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In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, an understanding and appreciation for the history and practice of Islam–the world’s second largest and fastest growing religion–is now more important than ever. Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History provides a vital corrective to prevalent misconceptions and stereotypes about Islamic faith and practice. Succinct but remarkably comprehensive, the book surveys Islamic civilization from its roots in seventh-century Arabia to its contemporary global reach. Diverse and dynamic, Islamic history is marked by spiritual creativity, intellectual exploration, artistic expression, and cultural dialogue. Beginning with the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the book explores the consolidation of the early Muslim community in Medina in the seventh century. Subsequent chapters trace the origins of the split between Shii and Sunni Muslims; the emergence of Islamic law, theology and Sufi mysticism; the spread of Islam throughout North Africa, the Levant, and Asia; the shattering effect on the Muslim world of the Crusades and Mongol invasions; the flowering of imperial Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries into the world’s greatest and most sophisticated power; and the impact of European colonialism and the origins of revolutionary Islam. The book concludes with an assessment of Islam today and the challenges now facing the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims in the wake of 9/11.



Karen Armstrong is one of the world’s foremost scholars on religious affairs. She is the author of several best selling books, including The Battle for God, Jerusalem, The History of God and Through the Narrow Gate, a memoir of her seven years as a nun. She lives in London.


Robert Rozehnal is a Ph.D. candidate in Islamic Studies at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in South Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has studied and traveled extensively in Asia and the Muslim world. His dissertation research examines how a contemporary Sufi order has repositioned its spiritual legacy to accommodate the multiple challenges posed by Pakistani politics and global forces, especially since September 11, 2001.




Beginnings surveys the life and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632) and the foundations of the Muslim ummah, or community of believers. Spiritual visionary, businessman, family man, military commander and statesman, Muhammad was an Arab prophet with a universal message. As the bedrock of Islamic piety and practice, the sacred book revealed to him, the Quran, teaches unity, equality, social justice and faith in the One God, Allah. In 622, Muhammad and his followers left their homes in Mecca to proclaim their own community of faith in the city of Medina. This pivotal event, the hijrah, marks the start of the Muslim era. From these humble beginnings, Islam spread with astonishing speed throughout the Arabian peninsula and into the lands of the moribund empires of Byzantium and Persia under the guidance of the rashidun, the four “rightly guided” successors to the Prophet: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. After Muhammad’s death, however, leadership of the rapidly expanding Islamic empire was hotly contested. With the murder of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, in 661, the ummah plunged into a period of civil war (fitnah). As Islam moved onto the world stage, factional struggles over the mantle of religious authenticity and political authority continued, creating a schism that persists even today.

Comprehension Questions:

1) Who was Muhammad, where and when did he live, and what was his message?
2) What is the Quran, how was it revealed and what are its basic teachings?
3) When was the hijrah, and what is its significance for Muslims?
4) In what ways does Islam resemble Christianity and Judaism? How did the early Muslim community interact with other faiths?
5) Who were the rashidun, and what were the causes and consequences of the first fitnah?
6) In the West, Islam has frequently been characterized as a "religion of the sword." To what extent were the early Islamic conquests "religious"? What were the motives for the expansion of empire, and what new challenges did the ummah face in moving beyond the confines of the Arabian peninsula?

Teaching Ideas:

1) The Quran: Divide students into groups and have them explore the sacred text by themes (God, acts of worship, women, social justice, etc). Webpages and CD recordings can add elements of sight and sound to these projects.
2) The Prophet Muhammad: Have students present research on multiple dimensions of the Prophet’s biography and the impact of his life and legacy on everyday Muslims, past and present. Examples of poetry and music from various Muslim cultures can add depth to the presentations.
3) The Hajj: Using maps, photographs and the Web, examine the history and meaning of the ritual practices of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Beyond the Book:

Islamic faith and practice on the Web: Have students explore Islam’s dynamic and varied presence on the internet and then present their findings in class presentations or as critical Web reviews of selected sites.



