fear of these rival faiths onto a deity that they created in their own image and likeness.

Now Muslims are wary of that kind of behavior so they prefer to say very--that--that the ultimate--the ultimate reality which is nirvana. Nirvana is--cannot conceive it. You cannot talk about it. You can only get into intimations of it. And they are far less interested than Christians are in defi--doctrines. They're not interested in believing things or in theology. It's a question of religious practice. Really the Buddha you can say founded a method, a method of reaching the divine.
LAMB: Have you been to Mecca?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: No. N--nobody can go to Mecca unless you are--you--you--you are a Muslim.
LAMB: How do you prove you're a Muslim?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I suppose you--you--it's--I don't think you have--I'm not--don't think you have to actually provide papers or anything but I certainly wouldn't obtrude myself on to a holy city against somebody's will. I mean, people--Europeans did do this in the past. They dressed up as Muslims and joined the Hajj as observers. I think that's not very good behavior.
LAMB: When is the Hajj?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: It's--takes place in the month of the Hajj. It's one--in one month every year. And because the Muslims have--have a lunar cycle, their years are different so, that the--the year is earlier and earlier and earlier or later and later e--each year. So it's--it's--it's ha--it's a sort of movable month. It's a month when Muslims will gat--if they can and if their--their circumstances permit it, they will gather in Mecca to ma--go through these extraordinary esr--rights which predate Islam, which predate the prophet Muhammad, by which he reinterpreted and gave them a monotheistic significance. But it is the peak experience of a Muslim's spiritual life.
LAMB: Muhammad lived, you said, in the 7th century.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
LAMB: How important is he now today to a Muslim?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Very important.
LAMB: Who was he?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: He was--in a word, he was a genius. He was a merchant of Mecca, concerned merchant of Mecca.
LAMB: By the way, where is Mecca?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: It's in what we now call Saudi Arabia, in the Arabian Hijas.
LAMB: How big a place is it?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, it's pretty big now, but in--in Muhammad's time it would have been, obviously, a much, much smaller place. But what it had was this shrine, this ancient granite cube, which was very, very ancient in Muhammad's time. No one knew who--where it had come from. But it was regarded--it was the most important shrine in Arabia. And the--of the 20-mile radius from Mecca, this was a sanctuary and all violence was forbidden there.

And this sanctuary enabled the Mu--the--the Arabs to gather in Mecca and trade, because they were free in Me--because of the ban on violence from the laws of vendetta and countervendetta, which were decimating the entire Arabian peninsula. This is not because the Arabs had an inherent tendency to violence, but because they--Arabia in those days, long before the discovery of oil, it was a very desperate place. It was--you see--you can see the terrain has not hardly anything growing. There were very, very, very few resources and everybody was in competition for them. And that meant that a tribe was often fighting for survival.

But Mecca had this--had this--this sanctuary and pe--they developed a market economy. The market economy meant that the old tribal values were decaying, people were getting buil--getting rich quick. There was a general stampede for wealth and new capitalism and the old tribal values of solidarity and concern for the poor or weaker members of the tribe were disappearing. And there was a spiritual malaise right the way through Arabia. People were aware that their circumstances were changing and the old paganism wasn't working for them anymore. They knew about Judaism and Christianity. They felt that they--well, they knew that there were more advanced religions, but the Christians, whom they met, used to jeer at them and say that they'd been left out of the divine plan because God had never sent them a prophet and they haven't got any scriptures themselves.

God hadn't bothered about the Arabs. And so there was a feeling of inferiority. And then Muhammad, who was very, very deeply concerned about this spiritual crisis both in Mecca and in Arabia as a whole, began to have extraordinary religious experiences and from--he--he composed or believed he had--that God had spoken through him a new Arabic scripture.
LAMB: How--how do you know that--that this happened and ho--why did people believe him?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: The--how do we know? We know more about Muhammad than we know about the founder of any other faith. Having just written the life of the Buddha, I know how little we know. This Buddha was living in 500 BC where there were--there was no historical records, no--there--writing was not yet known in the subcontinent. We're not even sure what century the Buddha lived in.

