Following the tragic and abhorrent attacks of September 11th, 2001, Reza Aslan wrote No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam denouncing the Western ideology of the “Clash of Civilizations.” He boldly states that “this book is, above all else, an argument for reform [and while] there are those who will call it an apology, that is hardly a bad thing. An apology is a defence, and there is no higher calling than to defend one’s faith, especially from ignorance and hate” (p. 18). And, even though Aslan claims some will call his book an apology, No god but God presents a historically objective assessment of the origins, evolution, and future of Islam.
Aslan: [T]his book is, above all else, an argument for reform [and while] there are those who will call it an apology, that is hardly a bad thing. An apology is a defence …
To make his “argument for reform,” Aslan first sets out Islam’s history, its origins and development. Both lay readers, with no background knowledge about Islam, and those more knowledgeable looking to refresh and re-examine Islam from an authoritative source, will find No god but God, valuable for this history alone.
Doing what only a few have done before, Aslan makes it possible to understand the intricacies of the vast and diverse religion that spans some 1400 years. For example, when he cites Qur’anic verses, he sets out their context and is, thus, able to explain apparent contradictions and threats created by ahistorical readings.
No god but God provides the reader with a solid understanding of the origins and the state of Islamic Ummah in its infancy. It offers an accurate context for the Imamate in the events that followed Muhammad’s death. When explaining misguided ideologies of intolerance, jihadism, and the bigotry of some extreme interpretations of Islam, not shared by the rest of the Muslim world, Aslan provides fair and reasonable historical accounts in which no one side is favoured.
Doing what only a few have done before, Aslan makes it possible to understand the intricacies of the vast and diverse religion that spans some 1400 years.
While explaining the evolution of Islam, Aslan often uses Christianity to bridge connections for a Western audience, helping them appreciate Islam’s complexities and nuances. Although Aslan provides a meticulous, well-written, and entertaining account of Islam, it must be remembered that his work is humbly that: a comprehensive introduction.
Reza Aslan writes well. Exceptionally well. He traces his exhilarating account of the multifaceted origins and evolution of Islam as a story that began with the Ka’ba.
Aslan explains that Arab pilgrims believed the Ka’ba was founded by Adam (the first man), destroyed by Noah’s flood, and re-founded by Abraham and his son Ismail, who left it for their descendants, particularly the Arabs and Muhammad who “[spun] over the sandy Meccan valley like a desert whirlwind.” However, as Aslan puts it, “these are just stories intended to convey what the Ka’ba means, not where it came from,” for the Ka’ba’s story is meant to represent its divine sanction rather than its origin. The truth is “no one knows who built the Ka’ba [and] the only thing … we can say with any certainty is that by the six century C.E., this small sanctuary … had become the religious centre in pre-Islamic Arabia ” (p. 24).
Aslan sets the scene for the ill-understood, yet important atmosphere of Pre-Islamic Arabia, an area socially stratified with a religious and economic system controlled by the head clan, the Quraysh. During this time, the general idea of monotheism was quite dominant among the Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and even many Arabs who believed in a highly evolved formed of paganism called henotheism, the belief in a High God above a set of intermediary, lowers gods. In fact, “most scholars are convinced that by the sixth century C.E., henotheism [the belief in and worship of a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities] had become the standard belief of the vast majority of sedentary Arabs, who not only accepted Allah as their High God, but insisted that he was the same god as Yahweh, the god of the Jews” (p. 28). Indeed, there were even other strands of monotheistic movements such as Hanifism (literally, to turn away from idolatry) prevalent at this time.
Aslan: Muhammad was not yet establishing a new religion; he was calling for a sweeping social reform. He was not yet preaching monotheism; he was demanding economic justice.
Aslan describes Muhammad’s life within the city and his advancement to “prophetic consciousness” as “a series of smaller, indescribable supernatural experiences that climaxed in a final violent encounter with the divine” (p. 59). Aslan argues:
Did Jesus require the heavens to part and a dove to descend upon his head to affirm his messianic character, or had he understood for some time that he was being singled out by God for a divine mission? Did enlightenment suddenly burst like a flash of light upon Siddhartha while he sat under the Bodhi tree, as the event has so often been described, or was his enlightenment the result of a steadily developing conviction of the illusion of reality? Perhaps the Revelation came to Muhammad “like the break of dawn,” as some traditions claim, or maybe he gradually became aware of his prophetic consciousness through ineffable supernatural experiences. It is impossible to know (p. 59).
Aslan describes Muhammad’s initial, sporadic revelations as addressing the social injustices of Arabian society:
Muhammad was not yet establishing a new religion; he was calling for a sweeping social reform. He was not yet preaching monotheism; he was demanding economic justice. And for this revolutionary and profoundly innovative message, he was more or less ignored.” However, a few years later, the religious yet arguable social message radically changed and proclaimed: “There is no god but God (p. 64).
However, why would a statement of monotheism cause such havoc in Arabian society? The Christians, the Jews, the Zoroastrians, and even to an extent the pagan Arabs believed in one God. What made Muhammad so unique?
Two very important factors distinguished Muhammad … First, Muhammad did not speak from his own authority [but from God’s]. Second, Muhammad attack[ed] the very source of the Quraysh’s wealth and prestige — the Ka’ba … ‘There is no god but God’ was, for Muhammad, far more than a profession of faith. This statement was a conscious and deliberate attack on both the Ka’ba and the sacred right of the Quraysh to manage it. And because the religious and economic life of Mecca were inextricably linked, any attack on one was necessarily an attack on the other (p. 68).
