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A History of God: from Abraham to the Present: the 4000-year Quest for God
Book Review
Junaid bin Jahangir

Author: Karen Armstrong

Pages: 511

Publisher: Heinemann / London

Year: 1993


The world changed for the Ummah after the Twin Towers collapse. ‘Terrible was the wrath of the Western might and swift was its retribution’.1 However, we will not worry about events which have caused us much pain and for which, after painful introspection, we have only ourselves to blame. Ours is the worry of the intellectual challenge that has been unleashed in the form of thousands of questions about Islam. For while the fanatics have been instrumental for our detractors, we have been strangely fortunate. Never before was there witnessed such an avid interest in Islam. It is in the context of this background that this review will be attempted.

Karen Armstrong is a name that bridges between the three monotheistic faiths fathered by Abraham (sws). And it is in times such as these that we feel grateful for having people like her; for it is an altogether different meaning and impact that is created by a secular Western scholar. Her book traces the supposed evolution of the concept of God through time, with her main thesis being:

I expected to find that God had simply been a projection of human needs and desires.2

She believes that God is not only a natural necessity but also a product of man’s own creation and subject to his disposition and pragmatic concerns. Thus, she writes:

Is the ‘God’ who is rejected by atheists today, the God of the patriarchs, the God of the prophets, the God of the philosophers, the God of the mystics or the God of the eighteenth-century deists?3

As such her book is neatly divided into chapters that deal with the God of various human factions enumerated above, specifically drawing a comparison among the three faiths. Our purpose will not be to summarize this book, which is historical in nature, but to deduce lessons from it for the Ummah in the context of recent events. However, we will first attempt to write of Karen Armstrong whose story is astonishingly different from that of Leopold Weiss despite her dedicated scholarship evident from the wisdom enshrined in her book.

Karen Armstrong: Journey Forth

While Leopold Weiss’s journey brought him to the folds of Islam, that of Karen Armstrong has let her to abandon her belief in God despite the fact that she came across similar material that perhaps Weiss had encountered. Weiss had written:

Preaching alone, intellectual realization alone could obviously not produce a change in the spiritual attitude of the European society.4

And Similarly, Armstrong writes:

People did not need learned books and theories. All that was required was a ‘wise passiveness’ and ‘a heart that watches and receives.5

Perhaps the resolution of the two taking opposite paths may lie in the glimpse of God that Armstrong had taken within herself.

I was unhappily aware that what little religious experience I had, had somehow been manufactured by myself as I worked upon my own feelings and imagination. Sometimes a sense of devotion was an aesthetic response to the beauty of the Gregorian chant and the liturgy. But nothing had actually happened to me from a source beyond myself. I never glimpsed the God described by the prophets and mystics…Eventually, with regret, I left the religious life and once freed of the burden of failure and inadequacy, I felt my belief in God slip quietly away.6

Her predicament appears not dissimilar to that of Imām Ghazālī about whom she writes:

No matter how exhaustive his research, absolute certainty eluded him. His contemporaries sought God in several ways, according to their temperamental needs: in Kalām, through an Imām, in Falsafah and in Sufi mysticism… But the reality that we call ‘God’ cannot be tested empirically, so how could we be sure that our beliefs were not mere delusions?7 Al-Ghazālī never lost his conviction that it was impossible to demonstrate the existence of God by logic and rational proof.8

Imām Ghazālī perhaps found certainty in Sufism contained within the folds of Islamic principles, though Armstrong would dismiss it away as a neurotic experience of the mind. Likewise perhaps Sheikh Sa‘dī’s experience of God through a lame man will hold no weight to her for a similar story can be narrated for St. Augustine, an ardent worshipper of Christ:

As Augustine lay weeping on the ground, he suddenly heard a child’s voice in a nearby house chanting the phrase ‘Tolle, lege: pick up and read, pick up and read!’ Taking this as an oracle, Augustine – snatched up his New Testament.9

It will not befit us to delve into an argument that suddenly Armstrong yearns for the experience of a mystic only to dismiss it as a neurotic experience. We only hope that she has in her exhaustive study heeded Qur’ānic verses with a similar gist as the following:

If We opened for the unbelievers a gate in heaven and they ascended through it higher and higher, still they would say: ‘Our eyes were dazzled: truly, we must have been bewitched’.10

Liberal Humanism: The Great Rebellion

While Armstrong does not believe in God, she feels it is but natural as opposed to the unnatural alternatives, perhaps to the chagrin of liberal humanists.  She writes:

The sense of presence, ecstasy and dread in the presence of a reality – called nirvana, the One, Brahman or God – seems to be a state of mind and a perception that is natural and endlessly sought by human beings.11

