No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam
Exploring Muhammad's legacy
By Steven Martinovich
Out of every tragedy there is hope that some good can come of it. The mass murder of thousands on September 11, 2001, for example, led to the liberation of millions in Afghanistan. Many believed that an unintended consequence of the attacks would be a quest by Westerners to learn more about Islam, a faith that has lived alongside theirs for fourteen centuries. Given the attitudes and comments expressed about it by so-called experts over the past four years, however, ignorance concerning Islam seems to have persisted.
Reza Aslan's No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam goes a long way in dispelling that ignorance for readers who decide to pick up this accessible volume. It goes further than that, however, by being Aslan's entry into the debate about the future of Islam. The Islamic world, he argues, is in a state of flux as it debates its own future. Islam is going through its own Reformation, a process that will determine the faith's path for the next millennium.
Aslan opens No god but God with a look at the religious world in Arabia in the years preceding the revelations that Muhammad was granted by Allah. What we know today as Arabia was a land filled with gods. The God of Christianity and Judaism jostled alongside those of hundreds of cults and religions. Statues to over 300 gods and prophets adorned the Ka'ba in Mecca, a city at the time controlled by a powerful tribe eager to protect their religious and economic status.
It was in this world in 610 AD that Muhammad began receiving the word of Allah. Eventually the growing popularity of his message forced him and his followers to migrate to Yithrab, modern day Medina, where he created the first Muslim community. Through the force of his message, and a few battles, Muhammad's message gradually spread throughout the Arab world, eventually including Mecca where he cleansed the Ka'ba of its idols and dedicated it to Allah. Muhammad's revelations had literally prompted a religious revolution that continues to shake the world today.
From there Aslan explores a wider history of Islam. He documents the various Islamic kingdoms that rose up after the battles of secession, the struggle to craft Islamic law after Muhammad's death and the debates to interpret the Quran, fought primarily between those seeking a literal interpretation -- the side that eventually won -- and those seeking a rationalist interpretation. Aslan surveys the major factions of the Islamic community -- Sunnism, Shi'ism and Sufism -- and explains their origins and how they differ from one another.
It is at the end that we are treated to Aslan's thoughts on which direction Islam should pursue. Aslan argues that Islam should embrace the rationalist approach, interpreting the Quran and Hadith in the context of the times they were written. The faith, he all but argues, must adapt itself to the modern world, and not look back to a time when Islam was the religion of a relatively small corner of the world. The key to Islam's progression, he argues, is the creation of modern, pluralistic and democratic Islamic nations.
If No god but God does have a flaw it's that readers may come in expecting more than Aslan delivers. There are, for example, several notable empty spots in the book including any real exploration of Islam in its reaction to the Crusades. Nor will the reader learn much about how Islam was adopted and modified by those outside of the Arab world despite the fact that non-Arabs relatively quickly became the majority of the faithful. Understandably, had Aslan pursued those and other threads No god but God could have quickly sprawled into a multi-volume survey and made it much less accessible.
No god but God's biggest problem for many, however, may be his rosy outlook. Aslan reaches back to the earliest days to prove that Islam is a tolerant religion based on egalitarian principles. While that is entirely correct, critics could argue that the loudest voices in Islam today are those fighting to impose and maintain an ultra-conservative version of the faith, one hostile to modernity, women and other faiths. Their approach to Islam may be a perversion of everything Muhammad strove for, but it is also one that resonates with millions of Muslims. Aslan's hopes, at any rate, will ultimately be answered in the internal debate that Islam is currently undergoing.
Those criticisms aside, No god but God is certainly one of the best of the many introductions to Islam that have appeared since September 11, 2001. While critics might argue that, as a Westernized liberal Muslim, Aslan's interpretations and conclusions are likely not shared by large portions of the Islamic community, it's also beyond debate that his primary conclusion -- that an Islamic Reformation is taking place -- is correct. Regardless, No god but God is a exceedingly well written and argued primer to Islam that will hopefully promote a deeper understanding of this faith's traditions and beliefs.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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