"Though it is the fastest-growing religion in the world, Islam remains shrouded in ignorance and fear. What is the essence of this ancient faith? Is it a religion of peace or of war? How does Allah differ from the God of Jews and Christians? Can an Islamic state be founded on democratic values such as pluralism and human rights? A scholar of comparative religions, Reza Aslan has earned international acclaim for the passion and clarity he has brought to these questions. In No god but God, challenging the "clash of civilizations" mentality that has distorted our view of Islam, Aslan explains this faith in all its complexity, beauty, and compassion."--BOOK JACKET.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.