No god but God : The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam
by Reza Aslan
Release Date: 2005-03-15
Reza Aslan was born in Iran, but fled to the U.S. with his family at a young age. He's studied religion and fiction writing here in the states, collecting degrees from Harvard and Santa Clara University. This book is his attempt to explain his faith, Islam, to his presumably largely Western audience. While it's at times persuasive and informative, it's also somewhat problematic and tends to occasionally be afflicted with tunnel vision.
Aslan's format is to begin by describing the roots of Islam, starting with pre-Muslim Arabia. He works through a short bio of Muhammed, followed by several chapters describing the growth of Islam following Muhammed's death. At various points in this narrative he takes short side-trips to discuss more modern issues. Eventually he veers into a more topical discussion of the various political and sectarian issues involving Islamic life, and addresses each one at some length.
The author is, as far as Islam goes, pretty objective. You can't tell (or I couldn't, anyway) from the text which sect (Sunni or Shi'ite) he belongs to, and he explains all of the issues that are involved relatively dispassionately. When he gets to the so-called "Clash of Civilizations" however, Westerners get no benefit of the doubt, and Muslims get a great deal of it. His description of the Sepoy Mutiny, for instance, portrays the rebels as pretty much blameless and justified, overlooks the atrocities they perpetrated, and buys into the idea that the British were deliberately attempting to undermine the religion of their Indian subjects, which started the rebellion. This is, of course, rather one-sided, and most of what he writes about the American collision with Iran is similarly skewed.
This being said, there's a lot here on the various aspects of the religion that I've not read elsewhere, and frankly the author is a *very* good writer. Whether his information is correct or not, he definitely didn't misuse his time getting the writing degree. His view of Islam--as a progressive, egalitarian, feminist, ethical belief system which encourages moral actions as much as it puritanically prohibits immoral ones, is perhaps somewhat difficult to sell, given how Islam is interpreted in much of the world. It's perhaps how Islam *could* be interpreted, but it's not how it *is* interpreted in much of the world. That's unfortunate: the author's view of Islam is much less threatening to the rest of the world.
For a book with roots in the September 11 attacks, NgbG is surprisingly upbeat. Its cheery central thesis is that Islam is a "magnificent but misunderstood" religion, riding a relentless tidal wave of reform towards even greater magnificence.
Reza Aslan is an Iranian American with an MFA in fiction who has studied comparative religion at several U.S. universities, including Harvard.
Aslan describes his work as (p. xx) "a critical reexamination of the origins and evolution of Islam". He admits it is an "apology", a defense of his faith against "ignorance and hate" and he clearly believes Islam has little if anything to apologize for. Instead, he rejects its alleged associations with terrorism or misogyny, and argues that a careful reading of the Koran in its historical and cultural context will show that these practices have no basis in the Islam of the prophet Mohammed.
He also asserts that NgbG "is, above all else, an argument for reform", even though he often leaves the impression there is little about the fundamentals of Islam that really needs reforming. To Aslan, Islam's problems are generally more a matter of bad PR than anything intrinsic to the religion. Nonetheless, Aslan does call fanaticism, and bigotry the "false idols" of Islam and argues for a more feminist interpretation of the Koran.
To Aslan it is important to draw a distinction between the Islam revealed to the prophet in the Koran and Islam as it was redefined by Islamic "scriptural and legal scholars" in the centuries that followed. Their cultural and social biases (and agendas), in Aslan's view, resulted in a reshaping and distortion of Islam that was "in direct defiance of Muhammed's example and the teachings of the Quran". (p. 103) For Aslan, the key challenge confronting modern Muslims is to get back to the basics (or fundamentals) of the original Islam, since these are all good.
NgbG is certainly ambitious, as the "evolution of Islam" alone is a subject that could fill whole shelf-loads of books. As it is, the sheer enormity of his subject matter forces Aslan to be fairly selective about what he covers. Some may take issue with what gets left out.