This conforms to her findings from the Qur’ān:

In the Qur’ān an ‘unbeliever’ (Kāfirun Bī Na‘matullahī) is not an atheist in our sense of the word, somebody who does not believe in God, but one who is ungrateful to him, who can see quite clearly what is owing to God but refuses to honour him in a spirit of perverse ingratitude.12

 However, while expressing that liberal humanism is unnatural, she also retains the belief that it was man that created God out of natural necessity and then evolved this God to meet the challenges of his time. Thus, in this regard liberal humanism is the notion asserted:

Indeed, our current secularism is an entirely new experiment, unprecedented in human history... It is also true that our Western liberal humanism is not something that comes naturally to us; like an appreciation of art or poetry, it has to be cultivated.13

 One already knows the role of inquisitions, stringent conditions and other horrific events in explaining this inclination toward unnatural institutions.  However, the main problem of the West always lay with the clergy. Problems initially crept in through the doctrines of original sin, the divinity of Christ and the Trinity. Later, it was the failure of the clerics to provide rational explanations of issues that confounded the common man. No wonder Armstrong writes on Abraham’s sacrifice:

Yet to modern ears, this is a horrible story: it depicts God as a despotic and capricious sadist and it is not surprising that many people today who have heard this tale as children reject such a deity.14

Our ‘Ulemā’ (scholars) would do well to pay heed to this statement, which arises despite the natural necessity of not only God but also the need for his pristine message as evident by the following:

The numinous power was sensed by human beings in different ways – sometimes it inspired wild, bacchanalian excitement; sometimes a deep calm; sometimes people felt dread, awe and humility in the presence of the mysterious force inherent in every aspect of life.15

Thus, those bent on accepting whatever comes from the West would do well to carefully consider liberal humanism so espoused increasingly after the Twin Towers collapse.

The Children of Israel and the Children of God

Much has been made of the notion of Itmām-ul-Hujjah16 with some detractors indicating that people were forcibly converted on sword tips. Yet, a thorough inspection would indicate that Itmām-ul-Hujjah was not the exclusive prerogative of the Holy Prophet (sws):

Elijah was not a generous victor. ‘Seize the prophets of Baal!’ he ordered. Not one was to be spared: he took them to a nearby valley and slaughtered the lot.17

‘They must make no covenant with them or show them any pity.’ There must be no inter-marriage and no social mixing. Above all, they were to wipe out the Canaanite religion: ‘Tear down their altars, smash their standing stones, cut down their sacred poles and set fire to their idols,’ Moses commands the Israelites.18

Thus, detractors of Islam would only have to look within their own scriptures before professing allegations against Islam. So far as forced conversions are concerned, Armstrong writes:

Nobody in the empire was forced to accept the Islamic faith; indeed, for a century after Muhammad’s death, conversion was not encouraged and, in about 700, was actually forbidden by law.19

The notion of Jihād has been much misunderstood not only by outsiders but more so by our fanatics who have done a great disservice to their faith. Such elements would do well to reflect on their convictions in the light of the following incident in Jewish history.

In Palestine, however, a group of political zealots fiercely opposed Roman rule. In 66 CE they orchestrated a rebellion against Rome and, incredibly, managed to hold the Roman armies at bay for four years… In 70 CE the armies of the new Emperor Vespasian finally conquered Jerusalem, burned the Temple to the ground…  Yet again the Jews were forced into exile.20

The scope of mutual learning extends to the Christians as well about whom Armstrong is most critical as she observed the Christian faith ever since childhood. She mounts a scholarly exposition of the widely held doctrines of Trinity, original sin, and divinity of Christ, relegating them to later accretions in history. Surprisingly, she also presents Christ as preaching a relatively stringent observance of the Torah. Thus, she writes:

There is a disturbing similarity to some sayings of Christ, who had also claimed that he had come to bring not peace but the sword.21

The Servants of God

So far as Islam is concerned, Armstrong is most sympathetic perhaps because it has already been much maligned in intellectual circles. However, because of her principally atheistic thrust, it does not stop some sensational writers to quote her for their purposes. She writes:

The Qur’ān did not see revelation as canceling out the messages and insights of previous prophets. It is important to stress this point because tolerance is not a virtue that many Western people today would feel inclined to attribute to Islam.22

With sympathetic statements such as already quoted, she builds a bridge between the Islamic and Western civilizations. Her writings have a message of tolerance for both the detractors of Islam and the Muslim fanatics:

At the same time as some European Christians were bent on the destruction of Islam in the Near East, Muslims in Spain were helping the West to build up its own civilization.23