Development explores the consolidation of the Islamic empire, the rise of absolute monarchies and the codification of religious orthodoxy. The Umayyad dynasty (661-750) with its capital in Damascus restored order and expanded Muslim power, but it also exacerbated internal sectarian divisions. For Shii Muslims, the massacre of the Prophet’s grandson, Husain, and his family on the plain of Kerbala in 680 became an enduring symbol of betrayal and injustice. Umayyad power was soon eclipsed by the meteoric rise of Abbasid dynasty (750-1258) which reached its zenith under the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786-809). From his magnificent capital in Baghdad, the Caliph oversaw a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Challenging the political monopoly of the Caliphate, Muslim scholars (ulama) actively debated the parameters of piety and politics, eventually forming a distinct class. As the arbiters of religious orthodoxy, the ulama codified a religious law (Shariah) grounded on the Quran and hadith, the traditions about the Prophet Muhammad. At the same time, other groups pursued more esoteric forms of knowledge: from the Jafari madhhab (school of law) of the Twelver Shiis, to the rationalist philosophers of falsafah and the mystical orders of the Sufis. All told, it was a time of remarkable intellectual and cultural efflorescence.

Comprehension Questions:

1) Where is Kerbala and what is its significance for Shii Muslims?
2) Who was Harun al-Rashid and how was the Abbasid state organized?
3) Who are the ulama and what was their traditional role in Islamic society?
4) What are the basic teachings of the Twelver Shiis and how do they differ from the Ismailis?
5) Who are the Sufis? What are their teachings and practices, and what was their relation to the ulama and the Caliphs?
6) Was the rise of absolute monarchy under the caliphate compatible with the worldview of the Quran? What was the relationship between political and religious power under the Abbasids?

Teaching Ideas:

1) Mapping Empires: Have students create colored maps and historical timelines of the early Muslim conquests.
2) Sunni vs. Shii: Divide students into groups to research or debate the history and beliefs of Islam’s two sectarian communities. Where do Sunnis and Shiis live? What are their respective beliefs and what is the root of their conflict? Who are some of the key historical figures for each community?
3) The Ulama: How are Muslim scholars trained? What are the four schools of law? What are the foundations of Shariah and how is it put into practice? Have students research these questions and present their findings to the class or in writing.

Beyond the Book:

Great Muslim Minds: Have students explore the life and times of famous Muslim scholars, scientists and mystics (al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd, Rabiah, al-Hallaj).



Culmination examines the dissolution of Abbasid hegemony, and the rise of local military rulers (amirs). While the Caliphs maintained important symbolic authority, a host of regional powers–the Shii Fatimid dynasty in North Africa, the Ghaznavids in eastern Iran and northern India, the Seljuk Empire in the Fertile Crescent–established autonomous dynasties. Amid these centrifugal forces, it was the ulama who held these scattered military regimes together. With the founding of the prestigious Nizamiyyah madrasah (college for the study of Islamic sciences) in 1067, the Seljuks cemented the independent power of the ulama. At the same time, Sufi brotherhoods (tariqahs) gained widespread popular support. The synthesis of Sufism and Sharia is embodied in the figure of the famous scholar, Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali (d. 1111). At the height of this period of cultural fermentation, foreign invaders appeared on the horizon. In July 1099, the Christian Crusaders from Western Europe attacked Jerusalem, sending shockwaves throughout Islamdom. In the thirteenth century, a far more dangerous threat came from the east as the Mongol chieftain Genghis Khan unleashed his war machine on Muslim lands in a quest for world domination. Muslim responses to the widespread devastation were varied: from the ecstatic mysticism of the Persian Sufi Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273), to the conservative reformism of Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328).

Comprehension Questions:

1) How did the Islamic empire change during the tenth century? What were the important regional dynasties, and how did they interact with the Abbasid caliphate?
2) During this period, what was the relationship between the ulama and the amirs?
3) Who was al-Ghazzali, and why is he considered one of the giants of Islamic history?
4) What impact did the Crusades and the Mongol invasions have on the Muslim world?
5) Who was Jalal ud-Din Rumi? How did his teachings differ from those of Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah?
6) What was the role of merchants and traders in Islam’s expansion into sub-Saharan Africa and throughout Asia? How was Islam able to adapt to such varied cultural settings and what was its appeal for such a diverse range of peoples?

