Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 1993, Page 38
Karen Armstrong: A Profile in Literary Diversity
By M. M. Ali
Karen Armstrong, a prolific writer, television broadcaster and prominent figure on the London media scene, came to the Middle East by a circuitous route that began when she took the vows of chastity and poverty at age 17 and entered a Roman Catholic convent as a novice nun in 1965. Now among her seven books is a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, published in the U.K. in 1991 by Victor Gollancz Ltd. and this year in the U.S. by Harper San Francisco. She was interviewed by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, at the 21st annual conference of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists, held last October at Michigan State University.
Her intensive exposure to the three Abrahamic religions began during her seven years within religious orders, which included a stint at Oxford University, where she earned a B.A. in literature. At some point in her university studies, she acknowledged her own inability to live up to the demands of the monastic life for which she had opted, and she parted ways with her order amicably.
In 1981 she published Through the Narrow Gate, a candid account of her life in the convent, which fast became a bestseller in Britain. This was soon followed by Beginning the World.
Having established her place in the literary firmament, she was invited by Channel 4 of London in 1984 to make a six-part documentary television series on the life and work of Saint Paul. This assignment took Karen to Jerusalem several times to do on-location filming. As always, this scintillatingly intelligent and energetic writer began to observe and ask questions of those among whom she was working.
Until this time, she states, her spiritual and intellectual stimuli had come from the teachings of the Church and the conventional outpourings of Western scholarship and the media. All had presented Christianity and Judaism in a favorable light, and given a negative slant to everything that was Arab or Islamic.
"It was in Jerusalem that I heard my Israeli hosts refer to Arabs and the Islamic faith in most despicable terms," she recalls. "The expression 'dirty Arab' was used like 'bread and butter' or 'gin and tonic.' I, who had grown up recanting the horrors of the Holocaust, could not believe that the same people who suffered so intensely were indulging in such racism."
Her first visit to Israel took place during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra-Shatila refugee camps. Another visit took place during the Palestinian intifada.
"It was shocking to hear Israelis not only defend, but literally justify the massacres and the daily killings of defenseless young Palestinians," she says. "I could, to my total dismay, see that there was something fundamentally wrong here. Finally, it came glaringly to me that the Israel which had been portrayed all these years as the young David surrounded by the Arab Goliath was in fact an insensitive soldier firing a machine gun at a Palestinian child wielding a sling and pebbles.
"All this came as a rude awakening for me. My visits into Muslim neighborhoods brought home the truth that there was another and a different side to the story. It was something that was deliberately omitted in Europe, and perhaps in America as well. The exaggerations and the distortions that had smeared the pages of history needed to be corrected, and Islam and the Middle East had to be presented in the right light.
"The Israelis," she found, "just loved to hate Islam. Nor were European brothers and sisters innocent in this regard."
As a result of her visits to the Holy Land, a serious mood of introspection enveloped the young writer. "It worried me principally because the new awareness struck at the very integrity of Western culture and the value system with which I had grown up," she explains. "Here we were posing as a tolerant and compassionate society and yet passing judgments from a position of extreme ignorance and irrationality." It was during this phase that she pursued her newfound wisdom and researched the subject of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The result was her bookHoly War—The Crusades and Their Impact on Today 's World.
Islam for a Western Audience
Her primary focus, however, was on ways to help Westerners, particularly her own countrymen, develop a better understanding of Islam and its Prophet. Combing through national libraries, schools of comparative religions and even seminaries, she came across a wealth of scholarly treatises and useful works, but nothing that would help the common person or the general reader who had not grown up in an Islamic culture.
She was particularly irked at the manner in which the Salman Rushdie affair was discussed in England.
"Up came all these neo-crusaders defending the cause of free speech, but from a standpoint of ignorance. They were protesting against the burning of the Satanic Verses as if the Christians had never ever set fire to books with which they disagreed. I was forced to ask my friends why the blasphemy laws in England only applied to Christianity."
It was in the midst of such hypocritical qualms and an atmosphere of intellectual turmoil in England that Karen decided to write a biography of the Prophet Muhammad tailored especially for the Western reader. Such a contribution, she concluded, would be particularly relevant now that the custodians of communist faith had laid down their arms and their Soviet citadel had disintegrated. She believes that with a revival of religion on both sides of the Atlantic, Judeo-Christian tradition now had to deal squarely with the third Abrahamic faith—Islam. In her introductory note to her biography, Muhammad, she writes:
"Islam is a universal religion and there is nothing aggressively oriental or anti-Western about it. Indeed, when Muslims first encountered the colonial West during the 18th century, many were impressed by its modern civilization and tried to emulate it. "
She cautions that there is nothing eccentric or unique in the rise of fundamentalism in parts of the Muslim world. Fundamentalism, she maintains, is "a worldwide response to the peculiar strain of late 20th-century life'' and is by no means confined to the Muslim world. In this regard she cites Zionists like the late Meir Kahane, who vowed to push every Muslim out of Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories. She notes that Christian fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell have come to assume astonishing political power in the United States and Hindu extremists have gained extraordinary political influence in India today.
Karen Armstrong rightly points out that Muhammad was the only founder of a major religion whose life and times are fully recorded and available for authentic research. Further explaining her motives in writing the biography Muhammad, she notes:
"During a study of the Crusades and the current conflict in the Middle East, I was led to the life of Muhammad and to the Qurtan. . .In all great religions, seers and prophets have conceived strikingly similar visions of a transcendent and ultimate reality...The monotheistic faiths, however, call this transcendence 'God.' I believe that Muhammad had such an experience and made a distinctive and valuable contribution to the spiritual experience of humanity."
She adds that she found it necessary to provide the Western reader—who has been consistently denied the truth, and been provided only glimpses of a phenomenon shrouded with mystery and folklore—a clear look at the man who was also a prophet. He was a human being who changed the course of human history, and to this day continues to inspire much of humanity. Karen Armstrong hopes that her biography Muhammad will help the West understand the religion of Islam, which unquestionably is spreading across the globe.
Besides the books Through the Narrow Gate, Beginning the World, The First Christian, Tongues of Fire, The Gospel According to Woman, Holy War and Muhammad, Armstrong has written a great many articles on related subjects in The Sunday Times, The Times, The New Statesman, The Observer and The Daily Telegraph.
Her next book, A History of God: From Abraham to the Present. A 4,000 Year Quest For God, isscheduled for release in England in early 1993 and will be published in the U.S. in October by Alfred J. Knopf.
M. M. Ali, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia, contributes a monthly column to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on the Indian subcontinent.