23 January 2011
Allah Limatha (Why God); Karen Armstrong; translated by Fatma Nasr and Heba Mahmoud from the original History of God; Maktabet al-Usra (Family Library); 2010
Karen Armstrong is a British writer who was born in Ireland in 1944, and went on to become a Roman Catholic nun from 1962 till 1969. She later studied comparative religions, wrote several books on the topic, and became a highly-acclaimed advocate of a tolerant image of Islam. Among her famous books is History of God which has been translated into Arabic under the title Allah, Limatha (Why God) and is now accessible to Egyptian readers through the highly subsidised prints of the Family Library. The Family Library is a brilliant project to promote reading, sponsored by the government as represented by six ministries and by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak.
The only tolerant religion
I eagerly began reading the book which falls in some 500 pages and sells for a meagre five Egyptian Pounds. The book freely tackles the concept of deities ever since the Stone Age and till the present day. It poses questions unfamiliar to the Egyptian or Arab public such as the chapter “Is God dead?”
The book, as most of Armstrong’s writings, defends Islam as the most—if not the only—tolerant religion. As a Christian I found the book biased and one-sided, which the writer is perfectly entitled to. She cites as facts the arguments used by scholars in their critical Bible studies since the 17th century, while citing none of the by-now common counter-arguments. In this respect Armstrong casts doubts on the veracity of all the major stories of the Old Testament describing them as Middle Eastern legends, which is a self-defeating attitude considering that—while she apparently advocates the Islamic faith—the stories she doubts are mentioned for historical facts in the Qur’an. This applies to the stories on Abraham, Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea.
Armstrong then moves on to the New Testament and cites, again without citing any counter-claims, the claim that it was St Paul who propagated the notion of the divinity of Christ. Christianity, she writes, was devised by Constantine the Great and Pope Athanasius in the Nicene convention in 325. As though history bears no witness to the hundreds of thousands of Christians who for three centuries before Constantine preferred to die as martyrs rather than renounce their Christian faith.
I readily confirm that the writer—and any writer for that matter—is perfectly entitled to whatever notion or conclusion on any religion. The problem is that in Egypt this concept goes only one way: if any religion is unfavourably compared to Islam. This has created so much bitterness and raised religious tensions so high that, some two months ago, the Supreme Press Council and the Journalists Syndicate recommended banning public or printed debates on the faiths and religions. If Allah Limatha does not qualify as religious debate I don’t know what does.