The book's strongest feature is its examination of the origins and background of Islam. Aslan succeeds in making the milieu in which the prophet moved come alive for the reader. His lucid, very readable prose paints a vivid picture of 6th and 7th century Arabia. His description of the prophet Mohammed's rise to ascendancy is dramatic and engaging. Aslan conveys effectively the awesome array of challenges confronting Islam in its early years, and shows the fundamental continuities between Islam, Judaism and Christianity. He also explains several key theological concepts relating to Islam and devotes whole chapters to the significance of Mecca, the meaning of Jihad, and the various "alternative" manifestations of Islam, from Shi'ism to Sufism.
Aslan comes across as fervently partisan but far from fanatical. He also establishes his feminist credentials early on by arguing the basis for the subordination of women in Islam comes from oral anecdotes about the prophet and the scriptural commentaries on the Koran rather than the Koran itself. To Aslan, the prophet Muhammed was a revolutionary social reformer to the core, who if anything worked to enhance the status of women. Aslan acknowledges apparent ambiguities on this point even within the Koran itself, however, as one celebrated passage regarding potentially rebellious women can be read as either exhorting men to beat them or make love to them. (p. 70)
These kinds of ambiguities have infuriated some commentators, such as Canada's Irshad Manji in her "The Trouble with Islam". Aslan simply uses them to support his argument that the Koran should be interpreted in its historical and social context.
Aslan's vision of Islam is very attractive. Unfortunately, it is not always persuasive. His argumentation is very uneven, sometimes closely documented, but frequently reaching conclusions unsupported by the facts or any sources. For example, he claims that caravan raiding (p.82), particularly of the sort carried out by the prophet in his early years, "was in no way considered stealing" in pre-Islamic Arabia, but cites no source for this. He claims (p. 79) that the Muslim occupation of the silk routes to China figured in papal propaganda of the Crusades, but does not cite any examples.
One could also take issue with Aslan's assertion (p. 247) that: "Fundamentalism, in all religious traditions, is impervious to suppression. The more one tries to squelch it, the stronger it becomes. Counter it with cruelty and it gains adherents."
His chapter on Jihad is particularly weak, and overlooks some leading scholarship in the field, such as that of Bernard Lewis. In fact, the one time Aslan refers to Lewis, he misquotes him, accusing him of calling Islam "a military religion, [with] fanatical warriors, engaged in spreading their faith and law by armed might". This is unfair, since in the original source Lewis is referring to the popular western impression of Islam, not his own opinion.
For someone with a couple of graduate degrees in religion, Aslan often exhibits a poor understanding of Christianity. For example, in his chapter on Jihad he does not acknowledge some fundamental differences in the Christian experience. Islam was founded by a warrior, a highly successful veteran of several battles, whose followers went on to conquer much of the known world within a generation, in the teeth of opposition from two of the greatest empires of the day. The climax of the Gospel narrative revolves around the arrest of Jesus, his voluntary submission to the civil authorities of the day, and his explicit renunciation of the use of force to resist them. Muhammed's response to attempts to arrest him was spectacularly different, needless to say.
The prophet Muhammed's life experience would thus appear to offer far more vindication for would-be holy warriors than anything in the life of Jesus.
Aslan also seems to overlook the fact that Christianity spent its first 300 years as a persecuted minority religion, a very different formative experience from the triumphant wave of conquest that characterized the beginnings of Islam.
Aslan also has nothing to say about the relationship of slavery to the concept of jihad, even though Bernard Lewis indicates this was integral to the slave trade, since Islamic law did not permit enslavement except for captives taken in the jihad.
Even though Aslan refers to bigotry as one of the "false idols" of Islam, he has little to say about Islam's treatment of its minorities in modern times, apart from some references to the Taliban. The Armenian genocide, the current slaughter of Bahais in Iran, Ottoman atrocities in the Balkans, Egypt's ongoing oppression of the Copts, receive nary a mention in NgbG. It is likely that these populations would have a somewhat less optimistic take on Islam's evolution.
All this undercuts Aslan's claim to be striving for a "reasonable interpretation of Islam". Nonetheless, NgbG contains much useful information, presented in a highly readable form. We can only hope his predictions for a more tolerant Islamic future come true.