But Muhammad was a lot, lot later. Lot, lot later than Jesus even. And there was--and--and the first biographers who--mad--were really trying to write history in our sense, quoting their sources. And they don't whitewash the prophet. They don't make--they don't--this is not hagiography. They're not not writing a highly idealized portrait. They show him warts and all. He's a very human figure.
LAMB: How long did he live?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: He started having his revelations in--when he was 40 years old and he lived another 23 years. So he was in his early 60s when he died.
LAMB: When--when you go to Jerusalem...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: You want to know--you're going to ask me why did people believe him?
LAMB: Yeah.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: They believed him because it worked. And this is something that rel--he--Islam gave them a sense of the ultimate meaning and value of life when they practiced it. It's a simple faith. It doesn't have a huge theological structure. In fact, the Koran is rather sort of dismissive of theological speculation, which it caused...
LAMB: How big is the Koran?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: It's--it's much smaller than the Bible.
LAMB: Have you read it?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Of course. Of course, I've read it, but it's important to note, too, that it's called Koran, which means recitation. It was meant to be listened to. It's--was recited a loud. As, indeed, was the Christian Bible, until modern printing made it possible for everybody to own their own copy and modern literacy enabled people to read it themselves.
LAMB: Why do I see it spelled two ways?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Because in--because, of course, in--in Arabic the--there's an entirely different calligraphy. And so people have--either write it K--K--it's Koran and people sometimes write--spelled that K-O-R-A-N. Or Q-U-R-A-N.
LAMB: Who wrote it?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, the prophet Muhammad. It--the Muslims would say the prophet but it was revealed to the prophet Muhammad who spoke these words, as was common in a preliterate society. And the same happened with the Buddhist scriptures. People had better memories than they--than we do. We're losing our memories with all our books and electronic aids. They learned it by heart. And they would--and they would listen to it. But the beauty of the Koran, which does not come out in translation, was one of the great reasons why the--the scripture took effect. It's extremely beautiful in Arabic. I remember the first time I became aware of this. I was--it was in those far-off days when I was filming in Israel with an Israeli film company and I had a Palestinian taxi driver, who--the Israelis sent me back to my hotel through the West Bank with this taxi driver, who picked up some of his mates on the way home and they were all highly secular young men, drinking beer. They never went near the mosque.

And suddenly the Koran came on the car radio. Now if I'd been driving around secular, godless London with a bunch of beer-drinking youths and the New Testament had come on the--I have to say that people would have lunged for the off button. But these young men were transfixed and they kept trying to--very, very excitedly--trying to translate it for me, because it's very, very dense. The poetry is very, very dense and the meaning is triple layered sometimes.

And they saying, `It's--oh, its--Koran is so beautiful. I wish you could understand it.' And I thought, `This is powerful stuff,' still it's speaking directly to the heart. And, of course, the prop--you could see the prophet Muhammad as a poet as well as a prophet. And very frequently, most frequently perhaps, religious people express themselves in terms of art, rather than in logical discourse.
LAMB: I started to ask you about Jerusalem. As you know, you go to Jerusalem, you have the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, and right up above it's the Temple Mount. And it's so close. How did that come about? And what's the story of when Muhammad left Earth?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, yeah. The night--the night journey. This is--there is a story told about the prophet Muhammad. It was first told about 100 years after his death, that he had a vision and it--it--some of the Muslim sources are very clear, that this was a vision like a dream experience or like the rapture of a mystic. Not a sort of flight where he sort of flew physically like an astronaut through the sky.

His wife said that he did not leave his bed the entire time--for the entire length of the night journey. Another tradition says that at the beginning of his journey he turned and knocked off from his side table a glass of water from the side of--by his bedside and when he returned, it was just hitting the floor. So the--the Muslim sources are clear that this was a vision.

And I think it's a very, very interesting one. He--the prophet was working alone. He was a monotheist on his own with no help from any other tradition. Working out problems of monotheism that Jews and Christians had struggled with, but in community and with Scriptures to help them. And he was doing it by himself. I think the story of him coming to Jerusalem shows his yearning, which is--was very--is very, very strongly expressed in the Koran, to bring the Arabs from far off Arabia into the heart of the monotheistic family. When Muhammad arrives on the Temple Mount, he is greeted by all the great prophets of the past who welcome him into their midst as the newcomer.
LAMB: Physically they're there or in the head?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: This is--this is, as I say, is a great vision.
LAMB: Oh, it--it's all vision?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, some Muslims today who've got the Western bug of literalism would now interpret this literally. but as I have tried to indicate the sources make it clear that this is a vision. Which doesn't necessarily mean it's not true, but this is a vision. It's telling us something about the Muslim spirit.

