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Philip Yancey and John Wilson

A Conversation on Books About Islam and the Middle East

After September 11, books about Islam and the Middle East shot to the top of the bestseller charts. American readers sought to learn more about a religion that had inspired such zealotry, however misguided, and about a portion of the world that erupts in violence almost daily. Several months later, Books & Culture editor John Wilson and regular contributor Philip Yancey found themselves on a panel discussing a sampling of books that shed light on these issues.

Why don't I start with Karen Armstrong's book Islam, which appeared on The New York Times bestseller list for many weeks after September 11. I imagine more Americans are learning about Islam from this book than from any other single source.

Armstrong has lived a life of diverse spirituality, one that well qualifies her as a guide to other religions. She spent seven years as a nun—frustrating years, as it turns out, since upon reflection she realized that "nothing had actually happened to me from a source beyond myself." While her belief in God slipped away, her interest in religion did not. Recognizing the human being as an incurably spiritual animal, she studied both Buddhism and Islam and then began teaching Christianity at a Jewish school in London. Her writing primarily centers on the great monotheistic religions, as seen in her books A History of God, The Battle for God, and Jerusalem.

Armstrong has written a biography of Muhammad (Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet), and more recently Islam: A Short History, part of the Modern Library Chronicles series. Although I know of no better 200-page introduction to Islam, the book does not measure up to Armstrong's other writings. It sparkles in the early pages, as she keeps the spotlight on the prophet Muhammad himself, and the last chapter offers important perspectives on modern Islam. The middle chapters, however, wane into a catalogue of conflicts and theological controversies that no doubt require a longer treatment for real comprehension. (I must say, though, that reading Armstrong's history of Islam gave me sympathy for those outside the Christian faith who attempt to wade through the thicket of our theological controversies and the issues that divide Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians to this day.)

In her writings, Armstrong bends over backwards to portray Muhammad and his religion in the best possible light. She skips over some of the more violent scenes, and does not dwell on the role of women ...

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