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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I wrote my first book in 1981.
LAMB: Well, what have you learned about Americans since you've written books
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
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
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
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
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."
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.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2000. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.