No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam

by Reza Aslan

Hardcover, 2006

Call number

297 ASL

Collection

Publication

Random House Trade Paperbacks (2006), Edition: Reprint, 310 pages

Description

An authoritative study of the Islamic faith in relation to the other world religions sheds new light on its origins and history, from the social reformation role of Muhammad to the impact of fundamentalism and terrorism on Islam.

Media reviews

THESE are rough times for Islam. It is not simply that frictions have intensified lately between Muslims and followers of other faiths. There is trouble, and perhaps even greater trouble, brewing inside the Abode of Peace itself, the notional Islamic ummah or nation that comprises a fifth of humanity. News reports reveal glimpses of such trouble -- for instance, in the form of flaring strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in places like Iraq and Pakistan. Yet the greater tensions, while similarly rooted in the distant past, are less visible to the wider world. The rapid expansion of literacy among Muslims in the past half-century, and of access to new means of communication in the last decade, have created a tremendous momentum for change. Furious debates rage on the Internet, for example, about issues like the true meaning of jihad, or how to interpret and apply Islamic law, or how Muslim minorities should engage with the societies they live in.

User reviews

LibraryThing member rosalita
There was a lot to like in this book, subtitled "The Origins, Evolutions, and Future of Islam". It served me well as a good introduction to the Muslim faith, about which I knew lamentably little. I have a new appreciation for the diversity of belief that Islam encompasses, and I finally (mostly) understand the differences between the Shi'a, Sunni, and Sufi branches of Islam.

The biggest and most important takeaway, of course, is reinforcement of the knowledge that a very small percentage of the world's Muslims hold the kind of fundamentalist viewpoint that has led to terrorist attacks on the West. Aslan's explanation of how the words of the Quran have been interpreted in ways that seem completely contrary to the actions and words of its prophet, Mohammed, is akin to describing a centuries-long game of telephone played to advance political viewpoints. Things get lost in translation and interpretation, accidentally and deliberately, but once lost they are difficult to retrieve.

It's also less than heartening to read that much of the growth in fundamentalist Islam came about as a direct result of Western colonial activity in the Middle East, India, and Africa. It's difficult to read about brutal suppression and the deliberate pitting of one faith's true believers against another's in order to ensure native populations would be too fractured to mount a successful revolution, especially with the hindsight of what those actions wrought over the long term and into our current political landscape. In that sense, this book only reaffirmed my belief that we have no place, militarily, in the Middle East today. What is happening in Iraq is tragic, to be sure, and partly our fault, but nothing we do now is likely to make it better. We would have been far better off never to have started the war in the first place. Perhaps it's no use crying over those past decisions but we need to keep reminding people that time has proven them to be total failures lest we stumble into the same minefield all over again, as has happened time and again.

Given all of that, Aslan seems unduly optimistic that the current brand of fundamentalist Islam that has led to so many terrorist attacks will wane as the overwhelmingly young Muslim population moves away from that message and toward a version of populist democracy. He cites the people's uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to support his view, although a reader can't help but notice that the book was written before the "Arab Spring" failed to truly catch hold and in some places was brutally suppressed or slid backwards into tyranny once again.

Aslan also is optimistic that Islam and democracy can (and will) co-exist, though he rightly points out that we in the West must stop thinking our brand of democracy is the only right way to do it. Certainly we have an innate distrust of government that overtly espouses a religious viewpoint, but Aslan argues that just as Muhammed ruled the city of Medina without persecuting the Jewish and Christian minorities who lived and traded there, the same sort of faith-based governance could work today.

