Just finished reading 'Islam - A Short History' by Karen Armstrong, first published 2000 (the paperback edition had a postscript written after 9/11/2001).
It's definitely one of the most significant books I read for quite some time, in two respects.
It's changed my view of history. As a product of a Western education system, I hadn't realised Islam's influence on world history is at least comparable to that of Christianity, if not more so.  The history of the world from 612, when the Prophet Mohammed began to preach, until the early eighteenth century, when the Sultan of the Ottoman empire attempted reforms to accommodate the growing influence of Europe's transformation from agrarian to technical/financial economies, and beyond, up to the present day, has been  pretty much dominated by repercussions emanating from the acceptance and consequent spread of the Islamic way of life across an enormous portion of the globe. North of the Alps was pretty much regarded as a backwater until the Portuguese and Dutch traders established the first European trading empires in the sixteenth century. The Industrial Revolution, 1750 to 1850, with its profound effect on social, economic and cultural conditions, tipped the balance of global power away from the Islamic world.  In the process of dealing with the consequences, which will continue for some considerable time to come, a grasp of the historic perspective should be useful. The book gave me that perspective.
Westerners, normally educated as Christians, accept the separation of politics from religion, which wasn't always the case - it's a new phenomenon. We may find it difficult to understand that to others, politics and religion may be one and the same. Increasingly, we are having to deal with issues on a global scale. Islam is the second-largest religion in the world and arguably the fastest-growing, with over 1.5 billion adherents. This book has really helped me better understand their point of view.

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There's a body of work that comes under the banner of global ethics that has been established by the World Council of Religions that is attempting to get agreement on a set of underpinning ethics that most religions have subscribed to. Its worth having a look at as it is too easy to set religions against each other by focussing on divisions rather than commonalities. These folk are trying to bring it together and seek agreement.

have a look at: http://globalethic.org/


Thanks for those links Bren, there's a lot in there. I've spent a couple of hours going through most and will go through the rest when I've given my head a rest.

I've had a good look through those websites about the need to recognise a global ethic Bren.  They've put a lot of thought into it and come up with the Declaration of Human Ethic, based on 'act toward others as you would have others act toward you', but expanded and more extensively defined.
The final thing is well worth a look at:
Thanks for steering me in this direction.

I re-read this book immediately, something I rarely do.

As I mentioned before, something I've accepted, but never really understood, is that Muslims don't separate politics from religion the way we do. These three quotes from the book go some way to explaining why.

"It must also be recalled that beliefs and doctrines are not as important in Islam as they are in Christianity. Like Judaism, Islam is a religion that requires people to live in a certain way, rather than to accept certain creedal propositions.

Politics has never been central to the Christian religious experience… But politics was no secondary issue for Muslims. We have seen that it had been the theatre of their religious quest. Salvation didn’t mean redemption from sin, but the creation of a just society in which the individual could more easily make that existential surrender of his or her whole being that would bring them fulfilment. The policy was therefore a matter of supreme importance, and throughout the twentieth century there has been one attempt after another to create a truly Islamic state.

Many Western are also becoming uncomfortable about the absence of spirituality in their lives. They do not necessarily want to return to pre-modern religious lifestyles or conventionally institutional faith. But there is a growing appreciation that, at its best, religion has helped human beings cultivate decent values. Islam has kept the notions of social justice, equality, tolerance and practical compassion at the forefront of the Muslim conscience for centuries. Muslims did not always live up to these ideals and frequently found difficulty in incarnating them in their social and political institutions. But the struggle to achieve this was for centuries the mainspring of Islamic spirituality."

There is some disturbingly sloppy and dangerously naive and ill-informed thinking behind much of what has been said in this discussion.

As a historian (or a former history teacher, if that's the same thing...) I certainly agree that a good understanding of the history of Islam and the historical relationship between the major cultural, religious and economic spheres of influence and centres of power is important. That being said, this stuff about Islam keeping  "...the notions of social justice, equality, tolerance and practical compassion at the forefront of the Muslim conscience for centuries" is idiotic drivel.

Islam is a religion developed in uncertain circumstances by people whose history is shadowy and whose geographical location is unclear. It is a product of the social and political realities of early mediaeval Arabia and there is good reason to suspect that it started off as a tribal cult (like Christianity, Judaism and virtually every other religion one can name) before developing into a catholic creed.

There are various ways of looking at, and analysing, Islam (along with other religions) to try and understand its impact on the modern world, but there is absolutely no evidence that "...at its best, religion has helped human beings cultivate decent values." Some might argue that the opposite is true and that religions have generally held back the development of human ethics based on rationality and mutual respect for people as fellow humans rather than as members of this or that confessional community.

As a historian I would argue that one of the defining and crucial factors about Islam is the fact that it has never had anything approaching an "Enlightenment" and this is vital to understanding its role in the modern world. There were moves towards something that might have become equivalent to the "Enlightenment" (which did so much to free parts of Europe from theocratic tyranny) but these were violently crushed in India centuries ago and never revived. It is quite likely that the baleful influence of European colonialism and Imperialism has helped to keep Islam relatively primitive and there is no doubt at all that hypocritical European support for the racist settler state of Israel has enormously boosted Islamic fundamentalism and Clerical Fascism in the 20th and 21st centuries (indeed this is a deliberate and intended consequence of Israeli policy), but we are where we are.

In the modern world the term "Islamic" is virtually synonymous with "obscurantist" and as such it promotes human ignorance rather than ethics or spiritual morality. This is not to say that Islam is inferior to, or worse than, other religions. Obscurantism is a defining feature of virtually all religious influence over societies. However, it is in the majority Muslim countries where this unpleasant feature is most prominent today.

Let's have an intelligent and thoughtful understanding of Islam and its role in the modern world but let's leave out all that rubbish about spirituality and religious ethics and justice. Islam is a religious creed which rejects the entire notion of religious freedom (eg. the right of anyone to renounce their belief) and which regards humans as slaves whose role is merely to obey God  (and of course those who interpret and translate the word of God) under threat of violence and hellfire. It is no worse than other religions in this regard as this would be equally true of pre-enlightenment Christianity, but Christianity has largely moved on in Europe (a generalisation but broadly true) while Islam has remained stubbornly wedded to its mediaeval roots.


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