Reza Aslan has written an important and wonderfully readable book on the history of Islam. A devout Muslim who cares deeply about his religion, Aslan is also a thoughtful humanist. No god but God generously, gracefully and intelligently incorporates both these sets of values. It’s important for Americans to read this book: we keep asking, Why do they hate us?, and reply foolishly with thoughtless answers like, Because they’re jealous of our freedoms (as George W. Bush has maintained for the past several years). More likely, it seems to me, the answer lies in our own ignorance: what do we really know about Islam? Recently I was asked to teach an Introduction to the Humanities class at a community college. The regular instructor bailed out at the last minute; I was given a textbook on a Friday and told to be prepared to start teaching the following Monday. I read fast, but knew I had to skim most of the required textbook in order to prepare. One of the chapters I read in detail, though, was the one on the history of Islam. To my horror is read, in this widely used textbook, the authors’ claim that the Prophet Mohammed married Fatima. This kind of ignorance of other cultures and other faiths is deeply offensive. In this case, Fatima, as we all should know, was the Prophet’s daughter (his wife’s name was Khadija). How could the authors (an archeologist and a theologian, both of prestigious U.S. universities) implicitly accuse Mohammad of a crime—incest—that all the children of Abraham find offensive?
Indeed, when I taught the history of the three dominant monotheisms, my students were quite surprised to learn that Judaism, Christianity and Islam in fact share a common origin. We are, it seems, even ignorant of Christianity’s origins. This makes books like Aslan’s all the more crucial. “One could argue,” he states—and this is a fine example of his graceful sidestepping of our ignorance in favor of displaying humanist generosity—“that the clash of monotheisms is the inevitable result of monotheism itself. Whereas a religion of many gods posits many myths to describe the human condition, a religion of one god tends to be monomythic; it rejects not only all other gods, it rejects all other explanations for God.” “Religion,” he continues by way of pointing out the importance of myth, “is not faith. Religion is the story of faith… that provides a common language with which a community of [believers] can share with each other their numinous encounter with the Divine Presence.”
“It is not important whether the stories describing the childhood of Muhammad, Jesus, or David are true. What is important is what these stories say about our prophets, our messiahs, our kings”—in other words, about our cultural millieux. This is a crucial point for Aslan, especially in conjunction with the idea that religion is a “story,” a narrative of faith. For as he relates the long history of Islam, and especially its early years, Aslan argues that contemporary Islam doesn’t have to be the way it is: Muslims could change the story of their religion. By implication, this is true of all three monotheisms—Christians don’t have to suppress women or murder homosexuals. This, though, is only an implication in Aslan’s book: the subtitle claims it’s about the “future of Islam,” but he doesn’t waste too much time prognosticating. What Aslan does claim (though with almost no comparative analysis) is that Islam, at 1,500 years old, is in approximately the same stage Christianity was when Martin Luther and others instigated the Reformation. This is a fascinating idea, but I suspect it may be wishful thinking on Aslan’s part.
What I especially treasure about this book is Aslan’s discussion of the first generation of Islam, which is well researched and beautifully articulate. As with all textually based religions (meaning, again, the religions of “the Book,” the three monotheisms that trace their descent from Abraham) there is a dirty little secret at the heart of the matter, namely, that the authors of the texts had political agendas. ‘Twas ever thus with stories but, when there are a billion or more people basing their lives and everyday actions on a text, it’s important to consider the sources. Muhammad and his Companions worked out a communal way of life in Medina but, for the most part, the Prophet’s revelations and laws were not written down until after his death. (Though not, as Aslan argues, because Muhammad was illiterate; how could that be when he was a successful businessman with records to keep and orders to place?) All three monotheisms are deeply misogynistic but that doesn’t necessarily implicate Jesus or Muhammad: “when the Quran warned believers not to ‘pass on your wealth and property to the feeble-minded (sufaha)…’ the early Quranic commentators—all of them male—declared, despite the Quran’s warning on the subject, that ‘the sufaha are women and children… and both of them must be excluded from inheritance’.” Again, the parallels to the early history of Christianity are worth keeping in mind. When Paul wrote “Let your women keep silence in the churches” in Corinthians and again in Timothy, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence,” we may be looking at Paul’s misogyny or that of one of his later editor’s. The point I take away from Aslan is that we must wrestle interrogatively with these texts and we must also always remember that we can change the stories we tell about them.
No god but God is not without its biases and flaws. Aslan holds an MFA from the famous Workshop at the University of Iowa, and he makes an embarrassing English major’s math mistake in his discussion of the community at Medina. Muhammad and his Companions, driven out of Mecca, found refuge in Medina where there were already both traditional Arabian polytheists as well as a large community of Jews, of whom, Aslan says at one point, the Jews “may have totaled in the thousands.” Some thirty pages later he discusses the massacre of Jews (an infamous sore point between the two religions) by the first generation of Muslims, stating that “the total number of men who were killed vary from 400 to 700 (depending on the source)” while “the highest estimates still represent no more than a tiny fraction of the total population of Jews who resided in Medina and its environs.” Whether we take the original population of Jews in Medina as 7,000 (which is in line with Aslan’s first statement of “thousands”) or even 70,000, that adds up to either ten percent or one percent “of the total population”—not “a tiny fraction.” What Aslan fails to acknowledge, as so many apologists for monotheism fail to do, is that monomythic religions are necessarily competitive for both resources and believers—and that competition inevitably results in some sort of violence. His discussion of contemporary militant Islam is likewise hampered by a strange elision: he begins with Pakistan and promises to come full circle but never returns to the situation there.
If Aslan hedges his bets as regards the violence inherent in monotheism, he is elegant and (especially in our contemporary climate of monotheistic textual fundamentalism) courageous in insisting on a historical understanding of Islam. His explanation of the split between Sunni and Shi’a is the clearest I’ve yet read, and his discussion of Islam’s beautiful mysticism—the Sufis—is a pleasure to read. For those wanting to understand the history of Islam, Aslan is ideal on all but the last one hundred or so years. If his portrayal of the violence of Islam is flawed, his hope that that narrative can be overcome is admirable.