The Muslims of Spain had given Jews the best home they had in the Diaspora, so the annihilation of Spanish Jewry was mourned by Jews throughout the world as the greatest disaster to have befallen their people since the destruction of the Temple in CE 70.24

An interesting lesson for the scholars can be drawn from our great luminaries of the past. The scholars who insist upon following the great ones before them would do well to learn that by their standards not all that which glitters is gold. Thus, a great scholar like Ibn Sīnā, who considered it a religious duty to discover God, died of excessive indulgence in wine and sex. Shams-u-Al-Dīn of Tabrīz believed he was a reincarnation of the Holy Prophet (sws), the philosophers had their loyalties with the Hellenic Sciences, and similar arguments can be made for the proponents of Kalām.

Ibn Taymiyyah was one of the exceptions about whom Armstrong writes:

But in his zeal for Sharī‘ah, Ibn Taymiyyah attacked Kalām, Falsafah (philosophy) and even Asherism. Like any reformer, he wanted to go back to the sources – to the Qur’ān and the Hadīth (on which the Sharī‘ah had been based) – and to shed all later accretions.25

Our purpose is not to malign the great luminaries but only to impress upon the Muslims that their scholars were not infallible and that many of them were often not from the mainstream. Also, it is to be noted that our Golden Age flourished only because of an atmosphere of tolerance, interaction, diversity, and learning, as is true of the later Western progress.

The scholars should also learn about the error of their ways, which would only contribute toward further Islamic decline than its Renaissance. Thus, they may note:

In a theologian such as Lessius we can see that as Europe approached modernity, the theologians themselves were handing the future atheists the ammunition for their rejection of a God who had little religious value and who filled many people with fear rather than with hope and faith.26

Also, they must be cautioned against fanaticism, a foe more powerful than all the detractors combined and which threatens to strike at the very heart of Islam. Writes Armstrong:

The events of recent history have been more of a threat than science has been to the traditional conception of God.27

However, not all tides can be mastered and the one that has emerged in our times which seeks to do away with God does not always stem from disgruntled followers of faith, but from blatant rejecters of the truth. Thus, Armstrong quotes Sartre:

Nevertheless, he insisted that even if God existed, it was still necessary to reject him since the idea of God negates our freedom.28

Concluding Remarks

Karen Armstrong appears to be a scholar of great intellectual depth. There is much to learn from her voluminous work, which may be better appreciated with some requisite background. She seems sympathetic to Islam as contrary to Christianity and perhaps even Judaism. However, her work maintains an atheistic thrust despite pearls of wisdom scattered throughout the book. She, for instance, notes:

Without the idea of God there is no absolute meaning, truth or morality: ethics becomes simply a question of taste, a mood or a whim.29

Human Beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation; they will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning. The idols of fundamentalism are not good substitutes for God.30

We have come here for a limited and appointed time. Life is too short and the human soul too precious to be gambled with. In the midst of our current preoccupations it would be most unwise to neglect our journey to the Inevitable End, one that we all must take. In this regard, we would like to draw Karen Armstrong’s attention to Islāhī’s work, with our most fervent prayers. We have already urged the Muslim scholars to peruse the chapters of history and also invite the liberal Muslims to carefully review the notion of Liberal Humanism. Finally, we also hope that the fanatics relinquish their evil ways and return to the light.

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us31






1. Adapted from the dialogue in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

2. Karen Armstrong, A History of God, (London: Heinemann, 1993), p. 4.

3. Ibid, p. 5

4. Muhammad Asad, The Road to Mecca, (Simon and Schuster Inc.,1952), p. 78

5. Karen Armstrong, A History of God, (London: Heinemann, 1993), p. 399

6. Ibid, p. 2

7. Ibid, p. 218

8. Ibid, p. 221

9. Ibid, p. 141

10. Qur’ān, 15:15

11. Karen Armstrong, A History of God, (London: Heinemann, 1993), p. 124

12. Ibid, p. 166

13. Ibid, pp. 3-4

14. Ibid, p. 27

15. Ibid, p. 11

16. Unveiling of the truth to an extent that no one is left with an excuse to deny it.

17. Karen Armstrong, A History of God, (London: Heinemann, 1993), p. 35

18. Ibid, p. 65

19. Ibid, p. 186

20. Ibid, p. 86

21. Ibid, p. 381

22. Ibid, p. 177

23. Ibid, p. 238

24. Ibid, p. 297

25. Ibid, p. 298

26. Ibid, p. 336

27. Ibid, p. 453

28. Ibid, p. 433

29. Ibid, p. 446

30. Ibid, p. 457

31. Gandalf from Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

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