Teaching Ideas:

1) The Crusades: Have students report on the history and legacy of the Christian Crusades through maps and stories.
2) The Mongols: Examine Mongol society (social organization, warfare, the range of Genghis Khan’s empire) and the impact of the devastating conquests on Islamdom.
3) Sufism: Using the myriad resources on the Web, have students report on the ritual practices, teachings and poetry of Sufi masters like Ibn al-Arabi and Jalal ud-Din Rumi.

Beyond the Book:

Regional Dynasties: In order to trace the geographical spread and cultural diversity of Islamdom, divide students into groups and have them create maps and present reports on the regional dynasties of the tenth century: the Umayyads of Spain, Fatimids, Seljuks, Mamluks, and Ghaznavids.



Islam Triumphant focuses on the return of absolute monarchy under three Islamic gunpowder empires: the Safavids, Moghals and Ottomans. In Iran, Shah Abbas I (d. 1629) transformed the Safavids from a fledging Sufi order into a powerful Shii state, suppressing the Sufi tariqahs and decimating the ulama in a concerted struggle (jihad) against Sunni Islam. From their majestic capital in Isfahan, the Safavids expanded their empire while patronizing artists and scholars. The mystical philosopher, Mulla Sadra (d. 1640) embodied the ethos of the age, calling for the unity of political reform and spirituality. In South Asia, the Moghals ruled an efficient and expansive dynasty within the heartland of Hinduism. Under Akbar (d. 1605), a unique cultural synthesis produced novel institutions and glorious architectural monuments. Conservative scholars like Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1625), however, condemned Akbar’s universalism and called for a return to the dictates of Shariah–a reformist zeal that was transformed into state ideology during the reign of Aurengzebe (d. 1707). At its height, the Ottoman Empire stretched from the Fertile Crescent to the doorstep of Europe. From the capital of Istanbul, Suleiman the Magnificent (d. 1666) expanded the Ottoman borders, bolstered by a vast ulama bureaucracy and a highly efficient army led by an elite corps of slave soldiers, the Janissaries. Centralized, bureaucratized and militarized, the age of Imperial Islam (16th-18th century) marked the apex of Muslim political power, sanctioned by Shariah.

Comprehension Questions:

1) What were the boundaries of the Safavid, Moghal and Ottoman empires? What was the relationship between political and religious power in these empires?
2) How did the Safavids integrate Shii doctrine into their state ideology and institutions?
3) Who was Akbar and what were his policies? How did other Muslims respond to his legacy?
4) Who was Suleiman the Magnificent and what is he famous for?
5) Who was Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and what reforms did he advocate?
6) What were the internal and external causes of decline for these three great Islamic empires during the eighteenth century?

Teaching Ideas:

1) Safavids: Have students organize a range of reports surveying the Safavid’s political, social, economic, and artistic accomplishments. A multi-media tour of the city of Isfahan, for example, would bring Safavid culture to life.
2) Moghals: Create a dialogue or debate between Akbar and Aurangzebe. How did each of these Moghal emperors define Islamic orthodoxy? How did each of them interact with the majority Hindu communities of South Asia?
3) Ottomans: Drawing on the Web, create a multi-media collage of the artistic legacy of Suleiman the Magnificent: music, painting, calligraphy, the mosques of Istanbul.

Beyond the Book:

(Mis)understanding Islam: Exploring Orientalist novels, travelogues, and paintings, have students research how Europeans viewed Islam and Muslims in the age of empire.



