November 21, 2004

The Battle for God

Author: Karen Armstrong | First published 2001 | Amazon

This has been a pretty amazing read. I liked it better than Armstrong's similar A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which also looks at Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in a single volume, all intertwined. This book has the advantage of a shorter timeframe: 1492 to the present, though most of it takes place after 1700 when the challenges of modernity begin to affect a lot of people.

Reading about all three faiths at once reminded me that superficially at least I knew more about Islamic fundamentalism than Christian fundamentalism or Jewish fundamentalism. Armstrong does a great job of showing how participants in these three faiths responded to a changing world, while recognizing that the changes varied drastically from place to place. She also does an excellent job of showing how fundamentalist ideologies evolve over time and respond to different circumstances.

Armstrong succeeds in keeping her subjects sympathetic, though it's pretty clear that she doesn't particularly like many of them. It's fascinating to read about why the Iranians were so enthusiastic about Ayatollah Khomeini and how he tapped into centuries-old Shiite beliefs, giving them his own twist. Similarly, this is the first clear explanation of the ideology of the Jewish settlers on the West Bank I've found. American Protestants are a strange case in the book, as they've had less direct pressure on them than either the Muslims (colonialism and westernization from the top down) or the Jews (anti-Semitism, enemies surrounding Israel), but I think Armstrong still makes her case.

I worry that these three groups, which originated from disputes within their own religions, may be coming to a point of larger conflict. Armstrong discusses the early 1980's plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the mosque on top of the old Temple site in Jerusalem. If such a thing ever happened today, it would stir incredible outrage among Muslim fundamentalists, wild joy among those American fundamentalists who'd think the Rapture was coming, and messianic expectations among fundamentalist religious Zionists.

Armstrong's additional post-9/11 preface, with its concerns for fundamentalisms reaching new extremes, is definitely worth contemplating.

Posted by simonstl at November 21, 2004 10:06 PM