You settle in for a long historical read. Maybe the cat is curled at your feet, a cup of coffee by your arm, a blanket thrown across your legs. Maybe you’re at the library, students cramming for exams in the carrels next to you. But however you do it, you settle in for an education in history, to learn about a mysterious culture and religion. You become engrossed in the book, reading about politics and power struggles, learning names you didn’t know before, reading about wars you’ve never heard of, really no different than you read about Oliver Cromwell in England or the Ming Dynasty in Asia or Alexander the Great’s conquests. You think this is another history book, nothing more. A very good book, that is certain, but one that affects you in the same way as reading about King Tut or learning about Leif Erickson. A book you will learn from, absorb, and then put on the shelf.
The problem is that your comfortable reading keeps getting interrupted. Even with the blanket, the mug of coffee, and the purring cat, cold shivers keep running through up your spine and the hairs stand up on your arms. Every so often in this historical text, you catch a glimmer of something, like heat lightning in the distance, that makes you realize this isn’t just some boring old history book about ancient history.
You don’t read Reza Aslan’s new book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam so much as interact with it. You face a struggle between the text, your personal opinions, and what little you know about Islam.
None of this is meant to criticize Aslan’s work. With an MFA in fiction from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, educated in religion at Santa Clara University, Harvard University, and the University California-Santa Barbara, Aslan is gifted historian and storyteller. He weaves in Arabic text and terminology seamlessly and the names, places, and relationships that can often be confusing to a beginner are easy to follow in his capable hands. And Aslan’s publications in The Nation, Slate, and The New York Times are proof of his journalistic skill. The struggle you face as a reader is confronting your fears when you see the seeds being sown centuries ago for problems that confront us today.
Fatwa. Jihad. Wahhabism. These are words that have fearsome meanings for most of us. But in the history of Islam that Aslan presents, these terms did not always conjure up images of suicide bombers and hostage takers. Instead, they are part of a rich and full cultural and religious history of the fastest growing religion today. Aslan’s book challenges the “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam that is the focus of so many headlines. Our distorted images of Islam do not do justice to the religion’s complexity, beauty, compassion and history, but Aslan’s book goes a long way towards replacing our current stereotypes with understanding and appreciation.
The book starts in the pre-Islam era when nomadic tribesmen, pagan Arabs, Jews, and Christians all milled around Mecca. The Ka’ba was an ancient sanctuary that housed tribal deities of almost all religions before ultimately being cleansed and rededicated to Allah. In those early days “the relationship between the Jews and pagan Arabs was symbiotic in that not only were the Jews heavily Arabized, but the Arabs were also significantly influenced by the Jewish beliefs and practices. One need look no further for evidence of this influence than to the Ka’ba itself Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Aaron were all in one way or another associated with the Ka’ba long before the rise of Islam”. The connections of the cultures is a recurring theme in the book as Aslan points out that not only are the cultures not incompatible, but that they actually got along quite well.
Aslan provides many examples of where Muslims were far more accommodating of other religions than Christians were. “Orthodox rulers routinely persecuted both Jews and non-Orthodox Christians for their religious beliefs, often forcing them to convert to Imperial Christianity under penalty of death. In contrast, Muslim law, which considers Jews and Christians protected peoples (dhimmi), neither required nor encouraged their conversion to Islam.”
No god but God traces the history and growth of Islam from these early days until our current times. The book details the succession of various caliphs who led the religion and skillfully veers off into side-stories about more modern developments such as the revolution in Iran, the results of British Colonialism, and the movements that eventually spawned al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. It should be noted that although these groups are briefly examined, this is no saber-rattling, chest-pounding book written by some retired Army general. Aslan’s work is firmly planted in the historical, showing today’s results of ancient decisions. Ultimately, Aslan believes that the problems with Islamic violence and terrorism we face today are “nothing short of another Muslim civil war — a fitnah — which, like the contest to define Islam after the Prophet’s death, is tearing the Muslim community into opposing factions.” Reza Aslan’s book is an illuminating look into this philosophical battle, one that debunks many of our myths and stereotypes about a great religion.
As you close the book, ponder what you just read, you turn on the news and hear those words again, and the shivers are still there, but now you catch yourself, and think about the persuasive arguments Aslan presented so skillfully, and you understand far more than the screaming talking heads on TV do.