As you might expect from a book that encompasses more than 900 years of history in just 300 pages, the best that can be said about No god but God is that it is a decent introduction to Islam for those like me who knew little. Further reading would be necessary to truly understand many of the complex subjects that Aslan only lightly touches on, but he provides a strong starting point for the curious.
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LibraryThing member pheelowesq
Mr. Aslan walks one through the history of Islam (and his ideas concerning its future) in a (blessedly) slim and readable volume. He wrote the book for a western audience, and he delivers. This book explains more about the origins and operation of Islam as a faith and its impact on politics (both national and global) than any other I have come across. A valuable book for anyone hoping to, at least elementarily, understand Islam.… (more)
LibraryThing member stillatim
I want to write two reviews for this book. In one I say well done, and thank you Reza Aslan, for your clear prose, your sympathetic defense of Islam, the remarkable way you cram so much--religious history, political history, theology, religious practice--into so few pages.
In the other I say for the sake of all that's holy Reza, will you stop banging on about how Islam is a liberal-democrat's wet dream religion? Because that doesn't sit very well with your endless claims that the Ulama comprises only the spawn of anti-liberal-democratic-demons. And while we're at it, I'm pretty sure clerics have reasons other than sexism for the decisions they make. Tied in to this, will you stop making obviously bad arguments (e.g., "People say that Islam is a 'religion of the sword.' But Buddhists and Christians fight all the time!" Sure they do. But Jesus and Buddha never commanded armies.)? Will you get off Sufism's jockstrap? I know that's the easiest to paint as the aforementioned L-DWD religion (drink! screw! rock'n'roll! the Gaia thesis! I mean, there must be more to it than that), but it's just possible that that's a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Instead, I will just say: this is a great, short introduction to the history of Islam. It touches on a few theological/jurisprudential points without knuckling down on them. His idea that Islamic terrorism is caused by a surging conservatism clashing with an equally surging liberalization is a plausible one. But the book's polemic (justified by hysterical Islamophobia, I grant you) distorts its history and argument far too much: if Islam offered only support for liberal-capitalistic governments in the middle east, it wouldn't be as popular as it is.
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LibraryThing member meggyweg
I had to read this book for my Islamic History class at college. It is an excellent choice for its intended audience, intelligent Western readers who know little about Islam. Reza Aslan is a good storyteller and his book is very informative and relatively balanced.

However, No God But God was a little too ambitious. The book is too short to make any serious attempt to cover the entire history of the religion. Aslan writes in great detail about the first fifty years or so, then basically skips ahead 800 years to the present day, passing over a lot of important events in the meantime. I would recommend this book as only an introduction; if you really want to know a lot about the Muslim religion you need to consult other works.… (more)
LibraryThing member thierry
This book covers two topics: it is an exposition of Islam, its prophet, its tenets and its history, and it is also a argument on the future of Islam, as a modern political philosophy.

I found the book to be quite good in its first objective: the stage is set in the tribal and poor Arabian peninsula for the emergence of Muhammad who was to give rise to a revolutionary and world changing religion. The author covers the emergence of the movement, its consolidation and explosion onto the world stage while also clearly introducing Islamic tenets, the five pillars of the faith, the hadith – the interpretation of the deeds, words and tradition of Muhammad as well as the two major branches of Islam, Sufism and Shi’a. Here the book shines: the author has rendered a beautiful and evocative account of the life of Muhammad, and is excellent it its description of the faith and its components.

The author also argues that Islam is in the throes of a reformation which pits conservatives whose response to the challenges of colonialism and modernity has been to uphold rigid and literal teachings based on antiquated and unsubstantiated hadiths, and those wishing for a more liberal, egalitarian Islam– which according to the author is in line with the deeds and vision of the prophet. To support his claim, the author points to the egalitarian Medina community set up by Muhammad, his concern for the oppressed, as well as components from Sufism (love, tolerance) and Shi’ism (sacrifice, egalitarianism, jurisprudence).

This is a beautiful book both in content and aspiration. Exceedingly well written, the passages on Muhammad are excellent. However, I can only describe the book’s argumentation as wishful thinking. Given the present geopolitical context, the stakes of this Islamic reformation could not be higher – unfortunately, signs of its effectiveness on the ground are hard to come by. It seems to me that those who most closely associate with the oppressed and who offer solutions of egalitarianism and justice are those most opposed to this reformation. Furthermore, those who control Islamic orthodoxy through jurisprudence, custody of holy sites or dissemination – be them Saudi Wahhabism or Iranian Shi’a fundamentalism – are those just as opposed to this reformation. It would truly take a revolutionary and world changing shift for the reformation of Islam to succeed.

Also the author is Iranian or of Iranian origin, and his Shi’a slant on things was both refreshing and edgy.
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LibraryThing member ruinedbyreading
One of the things I loved about No god but God is that the author’s personal religious beliefs never really compromises his retelling of the history. It’s almost as if he’s taking a non-Muslim perspective at times in order to prove or explain things, which I really liked because it shows that he’s rational and logical and doesn’t fall back on religious arguments that can’t be proven all the time.

I loved is how he writes about the religion in the Arabian penninsula before Islam. He goes a lot more in depth than most authors do on the subject. He does a lot to put things into perspective and to show how truly tolerant and accepting the early Islamic community was. Which is one thing that Aslan keeps bringing up and trying to prove - that the ummah is meant to encompass Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Not just Muslims.

