Which Way to Mecca?

Islam: A Short History

by Karen Armstrong
Modern Library, 222 pp., $10.95 (paper)

We are, in this country right now, engaged in the process of constructing, rather hurriedly, as though we had better quickly get on with it after years of neglect, a standard, public-square image of “Islam.” Until very recently, we had hardly more than the suggestions of such an image—vagrant notions of stallions, harems, deserts, palaces, and chants. A Peter Arno drawing in The New Yorker sixty-five years ago more or less summed the matter up. A stetson-hatted tourist leans out of his roadster to ask a turbaned man prostrate in prayer by the side of the road: “Hey, Jack, which way to Mecca?”

The reason for the rush to change this casual mixture of ignorance and indifference is clear enough: September 11, suicide bombers, Kuta Beach, Osama, Nairobi, the Cole—and now the Iraq war. What isn’t clear, and will not become so for quite some time, is where it all is taking us, what our sense of this obscure and threatening Other that has appeared suddenly—and literally—on our domestic horizon is going ultimately to be. The familiar, almost intimate enemy we precipitously lost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union is being replaced in our minds by something far less well defined, much further removed from the political history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and America. Communism, with its roots in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, at least had a Western pedigree. Marx and Lenin emerged from historical backgrounds all too recognizable, with ideological intentions derived, on the face of them, from some of our dearest social hopes. But “Islam,” a creed of Arabs, Turks, Africans, Persians, Central Asians, Indians, Mongols, and Malays, has been rather off our cultural map. What are we Americans to think about an inflamed competitor of which most of us know hardly more than the name?

There has been an avalanche in the last two or three years of books and articles—by historians, by journalists, by political scientists, by students of comparative religion, by sociologists and anthropologists, and by variously inspired amateurs—designed to assist us in answering this question, to give us a crash course in, as the phrase goes, “understanding Islam.” “Jihad,” a term most Americans had encountered, if they had encountered it at all, in dime novels or at Saturday matinees, has become a prime subject of popular and scholarly discourse. Works designed for that elusive figure, the general reader, have begun to appear on something called, variously and confusingly, “reformism, “modernism,” “radicalism,” “extremism,” or “fundamentalism”—sometimes, even, “Wahhabism”—in contemporary Islam. Handbook explications of Islamic law, of the teachings of the Koran, of the fast, the pilgrimage, or the meaning of the veil are suddenly on offer. So are introductions to Islamic schooling, science, ritual, and scholarship, and accounts of the Shiite clergy, the ecstatic brotherhoods, and that mysterious flying object, “Sufism.”

Bernard Lewis, perhaps the leading Orientalist of the day, has, at the fine old age of eighty-six, become a best-selling author, a television celebrity, an urgent hawk, and a…

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