Islam Agonistes considers the profound impact of colonization and, along with it, the ideology and institutions of modernity on the Muslim world. Technologically advanced and militarily superior, the West’s ambitions presented a new and unprecedented challenge to Islam. In the face of European hegemony, Muslims turned inward, reflecting on their own history for answers to this crisis of identity. The ulama, for the most part, became increasingly insular, falling back on their traditions of piety and learning even as they were stripped of power and prestige. Others, however, argued that the times demanded a more proactive response. Inspired by the outspoken Iranian activist, Jamal al-Din al Afghani (d. 1897), the Egyptian thinkers Muhammad Abdu (d. 1905) and Rashid Rida (d. 1935) called for the modernization of Islamic educational, political and legal institutions. Islamic fundamentalism (usuliyyah), by contrast, viewed the West as morally bankrupt, the abode of barbarism and ignorance (jahiliyya). From the Sunni ideologues Mawdudi (d. 1941) and Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966) to the Shii revolutionary leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989), fundamentalists resisted the secularist exclusion of the divine from public life. Rejecting nationalism, they called for the strict implementation of Shariah and the creation of an Islamic state. During their short-lived reign in Afghanistan, the Taliban embraced an extremist version of this activist ideology.

Comprehension Questions:

1) What factors led to the rise of modernity in the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
2) How did European colonialism impact the Islamic world?
3) Who was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and what impact did he have on Islamic modernists?
4) How do Islamic fundamentalists view the West, and how do they propose to reform Islamic society?
5) How does the model of the secular European nation-state compare and contrast with the ideal of the Muslim ummah? Is Islam compatible with democracy? Are there alternative paradigms for political reform more in keeping with Islamic traditions?

Teaching Ideas:

1) Colonialism: Have students create maps and historical timelines to trace the spread and impact of European colonialism throughout the Muslim world.
2) Islam and Modernity: Have students examine how various Muslim groups (ulama, modernists, fundamentalists) have responded to the challenges of modernity and then present their research in class presentations or debates.
3) Women and the Veil: Drawing on multiple resources–the Quran, Web pages, the writings of Muslim women–have students examine the longstanding debates over gender. What does the Quran say about women’s rights and responsibilities? What is the history of the practice of veiling? What is the role of women in various Muslim countries today?

Beyond the Book:

The Contemporary Muslim World: In order to document the immense changes in the Muslim world in the twentieth century, have students create maps and reports on modern Muslim countries. What new Muslim nations emerged after World War II? What are the current demographics and cultural characteristics of these countries? What are some of the issues that both divide and unite the modern Muslim world?



9/11, 2001 may prove to be the defining event for today’s generation of students, and quite possibly for tomorrow’s as well. Its legacy is likely to permanently reconfigure the geo-political landscape, alter global security arrangements, redefine foreign policy, and test society’s commitment to freedom and civil liberties. Since 9/11, Islam has fallen under an intense and unrelenting mass media spotlight. With rare exception, the modern Muslim world is portrayed as a fossilized monolith: Arab, patriarchal, rigid, militant and utterly at odds with modernity. In the eyes of many, Islam and the West are on a perilous collision course. The Postscript critiques these prevalent misconceptions while raising serious questions about the consequences of 9/11 for all of us. Across the globe, the vast majority of Muslims have responded to the September apocalypse with horror and disgust. The terrorist attacks carried out by the radical followers of Osama bin Laden are seen as a violation of the most sacred tenets of the faith. In the wake of 9/11 the challenge now for Muslims and non-Muslims alike is to search for common ground. In this global age of shrinking boundaries we must foster mutual understanding and open dialogue if we are to avoid a future of endemic bigotry, injustice and violence.

Comprehension Questions:

1) Who is Osama bin Laden, and how do he and his followers justify the attacks of 9/11?
2) How did the majority of Muslims respond to the terrorist acts of 9/11?
3) What do the Quran and the Shariah say about jihad and violence?
4) How have Muslims been treated in Western countries in the wake of 9/11?
5) What can be done to promote understanding and education about Islam and the Muslim world?
6) Today Islam is demographically an Asian religion. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, followed by Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. In what ways does Islam in Asia confound prevalent stereotypes about the Muslim world? What are the implications of 9/11 for Asia’s diverse Muslim communities?

