They Shoot Scholars, Don’t They?
No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan. Random House, 2005, $14.95.
Reviewed by John Bloom
Islam has always been a weird alien landscape for me, and not for lack of trying to understand it. I’ve wrestled with the Koran, read various popular accounts of Muhammad’s life and struggles, and at one time looked into Sufism as the branch of Islam that seemed to have the most in common with Christian mysticism. (I decided the differences were at least as numerous as the similarities. It actually seems more Buddhist than Christian.) For me there have always been two enormous obstacles against feeling sympathy for the Muslim religion. One is what appears to be the sheer randomness of Muhammad’s life—his “progressive” revelations, for example, with later messages from God erasing earlier ones, and the bloodiness of his military campaigns. (Yes yes, I know, Jewish history is steeped in even more blood, and the signal event in Christianity is an act of political violence.) And how do they explain that during much of his time in Medina, Muhammad was an armed robber, raiding caravans to support his people? There’s something about it that doesn’t seem very prophet-like, at least not by the standards of the Old Testament. To give him the benefit of the doubt, we don’t really know anything about the private or public lives of the Old Testament prophets, so perhaps their histories were full of crimes as well. After all, it’s what they said, not what they did, that matters.
But the second problem I’ve always had with Islam comes from the evidence of my own eyes. New York is teeming with Muslims, some of them proselytizers, and there’s a moralizing zeal in their message that’s every bit as unnerving as that of a froth-mouth Holiness Pentecostal declaiming from a pulpit in Catgut, Tennessee. There are certain things—like halter tops on women and whiskey flasks in the hip pocket—that bother them to an absurd degree. I suppose it’s admirable that they try to practice what they preach, by setting out to live blameless lives (many think it’s possible to overcome sin altogether), but the starch in their Tide-white collars gives me the creeps. You never meet a Muslim who says, “Hey, man, come smoke a cigarette with me and we’ll rap about the Prophet.” They all remind me of the principal at the junior high school whose moral code is so strict you just know that he’s the one who will turn up on the 11 o’clock news, arrested for exposing himself in the park. Isn’t that, after all, exactly what Paul was talking about in Romans?
So those are my biases, but they’re about 50 percent less than they were yesterday, thanks to Reza Aslan’s popular book on the whole 1,400-year of Islam, which should probably be called “Islam for Dummies,” since it’s the first book I’ve ever found that lays everything out in a clear, comprehensible, chronological manner, with a bare minimum of unpronounceable names that can’t be identified or remembered. In a mere 300 pages he explains things that had always been kind of fuzzy to me—like how the “Hidden Imam” of Shiism came to be so important. (In case you haven’t heard, he’s in a limbo state somewhere and will return to life in the end times, establishing the perfect Islamic heaven on earth. His plotline is actually better than the Rapture. Are you listening, Tim LaHaye?) And why Wahhabis destroy churches and mosques. (They believe that any building, aside from the Kaba in Mecca, is something people are worshipping instead of God.) And why the Ummayads were such jerks. (Tribal tradition dies hard.)
But Aslan is also a true believer, not just a theological journalist, and so he’s one of those rare souls who can use the term “Islamic democracy” without irony. His whole thesis, as a matter of fact, is that the original prophecies of Muhammad have been corrupted by the ultra-conservative clerics who successfully suppress all attempts to understand Islam in its original social context, which would allow for, among other things, respect for women, harmony with other religions (but especially with Christians and Jews), and (this is one is hard to believe, but he makes the case) pluralism. The problem is that, according to current views, any “interpretation” of the Koran is strictly forbidden, and when any scholar tries to use the historical-critical method, his fate is likely to resemble that of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. When that “renowned Sudanese legal reformer” wrote that the Meccan text of the Koran and the Medinan text of the Koran differed so greatly that they must have been directed toward different audiences, he was executed. This happened in 1985.
Reading these and other stories about the prevailing notions of Shariah law and their resistance to change, you eventually develop a sympathy for Aslan himself. He was born in Iran but left as a boy during the 1979 revolution and obviously spent a great deal of time in our thoroughly un-Islamic American schools of theology. The “future of Islam” in his subtitle refers to his idea that an Islamic Reformation has begun, and even though it will be bloody and violent, those on the side of a kinder, gentler Muhammad will ultimately prevail.
And that kind of thinking can get you killed.