And this--this--this night journey becomes a sort of archetypal motif in Islamic spirituality. So he--so in his vision, he is greeted by all the great prophets of the past who recognize him as one of themselves and he preaches to them. And then he begins--like a Jewish throne mystic, Jews had visions where they would ascend through the seven heavens and arrive at the throne of God. That's called throne mysticism.

And they didn't really think they were flying through seven heavens. This was an--a feat of imagination, a feat of an interior journey. A descent into the depths of the self. It's--it's--the night journey is very similar to throne mysticism. He goes up through the seven heavens and at each one--in each one, he meets the prophets of the past. He meets--he meets and talks to Moses and to Aaron and to Jesus and to Enoch, who finally--at the threshold of the divine sphere is Abraham, the father of--of all three faiths.

And so it is also a pluralistic vision, which expresses a strong pluralism in the Koran. That the prophet did not believe he had come to found a new religion called Islam, that was the one true faith that canceled out the others. Time and time again, the Koran points out that Muhammad has not been sent to cancel out the teachings of past prophets like Moses or Jesus, but he's come to give the same message to the Arabs who hadn't had a prophet before. And so--so that--that message is--Muhammad never asked Jews and Christians to convert to Islam, because they had their own authentic revelations.
LAMB: Do you pronounce it califid?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: The califid, yes.
LAMB: Telethet. What is that?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, Muslims then m--founded--founded a great empire. And like--they--they then needed a ruler so a calif is simply the representative. Representative of the prophet. He was the person who would be--I think were the delegate or the--the stand in for the prophet. Later he--he--as Persian ideas took hold, he became seen as the representative of God, rather on the line of the old Middle Eastern monarchies.
LAMB: Is it the same as the pope?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: No. No, it isn't, because the pope is in char--has only a tiny little state. Whereas the--the califid's simply a temporal ruler. He's simply like the king or an emperor.
LAMB: Is there a calif today?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: No. The califid--the obasid califid was destroyed by the Mongols and it--it had already become, as I show in my book, a--a dead letter, because it was impossible in those days, before modern communications and modern methods of police, to hold the--an empire of that magnitude. It stretched from the Himalayas to the Pyrenees i--as a--as a sort of corporate unity.
LAMB: One of the things you noticed when you good through your chronology--time chronology, which goes on for a lot of pages...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah.
LAMB: Califid assassinated, so and so murdered, assassinated, assassinated, assassinated...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah.
LAMB: ...assassinated. What is all the--what--you know, if you look back at history and when Dan Pipes was here a number of--last year, he said that 169 million people were killed by other humans in the 20th century alone. Well, if this religion is--if there is a God and there is--why--what's going on?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I--I think you're--you're talking particularly about the early years of Islam, the period of what is the--before califs known as the rashidon, the righteous ones, who only--well, only--I think only one of whom died in his bed. One of them was killed by a prisoner of war--a pe--Persian prisoner of war. One was killed in a mutiny of Arab soldiers.

One was killed by a fan--a Muslim fanatic, who de--who'd separated himself from the rest of the community, feeling that they weren't pious enough for him. Now the thing about--we know that, of course, religion makes huge demands on people and all the religions fall down. The monotheists have always--you--you know, even though religions are about love and compassion, they've all had periods of violence, biblical stories are filled with violence, too.

The Muslims, however, asked themselves precisely this question. They saw their califs, their beloved companions of the prophet, his closest friends, who are all--they may not have been the best of rulers, but they were all devout men, those first four. And they asked themselves precisely what you've just asked me. What's going on?

