Islamophobes React to Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Islamophobes React to Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

by Sheila Musaji

You would have to have been living in a cave to have missed the fact that Reza Aslan’s new book,  Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth was released on July 16th. 

The book has been widely acclaimed, most of the reviews have been positive, and Reza Aslan has been invited to do numerous interviews including an interview with John Oliver on The Daily Show.  An interview on NPR, the now infamous interview with Lauren Green on Fox News etc.  Publishers Weekly chose the book as one of “The Best New Books for the Week”.  The World Religions Educators Blog wrote: “If you teach World Religions, you might want to check out this new book about Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. Aslan is also the author of No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.” Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and said ”...  offers a compelling argument for a fresh look at the Nazarene, focusing on how Jesus the man evolved into Jesus the Christ. Approaching the subject from a purely academic perspective, the author parts an important curtain that has long hidden from view the man Jesus, who “is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ.” Carefully comparing extra-biblical historical records with the New Testament accounts, Aslan develops a convincing and coherent story of how the Christian church, and in particular Paul, reshaped Christianity’s essence, obscuring the very real man who was Jesus of Nazareth. Compulsively readable and written at a popular level, this superb work is highly recommended.”  Kirkus Reviews also made this a starred review and called it  “A well-researched, readable biography of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Any book that comes out on the subject of the historicity of any religion, or any major religious figure will be controversial in the sense that there will be challenges from scholars and others regarding some of the conclusions of the author.  There is not now, and probably will never be opinions that are not challenged and discussed.  This book is only considered “Controversial” (with a capital C in the sense of being a startling new conclusion challenged by most other scholars) by Islamophobes, and by some Evangelical Christians, and/or people who haven’t read the book and have been influenced by such individuals.

Two negative reviews by Evangelical Christians are being widely cited.  The first, were comments by William Lane Craig dismissing the book.  The second was an article Liberal media love new Jesus book ‘Zealot’, fail to mention author is Muslim by John S. Dickerson, Pastor of the Cornerstone Church in Arizona is most often cited as “proof” of a non-existent “Controversy” surrounding the book.  Dickerson in that article says: “Zealot” is not new work from a historian, It is a sophisticated presentation of views that Muslims have held about Jesus for more than 1,000 years.”   This shows Dickerson’s level of understanding about Islam, as clearly Aslan’s conclusions about the historical Jesus question some beliefs of most Christians, and also of most Muslims. 

Robert Spencer published Searching for the historical Jesus sí, searching for the historical Muhammad no, calling NPR on the carpet for not interviewing him about his book Did Muhammad Exist?.  In this article, Spencer says “The Leftist media is, of course, pushing it hard (to no avail—last I looked it was languishing at around 7,000 in Amazon’s sales rankings)”

Is Aslan’s book “languishing”?  Not that most of Spencer’s followers would notice, but since the NPR interview was done prior to the release of the book, it is ridiculous to claim that sales could have been “languishing”.  On July 16th, the day book was released, it debuted in the top 3 on Amazon’s Bestseller List.  As of July 26th, (10 days after release), the book was at #4 on the NYT hardcover non-fiction list.

Spencer then shows his clear motivation:  “Fair enough. I am all for the quest for the historical Jesus ...  But just for the sake of argument, what about the quest for the historical Muhammad? Somehow that is not as welcome on NPR; now, why is that? And listen to this BBC interviewer try to get me to acknowledge that there was something provocative or hateful about my historical exploration, Did Muhammad Exist?: [broken link to BBC interview] Do you think interviewers in the coming weeks will scold Aslan for intentionally trying to provoke Christians by casting doubt on the historicity of the New Testament? I don’t, either.”  A clear case of sour grapes due to the very different reception of Reza Aslan’s book and Robert Spencer’s book by academics, and respected media. 

Is there a difference between the two books that might explain why they were received so differently by academics and by the media?  For an answer to this question, I recommend a detailed review of Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist? by J. Mark Nicovich, Ph.D. in the Catholic World Report Muhammad: Man or Myth?.  I recommend reading the review as it spells out and gives references and responses to Spencer’s arguments.  Here are some of the key points raised in that review:

