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Interfaith Healer

With her new history of Islam, scholar and former nun Karen Armstrong continues to find common ground among the world's great religions.

October 09, 2000|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years she was tagged the "runaway nun," the rebellious ex-Catholic with outspoken opinions about religion--comparing, for example, Pope John Paul II to a Muslim fundamentalist.

Now, with her 12th book, "Islam, a Short History" (Modern Library), Karen Armstrong has changed her image. She can still be sharp-tongued, inclined to draw conclusions that get a rise out of critics. But something closer to reconciliation, rather than anger, is propelling her.

Her life in a British convent is 30 years behind her. She spent seven years in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus during the 1960s and later wrote a tell-all book, "Through the Narrow Gate" (St. Martin's Press, 1982) that bemoaned the restrictive life. (The frightened nuns did not know the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 had ended for several weeks; they were not allowed to inquire about the outside world.) Armstrong is still hearing about the book: "Catholics in England hate me. They've sent me excrement in the mail."

Readers who have followed her lately are learning her more optimistic ideas about what Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common. Three of these books--"A History of God" (Ballantine, 1993), "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths" (Knopf, 1996) and "The Battle for God" (Knopf, 2000)--show what unites the faiths. Each, Armstrong writes, has developed the image of one Supreme Being who was first revealed to the prophet Abraham. All have historic links to Jerusalem. And more recently, each has built up a rigid conservative strain as a reaction against the modern world.

Last year, the Islamic Center of Southern California honored Armstrong as a bridge builder who promotes understanding among the three faiths. On a book tour last week that included Los Angeles, the Londoner met again with members of the center in a Santa Monica home.

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A small woman in her mid-50s with short blond hair and an eager expression, Armstrong signed copies of her books while the 100 or so guests grazed a buffet table.

"Across the country," she began her brief talk, "night after night in bookstores, I saw in people's faces that they are interested in Islam. You might feel in despair as you are now a minority, living in the West, but people are very interested in learning more about you."

Earlier, she explained in an interview: "It is challenging for Muslims in the U.S. who for the first time are not living in a Muslim-governed state. A basic message of the Koran is to create a united community and share the wealth." When Western capitalism was introduced in the East in the last few decades, Iran and other Muslim countries rebelled. "The challenge for Muslims in the U.S. is to come to terms with the success of the secular West."

Part of the problem in integrating, she suggested, is that Muslims don't want to alienate anyone. "Muslims need to reach out to other faiths. They aren't as practiced as the Jews at it, who've lived in sometimes hostile countries for 2,000 years."

Other religious cultures have met similar challenges as immigrants in the U.S. "The Catholics did, late in the last century. They came from Ireland, Poland and Europe in huge numbers, and they were hated. Their arrival encouraged the rise of Protestant fundamentalism in the U.S. Now it is the Muslims who want to be good Americans."

Reviews of her new book, and of earlier works, tend to challenge Armstrong's sophistication. In the case of her new work, one reviewer argued she gave too little attention to the development of Islamic law, a central feature of a faith that blends religion and politics while Western democracies struggle to keep the two apart. Another reviewer said she overlooked Islam's contribution to science, art and economics.

"I never read reviews," Armstrong replied, defending herself in a cadence that an observer once timed at 130 words per minute. "Islam" presented the added challenge of telling it all in 222 pocket-book-size pages. "This impossibly brief history of Islam," was the publisher's idea, she said. "People too daunted by thick books will get a sense of things in this one."

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Armstrong teaches Christianity at London's Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism. It was her first trip to Jerusalem in 1983 that piqued her interest in commonality among faiths. "I got back a sense of what faith is all about."

At the time she was an atheist who was "wearied" by religion and "worn out by years of struggle." Born a Roman Catholic in the countryside near Birmingham, England, in 1945, she gave up on religion after her time in the convent. "I was suicidal," she said of life in her late 20s. "I didn't know how to live apart from that regimented way of life."

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