And whereas other traditions tend to sor--Muslims have always looked closely at history to discern the divine hand in history. And because of the trauma of those early years and those assassinations and the disgrace of tho--of these assassinations, they--the Muslims began to develop Islam, develop new forms of Muslim law, develop forms of Muslim piety. And constantly one of the themes of the book--one of the--one of the themes that I discovered and found interesting was how frequently a political catastrophe--gazing at a political catastrophe gave Muslims impetus to cre--to make a new religious improvement to try and counteract this terrible tendency we have, as human beings, to maim and kill each other. Often in a mo--you know, for a higher ideal. We all have it.

And the religions at their best--at their best--you always have to add those three little words, because not all religion is good. Religion is like any other human activity and it can be gravely abused. But religions are par--in part designed to try to counter this cruel, cruelty we have, whereby we human beings need to kill our own kind.
LAMB: Let me ask you a question that may not be answerable. Of all the religions of the world that you've studied, which one did you--do you find people that--believe the strongest?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, wh--when you say belief, do you mean bel--accepting the tenets of the faith?
LAMB: You know, as we said--we were talking about the numbers. A billion Roman Catholics, a billion Muslims in the world. We've got s--I don't know what it is--seven billion Protestants in the United States. Who--which of these faiths have the strongest--where people believe--I mean--you know, they often say that, you know--I don't know what the percentage is--a small percentage of Catholics go to church, even though they say they're Roman Catholics.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah.
LAMB: And, you know--well, Europeans don't good to church.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: We don't go--I mean, in Britain, only 6 percent of the population attend a religious service on a regular basis and I...
LAMB: And the same with the Catholics all over the--Europe.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yep. I--I think in Europe--I think we've had a very different experience of the 20th century from Americans and I think that that has led to people asking very hard questions about faith. Which in--the religious establishments are not always addressing it sufficiently.

`How do you believe in an all wise, all compassionate God after Auschwitz? It's--an all powerful God?' It--it--it's very--you know, these questions--we gaze into the darkness of history as the Muslims did after--with those awful assassinations. And we then search our hearts for some significance, because we're meaning-seeking creatures.

I think the religions today, to come to your point, are all, in one way or another, in crisis, because our world is changing just so quickly. We've developed--we developed in the West. That was what my book "Battle for God" was about. We've developed in the West an entirely new society--kind of society. A new kind of civilization, one unprecedented in world history, and that has transformed the world.

Our scientific technology means that we can look at the world from outer space. We ha--which--our perspective has changed ma--massively. We can--we have greater mobility, grea--apparently greater power over our--over our material circumstances than any other human beings have ever had before, and yet the--the eternal questions remain. But sometimes the older traditions don't speak to these new conditions in the same way.

So all the faiths, I think, are in a process, or should be in a process, of delving into their traditions and trying to make them speak to these totally--these circumstances, which the founders of faith could not have envisaged. But this has always been the case, because religion has never been static. We cannot believe in God in the same way as the Christians at the time--in the time of Jesus or Jews at the--in the time of Moses. We can't. We ask--the--the--we're too--our world is too different. And, therefore, if the religions are to survive--are to survive, they must be made to address these new--and this is a struggle. This is a hard struggle.
LAMB: What have you learned since you--how many years have you been writing books?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I wrote my first book in 1981.
LAMB: Well, what have you learned about Americans since you've written books about God?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, I've learned how--ev--you're very keen on saying you're a secular country and, of course, you are. But you're also very, very religious. Now you see, in Britain, we have a rather simplistic sty--stereotyped view of Americans as all fundamentalists, basically. Religious Christianity, for example, is all fundamentalist with hap--clapping and sort of exorcisms, speaking in tongues. Or--very hard line and conservative.

That was the view I had of America until I published "History of God" and started traveling around the country and talking to Americans. And I have been so impressed by the--when I go to a bookstore or go to a conference and the large numbers of people who come with really profound, searching questions and they won't take a facile answer.

There's something very exciting, I think, happening in religious terms in the United States. It's a great joy to me to come here to talk theology. I've just came to you from a meeting where I--I meet--I've--meet friends, colleagues who love talking about Jews, Christians, Muslims. All talking about religion. Now in the UK, every one of my friends will think I'm mad to be so--one--one of my lo--friends said recently when she heard that I'd written this little book on Islam, `Oh, Karen, when are you going to write something interesting?'

