Islam: A Short History (Review)

Book cover for "Islam: A Short History" by Karen Armstrong.Title: Islam: A Short History

Author: Karen Armstrong

Publication Year: 2002 (revised from 2000 edition)

Pages: 230

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Purchased from BMV used bookstore

From the cover:

No religion in the modern world is as feared and misunderstood as Islam. It haunts the popular imagination as an extreme faith that promotes terrorism, authoritarian government, female oppression, and civil war. In a vital revision of this narrow view of Islam and a distillation of years of thinking and writing about the subject, Karen Armstrong’s short history demonstrates that the world’s fastest-growing faith is a much more complex phenomenon than its modern fundamentalist strain might suggest.

If you’re looking for a brief overview of the history of Islam and Islamic society, this is definitely a good place to start.

Islam: A Short History is exactly what it purports to be: a very short, very condensed version of the history of Islam. Specifically, Armstrong has written an account of the political and historical aspects of Islam, from Muhammad’s life in Mecca and Medina, to the expansion of Islamic rule in Arabia, to the Crusades, and on to more recent developments such as the colonization of many Muslim countries by European nations. There is also a thread of history about the developments of different Islamic sects – Sunni, Shii (aka Shiite), and Sufi – as well as the smaller theological divisions within those sects and across the centuries. The majority of the book, though, is about the political and regional histories associated with Islam, giving a really great introduction to development that Islam has gone through and the ways in which Muslims have related to the rest of the world.

This book was originally published in 2000, so it’s definitely more useful as a historical primer than as a current-affairs text. I read a version that had a short epilogue written post-9/11, which was interesting, but Islam: A Short History does not purport to explain the current state of affairs. Rather, it seeks to educate the average person by explaining as much as possible in a simple overview – there isn’t all that much detail on most of the ideas and personages in the book, but that’s how it manages to tell so much in so little space. There’s also some great information in here that helps to explain the way that relations between Muslim countries and “the West” have developed, and a short section explaining modernization and fundamentalism.

Definitely a good primer if you’re interested in learning about the history of Islam and how it has become what it is today. Quite a dense read, full of dates and names, but even if you’re not a dates-and-names person (like me), you’ll still get quite a lot out of it.



This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

10 thoughts on “Islam: A Short History (Review)”

  1. I’m glad this is a good place to start. I’ve (obviously!) already started reading up on Islam, but I do have this book on my tbr and am looking forward to reading it.

    1. Definitely a good place to start, as long as you keep in mind that it’s more based on regional and political Islamic history, and much less on the basics of religious practice.

  2. I think this book would be really helpful for me. I know far too little about this subject, and at this point, I really need to learn more. Thanks for the recommendation!

    1. Like I said to Amy, it’s a great introduction to the political history! Definitely should be complemented by other books, though, for a more rounded introduction and information on religious practice. 🙂

  3. My only concern with this book was that Armstrong seems to be a bit biased in favor of Islam and therefore equivocates some of the more radical aspects of it as within the normal range of radicalism across all religious persuasions. To me, that calls her credibility into question. Still, it’s a good primer for the history of Islam, if not very good on the more contemporary issues.

    1. I definitely found it to be more useful in terms of the geo-political history aspects than the contemporary ones. I don’t necessary agree that she equivocates the radical aspects of Islam or of radicalism within all religious persuasions – I interpreted it more as a comment on the types of things that cause or precipitate these kinds of actions, to be taken with a grain of salt as possible explanations rather than as absolute truth. Everyone reads a book a bit differently, though, and I think that this one is largely good as a historical primer.

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