It is difficult to come back from a holiday in Ibiza, Spain and attempt to write a review about a very serious book! I’ll post the travel photos soon and try to do just this: write what I think about No God But God.
No God But God is a book about Islam but it is also a book about the life of the Prophet Muhammed, the birth and spread of Islam, the practice of Islam, the advent of fundamentalism and a proposed political framework for Islamic countries. For a book of 292-page length this is certainly ambitious.
I love the first half of the book more. My interest waned in the second half waned due to the many discussion on political and religious conflict in various countries, while I gain many insights and picked up some very profound theories and wisdom, I find myself switched off by prolonged politic speak. So I am afraid the fault of loss of interest is mine alone.
I knew about the Sunni-Shi’a split but here Aslan explains it in further details and make it clear to me once and for all. There were several striking revelations that I read from the book. For example, The seven circumambulations of the Ka’aba originates from the Jahiliyyah Arabs’ (The age of darkness) practice of worship of many pagan gods. Many of the current Islamic practice has its origin in Jewish practice. The relationship between the Jewish and pagan Arabs was symbiotic in that not only were the Jews were heavily Arabised, but the Arabs were also significantly influenced by Jewish beliefs and practices. Look no further than this in Morocco and I am able to see the line of distinction between Arabs and Jews blurred in that land. It is erroneous assumptions that religions are born in some sort of cultural vacuum; they are most certainly are not. Aslan went as far as to claim that the Prophet Muhammed adopted many of the Jewish dietary laws and purity requirements, and encouraged many of his followers to marry Jews, as he himself did. (5:5-7) I was astounded by the event following Prophet Muhammed’s death. His followers couldn’t agree on how best to interpret his messages, a majority of them quoted the Prophet by saying he never intends the religious authority to follow the line of his lineage, whereas other sects revered Prophet’s cousin and relatives as the rightful flag bearer of the religion. It was interesting to see throughout humanity how men have used religion as a power to conquer and the intertwining of political power and religion that coloured the perception of Islam till the present day.
I suppose then this book is so well regarded and it deserved to be so, as it encapsulates many important discussions about Islam, the practice of Islam and the contentious issues around it. The narrative is made simple by Aslan engaging writing style, yet if I re-read a few important statements, there were many very intellectual proposals made about the ideology and practice of the religion that requires more thinking of my part to fully grasp it. Aslan pays a lot of respect for his faith but highlight the distinction between historical facts and myths. One thing I want to bring into awareness though is that Aslan is an Iranian and possibly a Shi’a. Only a practitioner of the Islamic faith (my trusted circle of family and friends) is able to detect a certain subtle emphasis on Shi’a interpretation of the historical events and the theories expounded, which may or may not incriminate the Sunni.
At the end of it, Aslan made a call for Islamic democracy based on religious pluralism. Aslan debunked the theory that nations have to be secular in order to be democratic. Islam is and has always been a religion of diversity (page 272). Neither human rights nor pluralism is the result of secularisation, they are its root cause, meaning that any democratic society – Islamic or otherwise dedicated to the principles of pluralism and human rights must dedicate itself to following the unavoidable path of political securalisation. – (page 273) Have I lost you? Pluralism implies religious tolerance, not unchecked religious freedom (page 271). It is pluralism, not secularism, that defines democracy. For example in India, the vision of the state is true Hinduism, and yet like the United States, these countries are considered democracies, not because they are secular but because they are dedicated to pluralism.
If you need to read one book to understand Islam, let it be No God but God. Read it for its ease of reading, for its rich information and for attempting to address any questions and contentious issues that you may have about Islam. Aslan recently published “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” in July 2013, I hope to read that too.
The Quran, as holy and revealed scripture, repeatedly reminds Muslims that what they are hearing is not a new message but the “confirmation of previous scriptures” (12:11) – page 100…. The Quran never claims to annul the previous scriptures, only to complete them. (page 101).
Paperback. Print length: 292 pages. Publisher: Arrow Book 2011 (revised), originally published in 2005. Source: Own. Finished reading at: 17 August 2013.
Sam@Tiny Library: If you’re interested in religion, this is definitely a book to read and it’s also one to recommend to anyone who needs their perceptions about Muslims challenged.
Eva@A Striped Armchair: No God but God by Reza Aslan is a dynamic, thorough introduction to the religion. Aslan manages to combine a chronological story of Muhammad’s life and early Islam’s foundations with thematic chapters…I know, it sounds like it’s be confusing or a mess or something, but I promise it works.
About the writer:
Reza Aslan (born May 3, 1972) is an Iranian-American writer and scholar of religions. He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, a Research Associate at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, and a contributing editor for The Daily Beast. His books include the international bestseller No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which has been translated into 13 languages, and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which offers an interpretation of the life and mission of the historical Jesus.
Aslan’s family came to the United States from Tehran in 1979, fleeing the Iranian Revolution. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the age of 15 he converted to evangelical Christianity. He converted back to Islam the summer before attending Harvard. In the early 1990s, Aslan taught courses at De La Salle High School in Concord, California.
Aslan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in religions from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction. Aslan also received a Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology, focusing in the history of religion, from the University of California, Santa Barbara. In August 2000, while serving as the Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Aslan was named Visiting Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Iowa, becoming the first full-time professor of Islam in the history of the state.
Aslan lives in Hollywood, California.