DICID- Woolf Institute Lecture Series
Compassion and Violence - Professor Karen Armstrong



As part of the Memorandum of Understanding between Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue and Woolf Institute (Cambridge, UK) held a lecture in collaboration with Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar on April 19, 2015 entitled 'Compassion and Violence' by Professor Karen Armstrong.


Professor Karen Armstrong is a British author and commentator known for her books on comparative religion. Her work focuses on commonalities of the major religions, such as the importance of compassion and the golden rule. She first rose to prominence in 1993 with her book 'A History of God: The 4,000 -Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.'


The following review of the lecture was prepared by a Researcher of DICID and does not reflect the views of the Center.


During her lecture she highlighted the interconnected interdependent nature of present lives in the annual DICID-Woolflecture. However, she glossed over the vast inequalities especially in the possibilities of mobility and travel in today’s world. She traced back the contemporary problems of lack of innovation and modernity, in the Muslim world, to the colonial experience of subjugation. She was however, not clear whether this was due to reaction of Muslims to the colonial culture of ‘modernity’ or the colonial interest to keep the Muslim world ‘unmodern’ and hence subjugated. She is interested in speaking truth to power and authority, however difficult it may seem, if Confucius can do it so can she. Karen Armstrong identifies modernity with a ‘sense’ of freedom and independence. Those who do not feel this ‘sense’ do not qualify in her criteria of the modern, even if they have all the riches and possessions of the world. She feels the European enlightenment differed from all other eras since innovations became good for their own sake and ideals that are cherished today found their support in the new industrial conditions of life.


Karen Armstrong’s understanding of religions seems to be that they offer ideals and ideas, a very modern notion indeed, and not practices. She likes the idea of Lutheran reformation as long as it is compassionate. It was refreshing to hear her planetary thinking tied into a reading of equality and humility from all religious traditions.


Having written two popular biographies about Muhammad, she went on to express an intimate connection with him such that she claimed to know the intentions behind the messenger’s actions. A very brave claim indeed that few Muslim scholarswould dare to make. She goes on to paint him as a military leader uniting tribes, a common stereotype of Muhammad in Orientalist scholarship. Karen Armstrong was all praise for ‘premodern genius and success’ of Muslim Empires without seeing how Muslims themselves see the medieval period as a period of grace and being one of God’s elects.
Karen Armstrong highlighted the approach of reform needed for Muslim and Western traditions. She pointed out that the first thing needed to be done was to find the best of the past, the fount of inspiration. She suggested this should be the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires for Muslims and the European enlightenment ideals for the West.


She ended with a cry for compassion based on all the traditions, including ancient ones like the Greek Homeric epic, from where a story of compassion was narrated from the Iliad, followed by a remarkable last sentence with which she ended her exposition ‘we become most God-like when we realize that our enemies too have pain’.


Adeel Khan
Senior Research Fellow
Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue

E-mail: adeel.khan.cantab@gmail.com