Introduced by Tariq Ramadan
In its first illustrated edition, Armstrong's acclaimed account even-handedly traces the troubled history of the three major monotheistic religions.
No single idea has played a more definitive role in the development of modern civilisation than that of god. However, with the growth of secularism over the centuries, beliefs in the divine are often approached in a reductive manner, lone icebergs in an ever-expanding and hostile ocean. Karen Armstrong’s brilliant history traces the formation of these complex structures through the three major monotheistic religions over 4,000 years. In accessible and marvellously informed prose, Armstrong uncovers the troubled history of an idea that has both divided and inspired us, and underpins both our ethics of compassion and four millennia of conflict.
Beginning with Abraham, the shared wellspring, Armstrong illustrates how the more personal, single god of Yahweh gradually eclipsed the primordial, polytheistic beliefs of ancient Babylon. From here she expertly traces the divergent prophetic philosophies that sprang from the concept of god, some dedicated to a rational philosophy, others mystical. Her balanced history demonstrates how each new notion of the divine distils past beliefs to suit evolving social conditions, from the painstaking disciplines of Kabbalah and Sufism to the scientific advancements of the Islamic Falsafah and the turmoil of the European Reformation. Armstrong, a former nun, approaches this challenge with an unerring respect for all religious concepts, no matter how surprising, but she is also unafraid to offer informed criticism.
Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, Tariq Ramadan introduces this edition. He praises Armstrong’s ability to correct the dangerous drift towards religious absolutism and how ‘critical intelligence reminds us that Truth belongs to no one exclusively’. This is the first illustrated edition, featuring 32 meticulously researched images that chart the course of the divine ideal. The gold-blocked binding is complemented by a star-covered slipcase, which represents both the descendants of Abraham, ‘as numerous as the stars in the sky’, and our ongoing quest to fathom our place within an infinite universe.
Historian of comparative religion, and one of the world’s leading commentators on religious affairs, Karen Armstrong was born in Worcestershire in 1944. She spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun before leaving her order in 1969. The success of Through the Narrow Gate, her 1981 memoir of her experiences in the convent, prompted her to pursue a career as a full-time writer and broadcaster.
Since 11 September 2001 she has become chiefly known for her work on Islam and Fundamentalism, particularly in the United States. She has been widely honoured for her work in building bridges with the Islamic world, has advised governments across the globe and is a UN Ambassador for the Alliance of Civilizations. In 2008 she received the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom of Worship award and the TED prize. She is currently working with TED on a major international project to create, launch and propagate a Charter of Compassion, created online by the public and crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which will be signed by a thousand religious leaders.
Her television work has included The First Christian, a documentary series on St Paul, which she wrote and presented in 1984. Her books include The Gospel According to Woman (1986); Muhammad, A Biography of the Prophet (1991); A Short History of Myth (2005); The Bible: A Biography (2007); Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2011); and Fields of Blood (2014). A History of God (1993) became an international bestseller
This book, like all of Armstrong’s work, is a celebration of the imperative union between the believing heart and the questioning, understanding mind. As she examines spiritual beliefs and religious practices from within – whether Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam – she demonstrates boundless respect for each of them. There is a delicacy in her approach, a veritable intellectual empathy for the principles that underlie the aspirations of a given spiritual community. She delves deep into religious systems and ideologies, and attempts to extract from them the quintessence of the act of faith that explains both ritual and the striving for salvation. Her empathy, alongside her rigorous analysis, enables her to elude the prejudices or biases held by certain people about this or that spiritual tradition or religion. Armstrong insists that her readers take all religious references seriously, that they treat facts and beliefs with equal respect, and eliminate any possible discrimination in the name of ignorance, contempt or arrogance. The task is one of serious analysis – of people’s beliefs, how their beliefs are manifested in real life, and the concrete implications of those beliefs. She does this from within, and indeed to such an extent that she convinces us of her receptiveness to the belief systems she describes.
At the same time, she offers another perspective, drawn from a completely different viewpoint: that of an external, contingent and critical outlook that insists on locating scriptural sources, beliefs, rituals and dogmas within a historical context. The point is to consider the facts, to discuss beliefs, to situate them in time and place by submitting them to a critical study of the history of religions. Believing readers who may have felt their hearts in tune with Armstrong’s natural attraction to mystery and faith are now suddenly confronted with a voluminous study of fact, of historical verification and of scientific analysis of the sacred texts, which are now presented as the projections of human beings, as hearsay and even as myth.
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