intraspace: the review lounge

Monday, March 26, 2007

no god but God

no god but God: the origins, evolution and future of islam, by reza aslan

this was a book that mike recommended to me, and it just so happened that our local library had a copy.

i think most of us in the 'west', and certainly a good number of us christians, like to think we know a bit about islam. we hear about it in the news almost everyday, and we hear the rhetoric that comes from all sides. unfortunately, it is usually only sensationalist material that makes it to the news, and i have to admit that the same is probably true as far as what we hear in christian circles too.

'no god but God' is written by a muslim (albeit a reasonably 'liberal' one) of iranian descent. reza aslan is young academic living and researching in the usa.

he has set out to write a book that explains islam, from his perspective, to the western world. and i think he has been very successful. the book is very well written and accessible, and aslan manages to look at the issues fairly, without surrendering his own personal beliefs - although some of his comments about christianity, i felt, were a little ill-informed. all up, i found myself wishing that there were more books like this written by christians.

aslan relates the history of islam from the days just before mohammad, through the life of the prophet, and then into the subsequent development of the religion, with it's three main branches: sunni, shi'ite and sufi. he didn't mention much about the crusades, which i found a bit strange, but he picks the story up again strongly around the colonial area and in the modern age.

the overall premise of aslan's argument, is that islamic beliefs (as practiced by mohammad) were tolerant and inclusive. he says that, for example, mohammad welcomed christians and jews and was content for them to retain their own faiths. mohammad had a collective term "ahl al-Kitab", meaning "people of the book", to describe muslims, christians and jews. and under mohammad's regime, these people were considered "dhimmi", that is, protected by islamic law. mohammad considered the torah, the christian scriptures and his own revelations to be one complete work. aslan also argues that in mohammad's society, women were esteemed and protected - not subjugated as they are in a number of muslim cultures today.

aslan says that islam is currently in the throes of a reformation, much like the one that christianity went through a few hundred years ago. his point, if i understand correctly, is "if you think there's strife between western ideals and islam, you should see the strife going on inside islam". he believes that out of this strife (between the branches of islam, and more generally, between fundamentalist and moderate ideologies) will come a reformed islam. he says that if this reformed islam truly returns to its tolerant and inclusive roots, then such a thing as islamic democracy (a political and legal system democratically based on islamic morals) can exist and islamic people can be liberated from violence and tyranny. interestingly he sees islamic violence against the west as being an overflow of the internal violence. he does not see that the future of islam, and an islamic political system, lies in the hands of extremist groups such as the taliban, but in the hands of a moderate (and more genuine) brand of islam.

"...the image of the Afghan woman enveloped in the burqah and subjugated to the whims of an ignorant band of misogynists has become the symbol of everything that is wicked about the concept of Islamic governance, and such images are not easily supplanted by political philosophies." (p 259)


" When fifteen centuries ago Muhammad launched a revolution in Mecca to replace the archaic, rigid, and inequitable strictures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism, he tore apart the fabric of traditional Arab society. It took many years of violence and devastation to cleanse the Hijaz of its 'false idols'. It will take many more to cleanse Islam of its new false idols - bigotry and fanaticism - worshiped by those who have replaced Muhammad's original vision of tolerance and unity with their own ideals of hatred and discord. But the cleansing is inevitable, and the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are all living in it." (p 266)

highly recommended.

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