Teaching Ideas:

1) Muslim Responses to 9/11: Have students document the range of Muslim responses to the events of September 11 to consider the key issues and concerns for Muslims today.
2) Current Events: Using Web pages, newspapers, and magazines, have students survey the mass media coverage of hotspots in the modern Muslim world (the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the ongoing struggle over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, the continued crisis in Afghanistan and Iraq, etc). What are the key issues for Muslims in these places? How does the reporting of these events differ in America, Europe, and the Muslim world?
3) Terrorism: Divide students into groups to debate key issues. How (and by whom) is terrorism defined? What are its root causes? How is religion used to justify acts of violence? What can be done to prevent future attacks? What are the implications for security and civil liberties?

Beyond the Book:

1) Afghanistan: Have students create maps, historical timelines, and reports to survey a range of topics on the history and culture of Afghanistan: the colonial Great Game of Britain and Russia; the Afghan war of the 1980s; the rise and fall of the Taliban; the current state of affairs in the war-ravished country.
2) Islam in the West: Have students research and report on the growing Islamic presence in Western countries. Beyond the resources of the Internet and CD-ROMs, arrange a class visit to a local mosque or organize a series of guest lectures from local Muslim leaders.



Frontline: Muslims (PBS Home Video)

Islam: Empire of Faith. (PBS Home Video)


On Common Ground: World Religions in America by Diana Eck (Columbia University Press)


Resources for Teachers:

Islamic Faith and Practice:

Muslim Responses to 9/11:




Cleary, Thomas. The Essential Koran: The Heart of Islam. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994.

Sells, Michael. Approaching The Quran: The Early Revelations. Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 1999.

Islamic History, Faith and Practice:

Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. New York: Ballantine, 2001.

_____. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York: Ballantine, 1994.

_____. Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.

Maalouf, Amin. Crusades Through Arab Eyes. New York: New York: Schocken, 1989.

Renard, John. Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

_____, (ed.). Windows on the House of Islam: Muslim Sources on Spirituality and Religious Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Sufism (Islamic Mysticism):

Barks, Coleman. The Essential Rumi. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995.

Ernst, Carl W. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.

_____, (ed.). Teachings of Sufism. Boston: Shambhala, 1999.

Women in Islam:

Barlas, Asma. “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock. In Search of Islamic Feminism. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.

Wadud, Amina: Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text From a Woman’s Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Contemporary Islam:

Belt, Don, (ed.). The World of Islam. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2001.

Esposito, John L. and John O. Voll (eds.). Makers of Contemporary Islam. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2002.

Feener, Michael, (ed.). Religions in Contemporary Societies: Islam. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, (forthcoming).

Kurzman, Charles. Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lawrence, Bruce B. Shattering the Myth: Islam Beyond Violence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia. London: I.B. Taurus, 2000.

Said, Edward. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. New York: Vintage, 1997.


Mahfouz, Naguib. The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2001.

Munif, Abdelrahman. Cities of Salt. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Pamuk, Orhan. The White Castle: A Novel. New York: Vintage, 1998.

_____. My Name Is Red. New York: Vintage, 2002.


Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History offers a window on one of the world’s most vibrant (and misunderstood) religious traditions. This guide serves as a roadmap, providing teachers with thematic signposts to mark the twists and turns of 1400 years of Islamic history. While no substitute for reading the book, the Summaries highlight the key historical figures and major themes of each chapter. The Comprehension Questions are meant to facilitate class discussions. They may also be used as essay topics or simply to quiz students for close and attentive reading. Teaching Ideas offer suggestions for research projects and class presentations designed to deepen students’ understanding and engage their imaginations. The Beyond the Book sections give students further food for thought on relevant issues and ideas beyond the purview of the book. Other Resources provides a variety of additional sources that teachers may find useful, including films, webpages and books. Collectively, these materials and exercises are intended to encourage students to think critically and creatively about Islam’s past, present, and future.

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