(The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam)
by Reza Aslan
‘Fundamentalism, in all religious traditions, is impervious to suppression. The more one tries to squelch it, the stronger it becomes. Counter it with cruelty, and it gains adherents. Kill its leaders, and they become martyrs. Respond with despotism, and it becomes the sole voice of opposition. Try to control it, and it will turn against you. Try to appease it , and it will take control.’
This quotation, from late in the book, in no way reflects either the main content or the tone of Reza Aslan’s work. However, it is advice we human beings would be foolish to ignore, as historical events from both colonial and post-colonial periods seem to demonstrate with force.
I first discovered No God But God about ten years ago, when I was researching a non-fiction book of my own (The Lion, the Sun and the Eternal Blue Sky). At the time, I read only those parts of it which I considered relevant to my study. I have now read it all, and can only agree with AS Byatt, writing in the Guardian, that No God But God is ‘… judicious and truly illuminating.’
The first five chapters are mainly historical and biographical. Here, the author describes the political and religious situation in seventh century Arabia. We see a hotch-potch of tribal rivalries and a (relatively) harmonious mix of polytheists, Jews and Christians – the latter two (surprisingly perhaps) mostly converts, rather than natives of Palestine. Around 570 CE, the supposed year of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, the ancient sanctuary, the Kaba at Mecca, was under the control of the Quraysh, a wealthy and powerful Arab tribe.
It was an unjust and highly stratified society in which Muhammad, as an orphan, might have found himself on the bottom rung. However, good fortune – an uncle and guardian, Abu Talib, from within the dominant tribe, and a judicious marriage to Khadija, a wealthy and respected merchant, put him in the position to change his society for the better.
One need not believe the myth to understand how the message of the Quran, as accepted by the first of the Prophet’s followers – equality and justice under God – caught on. Equally, one can see how inevitable the clash of ideas and ideals which followed.
‘There are a host of words in Arabic that can be definitively translated as “war”; jihad is not one of them.’
The author recounts how the Muslim community – the Ummah – grew, how it challenged the establishment, and how it changed and split after Muhammad’s death, none of these episodes without bloodshed. He introduces us to the Prophet’s successors and tells how they rose to the challenge of their legacy, often making nepotic appointments, and sometimes taking drastic and fatal actions which seem totally at odds with the teaching of their holy book. Along the way, Reza Aslan discusses and explains topics such as jihad, the Five Pillars, the hadiths, and the origins of veiling.
‘…. seen as the most distinctive emblem of Islam, the veil is …. not enjoined upon Muslim women anywhere in the Quran.’
The chapters which follow, Chapters 6-8, delve into theology. At this point, the narrative is at its most esoteric. For example, what does it actually mean to say that the Quran ‘is uncreated and co-eternal with God’? What is ‘occultation in the spiritual realm’? What precisely is the role of an imam, a mahdi, an ayatollah? Here, the book explains the differences in belief and ritual between the Sunni and Shia faiths – and to a lesser extent Ismaili beliefs. A whole chapter is devoted to Sufism.
‘…. the Quran …. is to Arabic what Homer is to Greek, what Chaucer is to English: a snapshot of an evolving language, frozen forever in time.’
The final two chapters deal with colonialism and the Islamic world’s response to it. They discuss relations between Iran (Reza Aslan’s birth country) and the West, democracy and the struggle within Islam itself for reform.
No God But God is a learned and complex work with many strands – historical, political and theological. Parts of it, such as the chapter about Sufism – the somewhat mystical branch of Islam – are difficult to follow. Some knowledge of gnosticism, asceticism and poetry will be helpful before tackling it. Once or twice, so it seems to me, we are encouraged to believe acceptable morality is enshrined in monotheism. Apart from this, No God But God is fair and impartial in its treatment of Islam’s rival religions. This is a book worth spending time on, for its comprehensive look at the beliefs and practices of over a billion of our fellow human beings.