— The author puts Spencer’s work in the same category as works by individuals calling into question that there was a historical Jesus who existed at all. 
—  He calls such works historical revisionism.  And, consider’s Spencers book “the latest and perhaps most provocative of these books” on the topic of Islam. 
— He questions Spencer’s claim that the history of Islam’s origins has not been subject to “historical criticism on any significant scale”.  And, gives many references to such criticism by scholars (including Patricia Crone, Robert Hoyland, Fred Donner, Walter Kaegi, etc.)  He calls this claim by Spencer “somewhat bewildering” and “unfounded”. 
— He says “the problem with Spencer’s approach is not the sources that he uses, but how he goes about using them. This work is fatally flawed by numerous logical fallacies and poor source criticism. ” — He gives examples of “misused sources, mistaken conclusions”.  He gives specific examples of Spencer’s arguments from specific ancient non-Muslim sources including the “Doctrina Jacobi”, material from Sophronius of Jerusalem, to the Armenian History of Pseudo-Sebeos, to John of Nikiu, and from Muslim sources including Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat rasul Allah, and al-Tabari. 
—  He discusses Spencer’s arguments about Hadith, particularly his rejection of any miracle stories, and says:  “But Spencer would take these natural difficulties and use them to mark such sources as “unreliable,” and throw them out completely. If this were a reasonable historical standard then all the ancient sources we possess are suspect, and we can know nothing about the past. Being critical of these sources is perfectly appropriate, but casting them aside completely is not reasonable.” 
— He calls Spencer’s work “A revisionist, dubious history of early Islam” and says “The issues mentioned here are only a few of the more glaring shortcomings in this work. In short, Spencer explains away the canonical story of Muhammad, the Qur’an, and early Islam, and the very figure of Muhammad himself, by throwing out the large number of supporting sources based upon poor source criticism, while offering a thinly supported revisionist picture in return. There should be no doubt there is much in the traditional story of Muhammad and the formation of Islam that is questionable. The sources we possess are few, chaotic in nature, heavily redacted, and often have an unquestionable bias, so there is much room for real source criticism, scholarly debate, and historical revisionism. But this work goes to an extreme in its disregard for proper source criticism, and its arguments have more in common with those skeptical and atheist critics of early Christianity than with the best of modern historical scholarship.”

When Spencer’s book “Did Muhammad Exist?” came out last year, he failed to get any respectable Muslim scholars, or scholars of religion to debate him about the books claims, and set up a “debate” with his fellow Islamophobe David Wood.  Wood made the “challenge to a debate” by video and Spencer accepted the “challenge”.  Just prior to this faux “debate”, Spencer announced that the debate would now be between Spencer & Wood versus Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri.  Both Choudary and Bakri are part of the Muslim lunatic fringe.  Just type their names or the term lunatic fringe into our TAM search engine for more information on these disreputable folks.  The debate in the end was between anti-Muslim bigots and Muslim bigots. If only the bigots would just continue to talk among themselves.

Spencer’s partner in hate, Pamela Geller posted a ridiculous attack on WND Pamela Geller, WND Column: Jesus vs. Muhammad.  Here is the gist of Geller’s academic opinions from this tirade: “Recently this immature creep wrote a book (or more likely, had it written for him) about Jesus, with the pejorative title “Zealot.” — Aslan “refers negatively to Jesus in his title as “Zealot.”  ...  But although Spencer didn’t entitle his book any of those things, and “Did Muhammad Exist?” is a straightforward, dispassionate historical investigation, the media treated it as if it were the one that was designed solely to denigrate and disparage the founder of a religion. That is not true of Spencer’s book, but it is true of Aslan’s screed “Zealot.” Yet the media never comment on the derogatory title of Aslan’s book. It is just fine with the media to speak negatively about Jesus, deny his historicity, deny his importance, denigrate his teachings and more. But any true word that is spoken about Muhammad, whether it be about how he is depicted in Islamic texts or about the historical value of those texts, is viciously attacked.”  Perhaps, if Geller actually read the book, or read what Jewish and Christian scholars and reviewers without an axe to grind had to say, she would realize how ridiculous this charge is.

Is Zealot a pejorative title?  Is it disparaging or derogatory towards Jesus or Christianity?  Is the book anti-Christian?  Adam Kirsch on Tablet published Jesus Was a Rebel and a Bandit. What Made Him Also the Christian Son of God? which discusses the use of the term ‘Zealot’ by Aslan

...  Although Reza Aslan’s new biography of Jesus is titled Zealot, he acknowledges that Jesus was not, strictly speaking, a Zealot at all. The capital-Z Zealots were a revolutionary political party that emerged in Jerusalem at the time of the uprising against Rome in 66 C.E., long after Jesus died. But the idea of “zeal,” in Hebrew kinah, had a long and potent history in Judaism, dating all the way back to the Israelites’ wandering in the desert. The original zealot was Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, who in the book of Numbers impales an Israelite and his pagan bedmate with a javelin. This murder wins God’s strong approval: “Phineas … has turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, because he was zealous for my sake.” Zeal, then, is a jealous passion for the sanctity of God and a fierce desire for revenge on God’s enemies. ...

