Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong (born 14 November 1944 in Wildmoor, Worcestershire) is a British author of numerous works on comparative religion, who first rose to prominence with her highly successful "A History of God". A former Catholic nun, she asserts that "All the great traditions are saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences." They each have in common, she says, an emphasis upon the overriding importance of compassion, as expressed by way of the Golden Rule: "Do not do to others what you would not have done to you."

Author of several books on the Muslim tradition, she has, since the September 11, 2001 attacks, become much in demand on the US lecture circuit. In February 2008 Armstrong called for a council of Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders to draw up a “Charter of Compassion,” which would apply shared moral priorities to foster greater global understanding. Her interfaith initiative was awarded the $100,000 TED Prize, backed by an international conference of leading figures in the fields of design, entertainment and technology.

Early life

Armstrong was born into a family of Irish extraction who, after her birth, moved to Bromsgrove and later to Birmingham. In her teens, from 1962 to 1969, she became a nun in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a teaching order. Once she'd advanced from postulant and novice to professed nun, she was sent to St Anne's College, Oxford, to study English. Armstrong left the order while still an undergraduate. After graduating, she embarked on a D. Phil. on the poet Tennyson. While continuing to work on it, she taught at London University, but the rejection of her thesis by an external examiner proved highly traumatic. She eventually left academia without completing her doctorate. [ Armstrong, Karen. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out Of Darkness. New York: Random House, 2004.] This period was marked by ill-health—the life-long but at the time undiagnosed epilepsy revealed in her autobiography "The Spiral Staircase"—as well as the difficult readjustment to outside life.


In 1976, Armstrong became an English teacher at a girls' school in Dulwich, but her illness caused so many days off work, that she was finally asked to leave in 1982. During this year she had published "Through the Narrow Gate", a well-received account of her convent agonies. Largely on the strength of this, in 1984, Armstrong was commissioned by the UK's Channel Four to write and present a TV documentary on the life of St. Paul. Now came what Armstrong regards as her breakthrough experience. The actuality of being in Jerusalem, and the way it seemed to defy her prior assumptions—she'd become hostile to religion as such; indeed it was partly the reason she'd been hired in the first place—had the effect of transfiguring her attitude to the world's religious traditions. Armstrong describes in "The Spiral Staircase" how all her work since has, in a sense, flowed from that comparatively brief period in Jerusalem. In 1996, she published "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths".

The increasing interest in and debate surrounding the influence of Islam has made Armstrong a popular speaker, causing some observers to credit her with being influential in conveying a "more objective" view of Islam to a wide public in Europe and North America. [cite journal|author=Juan Eduardo Campo|title=Review of " [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0020-7438%28199611%2928%3A4%3C597%3AMATOOI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-8&size=LARGE&origin=JSTOR-enlargePage Muhammad and the Origins of Islam] " by F. E. Peters|journal=International Journal of Middle East Studies|volume=28|issue=4|date=November 1996|pages=597–599|month=Nov|year=1996]

"The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions", was published in March 2006, and a measure of her success came that same year when she achieved the very English accolade of being invited to choose her eight favourite records for BBC Radio's "Desert Island Discs" programme. [cite web |url=http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/desertislanddiscs20060212.shtml |title=Desert Island Discs, February 12, 2006: Karen Armstrong |accessdate=2008-04-09 |work=BBC Radio 4 Website ]

In 2007, Armstrong was invited by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore to deliver the "2007 MUIS Lecture". [ [http://www.muis.gov.sg/newsletternet/v.aspx?n=85 KAREN ARMSTRONG DELIVERS THE 2007 MUIS LECTURE] ]

Armstrong is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar. She has written numerous articles for "The Guardian" and other publications. She was a key advisor on Bill Moyers' popular PBS series on religion, has addressed members of the US Congress, and was one of three scholars to speak at the UN's first ever session on religion. [ [http://www.thelavinagency.com/college/karenarmstrong.html Karen Armstrong Speaker Profile at The Lavin Agency ] ] She is a vice-president of the British Epilepsy Association, otherwise known as Epilepsy Action.

Religious position

Armstrong, who taught for a time at London's Leo Baeck rabbinic college, says she has been particularly inspired by the Jewish tradition's emphasis in matters of faith versus practice: "I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It's about what you do. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.” She points out that religious fundamentalism is not just a response to but, paradoxically, a product of contemporary culture. "We need to create a new narrative, get out of the rat-run of hatred, chauvinism and defensiveness; and make the authentic voice of religion a power in the world that is conducive to peace."

A major influence on Armstrong's whole approach to the world's religious traditions has been, as she implies in "The Spiral Staircase", the work of the Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith.


