Sunday, March 15, 2015

Reza Aslan's excellent 'No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam'.

If, like me, you want to know far more about Islam, this book is the one you should read. Reza Aslan is an Iran-born, American religious scholar of Islamic faith who wrote the 2013 mega-seller 'Zealot', a controversial book about the historical Jesus (my brief review is below*).  

No god but God is the story of the prophet Muhammad, his successors and the religion he foundered, from the very beginning right up until today. As a drama it truly is fodder for a thrilling TV miniseries. The thing about Aslan is he can write. It's a tale exceptionally well told.

Muhammad's original vision was one of equality, fairness, tolerance for other faiths and beliefs, and prior Arabian tribal traditions and conflicts. There is no doubt that Muhammad was an inspiring, charismatic and hugely influential figure, and a passionate reformer. A major source of his inspiration was Jesus.

Aslan summarises the views of a range of scholars and their different opinions and interpretations. He assess and critiques fairly. Being a well regarded scholar himself, he writes with authority.

He details the debates, the controversies and the evolution of Islam over the centuries, including its spread to Asia, Africa and other non-Arabic countries. The various visions and ideas of its leaders and theologians over the centuries are presented comprehensively yet clearly.

The chapters on Iran, India, Egypt and Islam's clash with colonialism are enlightening. He is also excellent on the Shia/Sunni divide and particularly Wahhabism, an 'uncompromisingly puritanical vision of Islam', and its patron Ibn Saud. This history is fascinating given today's iteration in ISIS. 

It was also good to be reminded of the drama of modern Iran from the ousting of the US-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979 to the establishment of the first democratic Islamic Republic initially under Ayatollah Khomeini. The subsequent struggles for democracy in Islamic countries around the globe is a compelling narrative. 

Aslan is fiercely and rightly critical of the West, particularly imperialist Britain and now the US, and its heavy-handed interventions:

'The French went to great lengths to cultivate class divisions in Algeria, the Belgians promoted tribal factionalism in Rwanda, and the British fostered sectarian schisms in Iraq, all in a futile attempt to minimise nationalist tendencies and stymie calls for independence. 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.'

Reza Aslan has written a highly readable, truly enlightening book. I highly recommend it.

*This NYT bestseller is absolutely brilliant. The author was born in Iran and is of Islamic faith. It's his ability to be detached and unsentimental that gives his account so much power. 
It's a fascinating, lucidly written story of a charismatic political activist in first century Palestine very much under Roman rule. This is history told with a thrilling narrative drive.
How did the world's most powerful religion emerge from these very ordinary, seemingly shambolic beginnings?
The final chapters give a riveting account of Paul of Tarsus' seemingly unorthodox theologising and his ongoing, visceral conflict with Peter and Jesus' brother James who stayed closer to traditional Jewish law and traditions.
I can't recommend this enough.

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