Book Review: No God But God (Reza Aslan)
By David Shasha
At the time of the first Gulf War in 1991 the legendary Arab historian Albert Hourani had completed his magnum opus A History of the Arab Peoples which gripped the public imagination and filled a pressing need for information on an Arab world that was a closed book to many in the West. It was a conflation of that need for information into a wonderfully clear book by an expert that made the book a bestseller. Hourani provided a nuanced and sympathetic view of the Arab world for the Western reader who was clueless about the history of the Middle East.
After 9/11 the book that climbed the bestseller lists was Bernard Lewis’ execrable What Went Wrong?, a book that painted the Arab-Muslim world as a hotbed of degenerate anarchy. A year prior to the 9/11 attacks, the great theologian and religious historian Karen Armstrong wrote a brilliant precis of Islam for the Modern Library Chronicles series that gave the educated reader a clear picture of the complex history and inner workings of Islam in a studious and measured way which reflected more the measured approach of Albert Hourani than the racist ethnocentrism of Bernard Lewis.
But it was Bernard Lewis who won the day.
Americans were in no mood to “understand” their new enemy and a sub-industry of “Islam as terror” books were churned out by American publishers.
Two books that were more reflective and intelligent assessments of our post-9/11 world were Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, a sort of Liberal mea culpa for the excesses of the 1960s radicals that also served as a very insistent critique of the way in which religion had co-opted Third World liberation movements, and Abdelwahab Meddeb’s sadly-neglected masterpiece The Malady of Islam, a book that cut to the very heart of Arab civilization from within its own parameters.
Both of these books addressed the issue of Islamic fundamentalism from the perspective of Western Liberal Modernity and were both successful in affirming the need for a Liberal Humanist perspective in the Arab world. Unlike Bernard Lewis, both Berman and Meddeb were of the Liberal spirit and saw the emergence of fundamentalism and terror as a problem that could be resolved from within Islam itself.
But Islam continued to remain a closed book to many Westerners. After receiving their information on Islam and Modernity from a source like Bernard Lewis, US readers remained ignorant of the complex and tortuous history of Islam.
This lacuna has now been effectively filled by the brilliantly written study of the Iranian-born and US-educated Reza Aslan in his No God But God.
His book is exceedingly transparent as it chooses a number of critical issues that form the basis of each of the book’s chapters. In the book we learn of the ancient world of Arabia prior to Islam; the life and movement of Muhammad; the start of the Muslim society; the ways in which Jihad played a pivotal role in the formation of Islamic civilization as it conquered vast swathes of the Middle East and parts of Europe; the politicization of the faith; the emergence of a lettered class of religious leaders known as Ulama; extensive chapters on Shi’ism and Sufism; the book ends with two chapters on Colonialism and the emerging Islamic Reform movement.
Aslan takes a different tack than Karen Armstrong did in her survey of Islam. In No God But God each chapter is self-contained and is based on a single theme that is analyzed historically, theologically and contextualized within the current situation that Islam finds itself in. For example, in the chapter on Jihad which discusses the ways in which the first Muslims took back the Middle East in the name of the new faith, Aslan enters into a fairly detailed analysis of the question of Jews in the newly emerging Islamic world. Using the tools of historical analysis from both Islamic and Jewish sources, Aslan sets the Islamic strictures towards Jews and other minorities in a precise setting.
The basic idea that guides Aslan in his analytical digressions is to not merely lay out the historical context of Islam, but to make the facts relevant to the questions that many are concerned about at present.
The relation of Muhammad and the Jews of Arabia was one that was fraught with misunderstanding and confusion. Many of the statements about Jews in the Qur’an reflect the passions that existed at the time of Muhammad’s battles with the Meccans and his struggles to create his revolutionary movement in what came to be known as Medina. The theological residue of anti-Jewish sentiment was an outgrowth of an anachronistic Islam that did not follow the actual proscriptions of the faith as laid out by Muhammad.
Aslan defines the correct theological view towards the Dhimmi, or protected minority, as follows:
Muslim persecution of the dhimmi was not only forbidden by Islamic law, it was in direct defiance of Muhammad’s orders to his expanding armies never to trouble Jews in their practice of Judaism, and always to preserve the Christian institutions they encountered. Thus, when Umar ordered the demolition of a mosque in Damascus that had been illegally constructed by forcibly expropriating the house of a Jew, he was merely following the Prophet’s warning that “he who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have me as his accuser on the Day of Judgment.”
Such clarity is a welcome and refreshing antidote to the endless obfuscations that emanate from partisans on both sides of the issue. Aslan clearly understands the threat that has been created by anachronistic and ahistorical readings of the Qur’an and Hadith in the modern Muslim world. By returning his readers to the actual texts and history of the Muslim community, Aslan makes even more precise the insights of Karen Armstrong in her Islam for the American reader in the wake of 9/11, Suicide Bombs and the current Iraq War.
Laying out the history of Islam in such a precise manner is not enough to allow the reader to really get a sense of how this history fits into current events. Armstrong’s book, valuable as it is, was written and published prior to the 9/11 attacks and does not connect the lines of the present to the past. Meddeb’s book engages in an inner-Muslim polemic over the uses of Ijtihad, interpretation of the Muslim traditions by modern man, that frequently gets involved in some very complicated issues that are not fully comprehensible to the Western reader unfamiliar with Islamic history.