The Israeli historian Efraim Karsh, head of Mediterranean Studies at King's College London, characterizes Armstrong's biography of Muhammad as "revisionist" and inaccurate. [ [http://www.nysun.com/article/40266 The Perfect Surrender] ] He calls her treatment of the controversial issue of the Banu Qurayza tribe in her "" "a travesty of the truth".


Armstrong was honoured by the New York Open Center in 2004 for her "profound understanding of religious traditions and their relation to the divine."Fact|date=July 2008 In 2008 Armstrong was one of three winners of the TED Conference's TED Prize. [cite web|url=http://blog.ted.com/2007/11/announcing_2008.php|date= [2007] |accessdate=2007-11-21|title="TED Blog: Announcing 2008 TED Prize Winners"] Her TED Prize "wish": to initiate an international Charter for Compassion—to help restore the Golden Rule as central to religious practice and daily life throughout the world.cite web |url=http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/234 |title=Talks Karen Armstrong: 2008 TED Prize wish: Charter for Compassion |accessdate=2008-03-19 |format=video |work=TED Conference Website ] cite web |url=http://www.tedprize.org/?page_id=8 |title=TEDPrize 2008 Winner :: Karen Armstrong |accessdate=2008-03-19 |work=TEDPrize Website]

In May 2008 she was awarded the Freedom of Worship award by the Roosevelt Institute, one of four medals presented each year to men and women whose achievements have demonstrated a commitment to the Four Freedoms proclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 as essential to democracy: freedom of speech and of worship, freedom from want and from fear. The institute stated that Armstrong had become "a significant voice, seeking mutual understanding in times of turbulence, confrontation and violence among religious groups." It cited "her personal dedication to the ideal that peace can be found in religious understanding, for her teachings on compassion, and her appreciation for the positive sources of spirituality." [cite web |url=http://www.fourfreedoms.nl/index.php?lang=en&id=16&laureate=77 |title=The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Awards: Freedom of Worship: Karen Armstrong |accessdate=2008-06-28 |year=2008 | work=Four Freedoms Award website |publisher=Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute]


By Armstrong

Journal articles

* "Ambiguity and Remembrance: Individual and Collective Memory in Finland" (2000)

* "The Holiness of Jerusalem: Asset or Burden?" (1998)

* "Women, Tourism, Politics" (1977)


* "The Bible: A Biography" (2007)

* "The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions" (2006)

* "Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time" (2006)

* "A Short History of Myth" (2005)

* "The Spiral Staircase" (2004)

* "Faith After September 11th" (2002)

* "The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam" (2000)

* "Buddha" (2000)

* "Islam: A Short History" (2000)

* "In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis" (1996)

* "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths" (1996)

* "" (1993)

* "The End of Silence: Women and the Priesthood" (1993)"

* "The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century' ' (1991)

* "" (1991)

* "Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today's World" (1988)

* "The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West" (1986)

* "Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience" (1985)

* "Beginning the World" (1983)

* "The First Christian: Saint Paul's Impact on Christianity" (1983)

* "Through the Narrow Gate" (1982)

About Armstrong

*Campbell, Debra Graceful. "Exits: Catholic Women and the art of departure". Indiana University press. ISBN 025334316


External links

* [http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/armstrong Detailed biographical interview with Armstrong on American Public Media, May 2008]
* [http://www.tedprize.org/?cat=5/ Armstrong's Compassion Charter blog]
* [http://meaningoflife.tv/video.php?speaker=armstrong&topic=complete "Meaning of Life TV" interview on "The Great Transformation", 2006]
* [http://www.charlierose.com/guests/karen-armstrong Charlie Rose Show interview, May 2006]
* [http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-206887275399093528&q=history+of+god+video&ei=r8FXSLLoDKWarQLhpoXYDg&hl=en History Channel version of "A History of God"]
* [http://smithsonianassociates.org/programs/Armstrong/armstrong.asp Brief synopsis of Armstrong's "Buddha" at smithsonianassociates.org]
* [http://www.islamfortoday.com/karenarmstrong.htm Profile of Armstrong at islamfortoday.com]
* [http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1874653,00.html "We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam" — Armstrong's response to Pope Benedict]
* [http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week602/armstrong.html PBS Religion & Ethics interview, September 2002]
* [http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript_armstrong.html Bill Moyers interview, January 2002]
* [http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200103u/int2001-03-21 Atlantic Monthly interview, March 2001.]
* [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/oct/13/afghanistan.terrorism10 Armstrong on 9/11]
* [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1751746 Armstrong interviewed on NPR's "Fresh Air" by Terry Gross, March 8, 2004]

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