Reading Karen Armstrong has its rewards. I have been going through her defining work, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. And I have been reflecting on the points she makes.
God has always been elusive. Or the search for Him has been. Then too there are all the instances where looking for God, putatively finding Him and then claiming Him for a particular religious community has spawned issues over which vast global regions have become involved. Witness the aftermath of 11 September 2001 in the United States. Suddenly, because of the destruction in New York, Western interest in Islam as also its fears of it became a considerable many degrees more pronounced. Karen Armstrong, happily for us, is not guided by these immediate considerations. For a basic reason, which is that she has for a very long time been writing on religion and has particularly remained busty expostulating the diverse aspects of the Islamic faith. Reasoned analyses have been part of her assessments of the place of faith in life.
And it is just such an approach she brings into The Battle For God. As the subtitle makes clear, the work is a study of the history of fundamentalism not just within Islam but also among Christians and Jews. That is as it should be, for with the rise of the neo-conservatives in the United States, a fact earlier preceded by the arrival of the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, religion has come to acquire a harsher appearance than was earlier considered possible. Christianity, much to the chagrin of its tolerant sections, has in more instances than one been commandeered by the neocons in as much as Islam has been radicalized, and brutally so, by Osama bin Laden and his fellow fanatics. At another end, consider the rise of Jewish extremism, especially when it comes to a question of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. You find it rather incongruous that the very followers of Judaism who have suffered through centuries of repression and exile at the hands of other communities and governments should now be taking upon themselves the role of people not unwilling to make others suffer.
Karen Armstrong’s peregrinations in the world of religion lead you to thoughts of all of the above, perhaps more. But note that she does not hesitate to inform her readers that the fundamentalism which is so dominant a factor in global politics today has had its origins in the thoughts of political leaders and religious thinkers. An instance of how religion can swiftly turn into a weapon for those looking for emancipation from an oppressive state comes through an observation of Iran as it was under the Shah. Between the early 1950s and late 1970s, Iran served as the perfect breeding ground for Islamic militancy. You can point the finger of blame at Ayatollah Khomeni, but do not forget that, backed by the Americans and directly assisted by the CIA, the Shah thwarted the nationalist politics Mohammad Mossadegh sought to enforce in Iran in 1953. The monarchy’s insistence on Western-style development came alongside its obtuse belief that demands for democracy could be kept under the lid. SAVAK and all the instruments of repression were around to ensure that the Shah remained on top. That was when popular discontent was taken full advantage of by Khomeni and channeled into a popular uprising.
Fundamentalism, then, is often a consequence of bad politics. But there are, from the perspective of history, the original conflicts inherent in the struggle for dominance within a faith. Martin Luther, for all the reputation he was to gain as a reformer, is historically an individual whose goal was to steer Christianity back to its guiding principles. The concept of the Trinity, the belief that a set of clerics could claim to speak for God, was not what Jesus had struggled for. Move on to the world of Islam. The schism that has persisted for centuries between Sunni and Shia owes its beginnings to the fact that Ali, cousin of Prophet Muhammad, was passed over as many as three times when it came time for the growing Muslim community to choose a caliph. And when he finally succeeded in making it to the top, he was assassinated. And then his clan, personified by his grandson Hussein, perished in Karbala. That was the point when the line between religiosity and politics in Islam began to blur. It would over the centuries take the form of an intense struggle that would test the ability of the faith to survive in a world where other faiths were already arrayed against it.
Armstrong brings the tale of Abul A’la Maudoodi, the Pakistani preacher and founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Maudoodi, all too often a cause for sectarian tension in Pakistan and eventually an instrument which came in handy for a military regime engaged in a genocide in the country’s eastern province, came forth with his own version of what Islam ought to be. Westernised governments, believed Maudoodi, constituted rebellion against God. The implications are clear: Muslims everywhere had the right to send such governments packing. Maudoodi’s ideas were to be taken over by Syed Qutub in Egypt. An enlightened man well versed in literature and active in other liberal regions, Qutub gradually gravitated to a point where he not only embraced fundamentalist Islam but also tried hardening its core. It is then that you understand what the Muslim Brotherhood was all about. Gamal Abdel Nasser had no time for the likes of Qutub, who eventually was executed by the regime in 1966. Fundamentalism thus got a shot in the arm and went on to acquire newer dimensions.
And new dimensions came to Judaism too, through the long centuries of persecution. A revealing case concerns the zeal with which Tomas de Torquemada (1420-98) served as the first Grand Inquisitor in Spain. Once a Jew himself, before repudiating it, he appeared to take particular delight in stamping out any sign of the faith both in himself and in the lives of those he persecuted. The flimsiest of excuses were applied to up the pressure on the Jews. Any Jew who lighted candles on Friday evening or refused to eat shellfish was promptly marked out for torture. The Promised Land was thus to prove illusory. The Jewish community has been driven from one country to another, almost always made the butt of prejudice and ridicule. Rare have been the times when Jews were made to feel welcome or provided with shelter. And yet Armstrong would have us know that it was only in the Islamic world that Jews were not placed in fetters. ‘The Jews of Islam’, she notes, ‘were not persecuted, there was no tradition of anti-Semitism . . .’
The Battle for God goes beyond a search for the roots of radical faith. It is in essence a history of philosophy, of the distinctions between logos and mythos, that Armstrong has given shape to. An engrossing read. And a vastly enlightening one too.