Aslan is a rationalist and it definitely shows. Whenever he questions an Islamic concept it always seems to strengthen his faith instead of damaging it. I think it’s supposed to do that to the reader, too. It certainly worked for me. I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that you cannot have true faith until you question it, and that questioning your religion or your faith is a good thing.
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LibraryThing member aaduncan
This book is like a poem to the religion of Islam. Nonetheless, it is also very informative- full of Islamic history and what that means for us today, yet still an easy read. A wonderful book that I think everyone whose life is touched by Islam should read (and that would include most everyone in the world)
LibraryThing member MichaelDC
This book spent time lost on bookshelves, in moving boxes, and in temporarily abandoned backpacks until I finally finished it today. This is the first book on Islam I've ever read, so I'm no expert on the factual parts of the book, but Aslan definitely seems to know what he's talking about. It is mostly a straightforward history of the religion. The last two chapters are about its history under colonialism, the struggle between more moderate forms of Islam with that of Wahhabist Islam, and finally about the future of the religion. If you want a fairly detailed (but not overwhelmingly so) history of Islam, this is a great place to start. My only quibble was in the some of the historical recounting, Aslan shifts into the present tense and takes on almost a fiction-like tone, I guess to make it more relatable. But I found it kind of jarring, because the book is fantastic when it is just clearly written with a measured tone, but without being dry. Apart from this, I highly recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member yarmando
A dense but readable and valuable overview of Islam's roots, and the events that led, centuries later, to the factional fighting in the news now. I was particularly taken by the early stories of the Prophet. How have I never heard that awesome story of men washing the heart of the boy Muhammad in a big bowl of snow? (So much better than guys arriving with frankincense and myrrh.)

I find meager hope in the reminder that Christianity evolved through Inquisition and Reformation over 15 centuries, and that Islam in entering its 15th century.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Reza Aslan has written a history of Islam that tells a similar story to the one told in many books about Christianity: founder with good intentions, followers caught up with power and "reformation." Aslan's Quran sounds pretty reasonable; its depiction can be contrasted to that given in Sam Harris's The End of Faith. It is probable that, like the Bible, the Quran has enough contradiction to accommodate everybody.

In the course of telling us the histories of Muhammad, Islam, and those who would interpret their meanings, Aslan paints a comprehensive portrait of the different branches of Islam - not only Sunni and Shi'ism, but the many divisions within those sects. Unlike authors such as Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations, Aslan argues that "the violence and bloodshed we are witnessing in large parts of the Islamic world are chiefly the result of an internal struggle between Muslims (rather than of a war between Islam and the West)".

The development of Islam is every bit as fascinating as the development of Christianity, and arguably more important to understand these days. I was never bored, and came out with a much better sense of the differences among the different movements in Islam, and why the opposing factions have such hatred of one another.

(JAF)
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LibraryThing member jimocracy
This was educational and very detailed. I have a better understanding of the history and evolution of Islam. And I hope the author is correct about its future.
LibraryThing member nmele
This brief history of Islam should be required reading for foreign policy-makers, editorial writers and military commanders. Sure, Aslan has a point of view, but in less than 300 pages he summarizes the history of Islam and interprets contemporary turmoil in the Muslim world in a way that makes sense. Don't read Bernard Lewis, read Reza Aslan!… (more)
LibraryThing member SharonBey
A must read for those striving to understand the political evolution of the religious / political state of Islam. Must read more than once.
LibraryThing member nmele
A pretty good concise account of the revelation to Mohammed and the origins of Islam. Well worth a read.
LibraryThing member NordicT
Aslan presents a clear, engaging narrative of the history and development of Islam in all of its complexity. I appreciated the thorough discussion on Iran and the influence of (very) current events on the ongoing Islamic Reformation. While it was written and even updated before the rise of ISIS, this book helped me understand where and how radical Islamic sects like al Qaeda originate and how the American enterprise of democracy building in the Middle East was inevitably doomed.… (more)
LibraryThing member Abbas.Jafri
Devoid of references to miracles and divine intervention, this book is a rational commentary on and explanation of the history of Islam, analyzing its origins and early evolution in the social, political and economic context of 7th century Arabia. Well written and concise, it should be included in all Islamic Studies curriculum.
LibraryThing member chriskrycho
An excellent introduction to Islam. Helpful for outsiders.
LibraryThing member ryvre
This is a great overview of the history and basis tenets of Islam. It's very readable and informative.

Pages

310

ISBN

0812971892 / 9780812971897
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