Catholic Online has an article on St. Simon the Zealot: The apostle called Simon Zelotes, Simon the Zealot.  “Simon was surnamed the Zealot for his rigid adherence to the Jewish law and to the Canaanite law. He was one of the original followers of Christ.”  The article also notes:

... Robert Eisenman has pointed out[3] contemporary talmudic references to Zealots as kanna’im “but not really as a group — rather as avenging priests in the Temple”. Eisenman’s broader conclusions, that the zealot element in the original apostle group was disguised and overwritten to make it support the assimilative Pauline Christianity of the Gentiles is more controversial. John P. Meier points out that the term “Zealot” is a mistranslation and in the context of the Gospels means “zealous” or “jealous” (in this case, for keeping the Law of Moses) as the Zealot movement did not exist until 30 to 40 years after the events of the Gospels.[4] ...

Here are a few quotes from Reza Aslan himself which clearly show that his purpose was not to denigrate Christianity or Christians:  Losing Christ and finding Jesus

... Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.  I have modeled my life not after the celestial spirit whom many Christians believe sacrificed himself for our sins, but rather after the illiterate, marginal Jew who gave his life fighting an unwinnable battle against the religious and political powers of his day on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed – those his society deemed unworthy of saving.  I wrote my newest book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” in order to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.  Because I am convinced that one can be a devoted follower of Jesus without being a Christian, just as I know that one can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus.

A few quotes by Aslan from the ]NPR interview:

...  “I see the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament very much the same way that I see the scriptures of the Quran or the Gathas or the Vedas or what have you. I think that these scriptures are inspired by individuals who, in a moment of metaphysical contact with the divine spirit, have been able to communicate something about God to us.  “But I also recognize as a historian that this is sacred history. ... They are valuable in the sense that they reveal certain truths to us, but that the facts that they reveal are not as valuable as the truths are.”

“I wouldn’t call myself a Christian because I do not believe that Jesus is God, nor do I believe that he ever thought that he was God, or that he ever said that he was God. But I am a follower of Jesus, and I think that sometimes, unfortunately — I think even Christians would recognize this and admit it — those two things aren’t always the same, being a Christian and being a follower of Jesus.”

Can a Muslim scholar of religion write about Christianity?   This question came up when Lauren Green who serves as a religion correspondent for FOX News interviewed Aslan.  She opened her interview by asking “You’re a Muslim. So, why did you write a book about the founding of Christianity?”  The interview then went on for almost 9 minutes with this question of Aslan’s being a Muslim being raised over and over again.  The interview has gone viral and hundreds of articles have been written about it, many calling it a most embarrassing moment for Fox News. 

Lauren Green, as Media Matters reported was interviewed in 2007 by the Baptist Press, and her comments in that interview clearly lay out her disturbing point of view on the purpose of journalism:  Journalists’ first obligation is to seek truth, and the only way absolute truth can be found is by measuring humanity’s idea of truth against God’s standards, she said. Therefore, the only way for a journalist to achieve ultimate success is to hold to the Christian faith, Green said.
By having compassion on people and informing them of the truth, Christian journalists can change the world, she said.  “That’s my challenge to all of you—the only way to be true to your craft is to go deeper into your faith,” she said. “You can’t abandon your faith, because this world will try to help you see a different light. (The world will say), ‘There’s a different truth out there.’  “No. The law of God stands firm. There is no other truth but that. And so the only way to really understand and really do your job better is to get out there and to understand what the real truth of the world is and to never back down from it.”
  Media Matters goes on to give eight examples of stories Green has done that had an anti-Muslim slant.

Andrew Kaczynski notes that in a previous interview Fox News Host Never Asked Baptist College Professor Why He Wrote Book About Islam: ”... Green never asked a professor from a university affiliated with Southern Baptists why he wrote a book about Islam in an interview two years earlier.  Green was interviewing Barry Vann, a professor at the Southern Baptist-affiliated University of Cumberlands about his book Puritan Islam: The Geoexpansion of the Muslim World. The interview largely focused on Vann’s book.”  He even provides videos of both interviews for comparison, and anyone watching both would see a clear case of double standards and hypocrisy on the part of the “Christian journalist” Lauren Green.  Of course, a Muslim can write about Christianity - unless of course all Christians and Jews are to immediately stop writing about Islam. 