Not until Reza Aslan’s vital new book, a book that makes crystal clear the realities of the Islamic past and the problems of its present, have we had a masterful synthesis of the often opaque past of Islam in its many twists and turns - the chronology of Islam in Karen Armstrong’s book runs to almost 25 pages - in a way that relates it to the most pressing issues of the current scene.
When discussing the return of fundamentalism after decades of failed attempts at reform in the Muslim world by figures like Muhammad Abdu and Rashid Rida, Aslan makes little attempt to conceal the problems that exist in the Muslim world:
Nevertheless, the heirs of Traditionalism have managed to silence most critics of reform, even when that criticism has come from their own ranks. When in the 1990s Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, a Muslim professor at Cairo University, argued that the Quran, while divinely revealed, was a cultural product of seventh-century Arabia, he was branded a heretic by the conservative-dominated Ulama of Egypt’s famed al-Azhar University and forced to divorce his Muslim wife. When Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (1909-85), the renowned Sudanese legal reformer, claimed that the Meccan and Medinan texts of the Quran differed so greatly from one another because they were addressed to very specific historical audiences and should be interpreted as such, he was executed.
Rather than compose a apologetic or a polemic, Aslan clearly and calmly - and with expert literary and analytic skill - reviews the history of a number of key themes and historical moments in Islam and places them in a context that will make them easily intelligible to the modern reader. And with the vast intricacies of the history and theology of Islam, the book serves even the expert reader as an enlightening and exact miniature of the faith and its history.
We read of the stirring origins of the faith at the time of Muhammad as well as its transformation and consolidation under the first Caliphs and under the emergence of the Ulama. We are made witness the schism that took place with the political controversy that led to the emergence of Shi’a Islam - at first simply a matter of the legitimate succession from the Prophet, but ultimately leading to varying ways of seeing Islam itself. And there is the example of the Sufi movement of religious universalism that serves as a model for an enlightened humanist Islam as we move to models of pluralism and ethnic coexistence.
At the book’s end Aslan finds that the current problems stem not merely from Islam itself, as argued by the school of Bernard Lewis, but that the internal mechanisms of Islam have been jammed by the interference of the West. As Islamic scholars and political leaders worked to transform their societies, the Western powers often meddled in the process. Aslan cites the example of the British in India and the ways in which Imperialism led to the internal breakdown of society into polarized and warring elements:
In many ways, the partition of India was the inevitable result of three centuries of Britain’s divide-and-rule policy. As the events of the Indian revolt demonstrated, the British believed that the best way to curb nationalist sentiment was to classify the indigenous population not as Indians, but as Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, etc. The categorization and separation of native peoples was a common tactic for maintaining colonial control over territories whose national boundaries had been arbitrarily drawn with little consideration for the ethnic, cultural, or religious makeup of the local inhabitants… No wonder, then, that when the colonialists were finally expelled from these manufactured states, they left behind not only economic and political turmoil, but deeply divided populations with little common ground on which to construct a national identity.
In this sense it is easier to see the ethnic and religious wars that now envelope the region as a combined outgrowth of the Western pattern of internal interference in the Muslim world and the emergence, as if on cue, of a xenophobic and intolerant brand of Islam that has been a byproduct of economic and social forces emerging from the Oil economies of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, what was once seen in the Arab world as a minor episode of religious extremism - the development of a Wahhabite state under Ibn Saud - has been magnified because of the strategic relationship between the West and Saudi royalty and the gross wealth that has been gotten by some very marginal Muslims. The emergence of Wahhabi fundamentalism was fueled by America’s lack of concern with the cultural shifts that took place in the Gulf under its watch. Concerned with defeating the Soviets and protecting the oil fields, the CIA under Bill Casey trained a cadre of Mujahadin fighters under the tutelage of one Usama bin Laden.
And then there is the case of Iran.
With great clarity, Aslan recounts the ways in which the dream of the Iranian revolution was hijacked by the Ayatollah Khomeini as the US saw its interests defeated by a retardation of what Aslan sees as a natural process of reform in the Iranian world.
No God But God is a work that must be read by anyone who is interested in what is happening in our world today, and not just in the Middle East. The story of Islam is one that reflects the emergence of religious obscurantism world-wide. His clear writing style makes the most complex ideas and facts eminently understandable for the average reader. As we continue to live through the mutual incoherence of what has falsely been called a “Clash of Civilizations” - which may not be that at all, but might actually be the birth pangs of an Arab Muslim modernity that it took many centuries for Christianity to resolve - the need for Reza Aslan’s brilliantly modulated study of Islam has become a matter of vital significance for the Western and the Muslim reader.
Synthesizing a vast amount of historical and theological material and presenting it in an easy to read format that speaks directly to many of the questions in people’s minds these days, No God But God is that rare work which is a formally accurate but eminently readable book that never sacrifices its intelligence at the same time that it simplifies things for the reader. The excellence of its presentation is matched by the great and profound insights that it brings to its of its pages. It forms a fitting companion to Maria Rosa Menocal’s masterpiece The Ornament of the World; both books expertly treating the complex and enlightened history of the Muslim world from within a humanist perspective.
As the history of Islam is still not well-known in the West No God But God should be required reading for all of us and a compulsory addition to our libraries. It presents the facts of Islamic history and current events with a rare intelligence and a transparency that is as welcome as it is insightful.