Monday, 21 September 2009

Book review: "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam" by Reza Aslan

I have just finished reading Reza Aslan’s book “No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam”. I enjoyed it very much. Written in a lucid, precise and highly readable style, Aslan describes how Islam came into being in Arabia, which up to that time had a polytheistic religious culture. The ancient Arabs worshipped many Gods including the God of the Jews and the Christians. Then came Muhammad - the founder of Islam – who, after receiving the Revelation at Mt Hira in 610AD, preached a message of absolute monotheism and declared “there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger.” Aslan narrates the lives of Muhammad and his Companions who established the first Muslim community (“Ummah”) in Medina, their battles with the powerful Quraysh tribe and their eventual victory, and the subsequent evolution of Islam after Muhammad’s death.

Aslan knows his subject very well. It does often read like an unapologetic defence of Islam, which he acquiesces in the introduction, yet he is critical of the rise in Islamic extremism (Islamism) in recent times and sets out some ideas for reform at the end of the book. The diversity of Islam owes to “dozens of conflicting ideas about everything from how to interpret the Prophet’s words and deeds to who should do the interpreting, from whom to choose as leader of the community to how the community should be led.” These arguments often led to conflict, but also gave birth to various sects. Apart from the main Sunni or “orthodox” branch of Islam are the Shia and Sufi sects, both of which came into being as reactionary movements. Aslan goes into some detail about Sufism, the eclectic mystical tradition within Islam.

Muhammad was a very different kind of figure from Jesus Christ (whom he greatly revered), yet he strove to bring about radical religious, social and economic change in pre-Islamic Arabia. Aslan makes some interesting comparisons between Islam and Christianity, although his knowledge of the former is much better than of the latter. He says Christianity is an ‘orthodoxic’ religion; it is principally concerned with one’s beliefs in God while Islam, like Judaism, is an ‘orthopraxic’ religion, where it is one’s actions that makes one an observant follower. The five pillars of Islam are: “salat,” or ritual prayer (performed five times a day); “zakat,” or the paying of alms; fast (“sawn” in Arabic) during the month of Ramadan when Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad; the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca; and the “shahadah,” or profession of faith, which initiates every convert to Islam. Only the last pillar requires belief rather than action. Unlike Christianity, Islam is a communal religion; it abhors monasticism and reclusive individualism. The Quran also categorically derides celibacy as being against God’s command to be “fruitful and multiply.”

Aslan traces the roots of modern day Islamic fundamentalism to the influence of people such as Shah Wali Allah (d. 1762) as well as the experiences of the colonial period. Shah Wali Allah’s emphasis on orthodoxy, to strip Sufism of its “foreign” influences (e.g. Neoplatonism, Persian mysticism, Hindu Vedantism) and restore it to a former unadulterated form of Islamic mysticism, sparked a number of “puritan” movements in India like the Deobandi School. What angered political reformers, such as Jamāl-al-dīn al-Afghānī (1838-97) and Hassan al-Banna (1906-49), was the hypocrisy the British showed in preaching the values of the Enlightenment while cruelly pillaging the natural resources of their conquered lands and suppressing appeals for liberation. Al-Banna formed the Muslim Brotherhood, which was conceived to be an Islamic social movement “to present Islam as an all encompassing religious, political, social, economic, and cultural system.” Later, the movement underwent a more radical transformation under the influence of Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), who asserted the new ideology of Islamism which “called for the creation of an Islamic state in which the socio-political order would be defined solely according to Muslim values,” and he envisioned this process to be a “cataclysmic, revolutionary event.”

The book describes how the puritanical, fundamentalist sect of Islam known as Wahhabism became established in what is today Saudi Arabia. Thanks to oil money and Saudi evangelism, Wahhabism has now infiltrated every corner of the Muslim world, and it is the ideology of al-Qaeda. Aslan says that despite 9/11 and subsequent terrorist acts against western targets, “what is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West. The West is merely a bystander – an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story.” This is not the “clash of civilisations” but a war within Islam between scores of first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants, indoctrinated in the democratic ideals of their new homes, and the bigotry and fanaticism of those who have replaced Muhammad.

Being a young boy who fled to America with his family during the Iranian Revolution, Aslan is able to narrate the events of that historic period well and how Iran was transformed into “a fascist country run by a corrupt clerical oligarchy committed to snuffing out any attempts at democratic reform.” Yet he says that democracy in the Middle East is possible because “it is pluralism, not secularism, that defines democracy,” and Islam has had a long commitment to religious pluralism. If America, which is “unapologetically founded on a Judeo-Christian – and more precisely Protestant – moral framework,” it should be possible to have Islamic democracy through a path of secularization.

Aslan compares the current conflict in Islam to the cataclysmic events of the Reformation in Christianity. The book ends with the sentences: “The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are all living in it.” What is happening in Islam, says Aslan, is an internal conflict about who will write the next chapter in its story. It’s an alluring thought and I sense his passion about his own faith makes him believe that this is the case. The book does have its biases, but for anyone who wants a fairly balanced introduction to Islam I recommend this book.

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