Does Reza Aslan have the academic credentials to write such a book?  Robert Spencer writes The problem with Reza Aslan’s book about Jesus is not that he is a Muslim. The problem with it is that he is dishonest in which he attempts to frame the Fox interview as if it was Aslan, and not Lauren Green of Fox who “steered the interview into a discussion of himself rather than of the book.”  Spencer introduces an article by Matthew J. Franck on First Things which questions Aslan’s description of his academic qualifications on the book’s subject.  Franck focuses on whether or not Aslan’s description of himself as a historian of religion is accurate since his Ph.D. is in the sociology of religion, not the history of religion.  Franck’s article, like Dickerson’s has been widely quoted, however Franck in his description of Aslan’s credentials is not honest.  He describes Aslan’s Ph.D. in the sociology of religion as a Ph.D. in sociology - not quite the same thing. 

Robert Spencer uses Franck’s argument to bolster his own anti-Aslan views, and throws in this ...........  “I am constantly assailed for lacking scholarly credentials, but as it happens, when it comes to writing about religion I have exactly the same credentials as Aslan, a B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, and an M.A. in Religious Studies. His other two degrees are in other fields.  ...  But anyway, it doesn’t matter: there are plenty of fools with degrees, and plenty of geniuses without them. My work, and Aslan’s, stands or falls on its merits, not on the number of degrees we have.”

So, with a stroke of the pen, Spencer dismisses a Ph.D. a in the sociology of religion as being in “other fields” than religion.  The only thing that Spencer is correct about is that both his work and Reza Aslan’s work “stands or falls on its merits”.  Aslan does have four degrees, three of them in the study of religion — a B.A. in religions from Santa Clara University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his senior thesis on “The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark”;  a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School; a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion from UC, Santa Barbara.  This attempt to dismiss Aslan’s credentials is an understandable attempt to deflect attention from Spencer’s own academic credentials to write about Islam. [ See Dear National Review: Stop Embarrassing Yourselves by Caner Dagli, and discussions of Spencer’s “scholarship” by Ali Eteraz and Danios of Loonwatch. ]

Spencer’s partner, Pamela Geller adds her two-cents worth Reza Aslan is Academia’s Anwar Awlaki in which she bemoans “the enemedia’s” very different response to this book by Aslan, and a previous book by Spencer.

If the purpose of all of this faux “Controversy” was to keep people from reading what Aslan had to say and making up their own minds, it has failed miserably.  All of the questions raised by Islamophobes have nothing to do with the merits of any particular argument being made by Aslan in this book. 



Sheila Musaji is the founding editor of The American Muslim (TAM), published since 1989.  Sheila received the Council on American-Islamic Relations 2007 Islamic Community Service Award for Journalism,  and the Loonwatch Anti-Loons of 2011: Profiles in Courage Award for her work in fighting Islamophobia.  Sheila was selected for inclusion in the 2012 edition of The Muslim 500: The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims published since 2009 by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, Jordan.    Biography  You can follow her on twitter @sheilamusaji ( )


Reza Aslan’s Sweet Revenge, Winston Ross

Reza Aslan’s Viral Fox News Interview Reveals More Than Just Christian Privilege, Jeffrey Scholes

Reza Aslan’s “Zealot” Has Islamophobes/Fox News Outraged, Garibaldi

Can Muslims write about Christianity?, Dan Murphy

Fox News Anchor Dumbfounded That A Scholar, Who Is Muslim, Had The Audacity To Write A Book About Jesus, Adam Peck

Fox News must apologize to Reza Aslan, Erik Wemple

‘How can a Muslim write about Jesus?’ The controversy over Reza Aslan’s ‘Zealot’, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

Interview with Fred M. Donner author of “Muhammad and the Believers (about Muhammad in history)

Questioning Tom Holland and his Islam the Untold Story, Inayat Bunglawala

The Religion of Jesus the Jew

Response to Reza Aslan’s “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”

Robert Spencer: “I have exactly the same credentials as [Reza] Aslan”; Oh, Really?, Danios

What Fox News. Vs. Reza Aslan is really about (hint: not just Fox News’ idiocy), Omid Safi

Why the Fox News Scandal Is Good News for Reza Aslan, Connor Simpson

“Zealot”: The real Jesus, Laura Miller

Zealots and Sicarii