Karen Armstrong is an Astute Interpreter of Religion in Modern Times. But Her Prejudices Remain

Karen Armstrong is an Astute Interpreter of Religion in Modern Times. But Her Prejudices Remain
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AIJAZ MANZOOR

Karen Armstrong is a prolific British writer. Karen is known mostly for her scholarly narration of religious history. The writer of such widely acclaimed books like, “The Case for God”, “A History of God” and “History of Jerusalem: One City, Three faiths”, Karen is considered to be one of the greatest contemporary historians of religion. What distinguishes Karen Armstrong from others is her acute awareness of the “inner” of religions which probably springs from her personal experience of being a nun for nearly seven years. Her personal experience as a nun is emphatically reflected in her books in the form of a preferential treatment of metaphysical, mystic and Sufi(stic) rather than theological and legal aspects of a religion. This emphatic esoteric narration of religion and religious events makes Karen Armstrong more than just a historian of religions; she, in fact , assumes the role of an interpreter, of a kind who is not only interested in the narration of facts but overwhelmingly interested in presenting those facts with a particular flavor and texture.
Overemphasis on symbolic and metaphorical understanding of some of the key and profound Biblical and Quranic stories like that of Adam and Eve, and a sardonic mockery of literal understanding is a consistent theme of her books. Karen’s books constitute a classic defence of religion of a particular kind.
Karen writes with a mission, the mission of rescuing and reviving religion. She wants to rescue it from some scathing criticism coming from different corners and wants to revive it in a society which is becoming rapidly godless and horribly materialistic. Her “The Case for God” with a subtitle “What Religion Really Means”, tries to locate religion in a pre-modern world where God was thought to be beyond all the thoughts and conceptions and could possibly be “known” only through a highly devoted and dedicated practice. The book is undoubtedly a pioneering effort to show that the West is finding it difficult to negotiate with the concept of God only because it has substantially lost sight of this important pre-modern insight. The subjects of atheism, the “Death of God” thesis, the rise of science in the West and the clash of faith and reason, have been subjected to a scholarly analysis and discussion in the book.
Karen Armstrong is a firm believer of the fact that all religions are inherently peaceful and she is not hesitant to extend this leverage to a religion which, here in our times, has come to be used synonymously with violence, the religion of Islam. She is one of those few brave and audacious western thinkers who have tried to study Islam by substantially distancing herself from the historical western “givens” and “knowns” about Islam. Her two books exclusively dealing with Islam include “Islam: A Short History” and “Muhammad: The Prophet for Our Times” have been warmly welcomed in the Muslim world and, in the West the books have tried to dispel certain deep entrenched myths and misconceptions about both the religion and its founder, Muhammad {SAW}.
But, despite her significantly sympathetic and relatively objective approach to Islam she still willingly or unwillingly has not been able to break entirely with the “Orientalist legacy” of necessarily finding faults both with Islam and most importantly with the person of its founder. Lest I be accused of being unfair and unnecessarily harsh to Karen and her otherwise good books on Islam, it would be prudent to go through her two books on Islam for anyone interested in the subject but at the face of it her description of the prophet of Islam as “physically and emotionally dependent on women” and hence “vulnerable” speaks volumes of some kind of intrinsic prejudice of the author. For Karen, Muhammad [SAW] fell suddenly in love with Zaynab who had come to the Prophet’s door in “dishabille, more revealingly dressed than usual……” and on many occasions for Karen, the prophet of Islam made “compromises” and “gave in” to Umar in various important matters.
Karen Armstrong is unparalleled when it comes to treatment and analysis of the “concept” of God, its intellectual and historical underpinnings and most importantly its changing cognitive dimensions with the onslaught of modernity and modern atheistic attitudes. Her book, “A History of God” is no less than a masterpiece in this regard. Its description by Sunday Times as being, “Brilliantly lucid, splendidly readable….dazzling” is in no terms any exaggeration. Her recent book, “Fields of Blood”, is a scholarly endeavor to show that religion in no way is violent as is wrongly understood by many people today. The book puts forth the important argument that religion as understood in the modern world is basically a “historical” and substantially a “human phenomenon” and in pre-modern world no such thing as “religion” existed. The word “religion’ with all its institutionalization and external manifestations, for Karen is a western creation and a recent creation. Deriving heavily from Alfred Cantwell Smith’s classic, “The Meaning and the End of Religion’, Karen digs deep in the book to uncover some of the important shared metaphysical truths of the world religions which however have been overshadowed by hard core theological and a kind of a cruel literalistic religious discourse. Her biography of Gautam Buddha enables one to peep deep into a soul that renounced the world only to understand and uncover the possible reasons of it being abundantly troublesome and severely painful and the enlightened discovery of which later on he successfully endeavored to transmit back to it.
The writings of Karen Armstrong are a vivid indication of the fact that there is a possible possibility of mutual and cooperative existence of different religions. The idea of religious pluralism which is gaining some kind of progress though often overshadowed by exclusive and salvific claims of religions, is a clear message of her books and needs to be imbibed as soon as possible for a much needed peaceful human society.

—The author is an Assistant Professor, at Government Degree College, Pampore, in the department of Political Science. He can be reached at: manzooraejaz@gmail.com

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