Religion is a sort of--it's sort of passe. It's sort of a dead letter. Here it's vital, alive and people are searching. And I--I love coming here for that reason. It--it gives--I think it is interesting. Of course, they've not got any good answers yet. But then, of course, as I said to you earlier, these--the--these answers are not generally available. You--we're in a--we live in a--a world where we expect instant answers. You know, you log in God on your computer and up comes a whole lot of information. But the religious quest isn't like that. It means a lot of struggle, a lot of searching, but I think there's a lot of open mindedness an--and sincere seeking going on in America.
LAMB: Well, what in history that you've studied do you not believe?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: What do I not believe?
LAMB: In other words, all of the things that we've heard over our lives about what God is an--and the different churches and all. I mean, take your own Roman--are you no longer A Roman Catholic?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: No, I--as I say, I usually call myself freelance monotheist these days.
LAMB: But--but what about the Roman Catholic Church that you used to believe, that you just threw away? You said...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, I don't--I don't believe in a--an--anybody telling other people what to believe. The--the--the--the whole idea of, say, an infallible papacy, for example. This is something created--ca--the infallibility of the pope was made obli--an obligatory belief for Catholics in 1870. It was about the same time that Protestants in the United States were in--evolving a belief in the infallibility of Scripture, that people were seeking certainty in the changing world of modernity.
LAMB: Why did they create an infallible pope in the Catholic...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Because--because modernity, the--our modern society that I spoke off, was opening up questions. That's what modernity does. It opens out huge questions, leaves them unanswered and goes on to the next one. Huge confusion. Old ideas torn down, nothing to take its place. And a lot of people find this un--frightening and so long to find a focus that they can absolutely believe in. And I think the quest for absolute certainty is one of the things I was enthralled by when I studied hist--for "History of God," was to find that the best monotheists, best Jews, Christians and Muslims all said there can be no human certainty about the divine. That none of our doctrines can be more than provisional.
LAMB: Do you have a sense of whether people, when they read a lot more--I mean, a lot of people just accept their faith, and born into a family and never even question it. But do people believe more or less about the religion the more they read?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, I think--I--it--what--it depends entirely on the individual. I think a lot of people in Europe, wh--the more they read, the more they think religion is rubbish. And I'm not sure that this is a particularly bad thing, because atheism historically has always been the denial of a particular conception of the divine or the sacred, not a denial--a blanket denial of the sacred per se.

Jews, Christians and Muslims were all called atheists in an early stage of their history by their pagan contemporaries. Not because they didn't believe in God, because, obviously, they did, but because their ideas about the divine were so different that they seemed blasphemous to most of their pagan neighbors. And I think that sometimes people have been fed very bad, inadequate, lazy theology.

I mentioned, you know, the problem of Auschwitz, where Elie Wiesel said for--that--that God--that God of Western classical theism died in Auschwitz. That God died. And so to say in a facile way, `Oh, well. God knew what he was doing' and--this--this isn't good enough. I think we sh--theology should be like poetry. We should--a poem is hard work to write. You have to wait for it for a long time. It's not something that just--you just reel off automatically. And so I think quite a lot of the time when people just hear, read facile answers, then they reject the whole thing, because it's--because it's bad all ways. Other people read and find--read about other traditions and, as--as I did, find their faith endorsed.
LAMB: What's next for you?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I'm going to write a history of the axial age. This is a period from about 800 to 200 BC, when all the great world religions as we know them came into being in a remarkably contemporaneous state of--short space of time. Confucianism and Taoism in China, In--Hinduism and Buddhism in India. Monotheism in the Middle East and rationalism in Europe. And profound similarities. I think it tells us something very important about what human beings are, what we do.
LAMB: When is it coming out?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I've only just--starting it, so I think it'll probably be in about three years.
LAMB: We've been talking to Karen Armstrong about a lot of things, including this book, which you can get through the Modern Library series. It's in bookstores, called "Islam." And she has one out called "Buddha" or "Buddhism"?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: It's just called "Buddha."
LAMB: "Buddha"
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Next February.
LAMB: Coming out next February, published by the Penguin people.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Penguin.
LAMB: And then, of course, we have this one, called "The Battle for God," which is in your bookstores now. Thank you very much for joining us.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you.


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