Aslan: ‘There is no god but God’ was, for Muhammad, far more than a profession of faith. This statement was a conscious and deliberate attack on both the Ka’ba and the sacred right of the Quraysh to manage it.
In other words, in proclaiming there is only one God, Muhammad simultaneously denounced the gods in the Ka’ba as false. And therein lies the rub. If they are false, then there would be no reason for pilgrims to come to Mecca, which would undermine the very foundation of the city’s economy. In fact, there was, now, no reason for the Quraysh to profit from the pilgrimage.
Thus, the increasing violent clashes between the Quraysh and Muhammad forced him to exile to Yathrib, later renamed, Medinat al-Nabi — “The City of the Prophet,” where he was invited by the townsfolk to be their religious and political leader. Now, secluded from Mecca, Muhammad was able to practice and establish his unique religious and cultural practices. Muhammad made drastic changes to the social and traditional structure of society, in particular, giving women more equality. And though, during this time, “it was clear Mecca was content to forget all about Muhammad. Muhammad, however, was not willing to forget about Mecca” (p, 109).
During multiple battles against the Quraysh, Muhammad waged jihad to win back the Hijaz, yet, as Aslan explains, “the doctrine of jihad, like so many doctrines in Islam, was not fully developed as an ideological expression until long after Muhammad’s death.” In the early times, the doctrine of jihad in the Quran “was specifically meant to differentiate between pre-Islamic and Islamic notions of warfare,” allowing Muhammad to bring a more just and secure system of warfare to Arabian society. But then, as now, merely asserting “jihad” does not automatically qualify them as jihad. As Aslan, explains:
The attacks of September 11 were not a defensive strike against a specific act of aggression against Islam. They were never sanctioned by a qualified mujtahid. They made no differentiation between combatant and non-combatant. And they indiscriminately killed women, children, and approximately two hundred Muslims on the ground and in the towers. In other words, they fell far short of the regulations imposed by Muhammad for a legitimate jihadi response (p. 107).
Indeed, Aslan argues, it was precisely through establishing a legitimate “theory of jihad,” that Muhammad was able to “convert the Quraysh to his side” (p. 110). And then, once in control of Mecca, Muhammad formed a stable community, free to practice their religion, though not stable enough as “the era immediately following Muhammad death was…a tumultuous time for the Muslim community” (p. 92).
Indeed, Aslan argues, it was precisely through establishing a legitimate “theory of jihad,” that Muhammad was able to “convert the Quraysh to his side.”
In the early years, the Sunni conception of Islam had associated itself with the Arab ethnic identity; in fact, Islam became the “property of the Arabs”. Regarding the spread of Islam, Aslan discounts the idea that Islam’s expansion was by “the sword.” He points out, conversion was not encouraged but, in fact, actively discouraged and difficult since Muslims would pay lower taxes. In fact, in order to become a Muslim, you essentially had to be adopted by an Arab tribe.
Consequently, the Shia conception became widespread among the non-Arabs like the Sasanians (Iranians), Indo-Europeans, and Central Asians. Interestingly, Aslan notes, the more Shi’ism was adopted, the more it changed. Over time, Shi’ism became infused with elements of Central Asian gnosticism, Indian philosophy, and Persian Zoroastrian cosmology all within the guise of Islam, creating a wholly unique Muslim identity. Nonetheless, as Islam continued to grow, more distinct Muslim identities continued to emerge, even creating a separate strand of Islamic Mysticism — Sufism.
For Aslan, Sufism is “fundamentally indefinable” and, unlike other forms of mysticism, treats its “parent religion” as a shell aiming to “thrust humanity toward God.” Aslan includes the stories of famous Sufis such as Majnun and Layla, Rabia al-Basra, Mansur Al-Hallaj, Jalal-ul-Din Rumi, Farid ad-Din Attar, and Ibn al-Arabi to explain the concept of “fana fillah” or “self-annihilation within God.” During fana, a Sufi “does not become God, as fana is so often misunderstood by Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims; rather, the Sufi is drowned in God, so that Creator and creation become one [emphasis added].” As Ibn al-Arabi explained:
“There is no god but God. There is no being than the Being of God. There is no Reality other than the Reality of God”(259).
In other words, God is the only Reality.
Throughout No god but God, Aslan’s underlying message is one of reform, and so he unceasingly and boldly challenges traditional views held by many Muslims.
Throughout No god but God, Aslan’s underlying message is one of reform, and so he unceasingly and boldly challenges traditional views held by many Muslims. For example, he states that the Islam, as an institution, was not created by God but by people. Consequently, “the notion that historical context should play no role in the interpretation of the Koran — that what applied to Muhammad’s community applies to all Muslim communities for all time — is simply an untenable position in every sense” (p. 207).
In the end, Aslan concludes his argument for reform by defining it as a struggle between the individuals and the institution and, forecasting the future of Islam, says:
It may be too early to know who will write the next chapter of Islam’s story, but it is not too early to recognize who will ultimately win the war between reform and counter-reform. When fourteen centuries ago Muhammed 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 — worshipped by those who have replaced Muhammed’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. 318).
About the reviewer
Sahil Badruddin is a senior at the The University of Texas at Austin pursuing a triple major in Chemical Engineering, Religious Studies (with a focus on Islam) and History. His research interests include prophetic history and authority as well as Ismaili thought and history.
Article: Sahil Badruddin
Image: Reza Aslan: http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ilustrada/2013/08/1327545-critica-muculmano-hostilizado-retrata-jesus-historico-com-equilibrio.shtml (Fair use/dealing) (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)