Reza Aslan’s book, ‘No god But God’, is a comprehensive telling of the story and the history of one of the major religions in the world today. Going through the 352 pages of the book, even a person who had no knowledge of Arabia’s pre-Islamic history, no familiarity with Islamic rise, and no previous comprehension of the various teachings and philosophical factors, is a great experience of exploration in the world of Islam and the Muslim way of thought. What makes this book unique is that it connects many of what is going on in the Islamic world with the latest events concerning terrorism and militant Islamic groups in different places of the world.
Knowing that Aslan is a Muslim who earned different degrees in Religions and Arts in the United States gives us an idea about the amount of information that each reader can obtain. Throughout the book, the reader is being guided by an insider who is knowledgeable in what concerns all the related elements. And, from the other side, this can be another component in highlighting the fact that the book is written in a way that is easy to understand and that is completely comprehendible.
Contents and Thoughts
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The author of the book begins by explaining the reasons that led him to write the book and to create such a volume about Islam. He explains that the main reason is not to go through the history and present conflicts within the religion, but to attempt to foresee its future and how it will evolve. “This book is not just a critical reexamination of the origins and evolution of Islam, nor is it merely an account of the current struggle among Muslims to define the future of this magnificent yet misunderstood faith. This book is, above all else, an argument for reform” (Prologue).
The book is divided into ten distinct sections; each one goes through a certain stage of the birth and development of the religion. And in many of these chapters, many direct references and explanations are made concerning events that we see today and their origin and impact on the Muslim world of today in relation to a variety of subjects.
The first section of the book ‘The clash of monotheisms’, is an introductory part in which the author states the reasons that led him to writing the book. He states that Islam is not, as some claim, a violent religion that cannot co-exist with modern values of democracy and human rights.
“A few well-respected academics carried this argument further by suggesting that the failure of democracy to emerge in the Muslim world was due in large part to Muslim culture, which they claimed was intrinsically incompatible with Enlightenment values such as liberalism, pluralism, individualism, and human rights. It was therefore simply a matter of time before these two great civilizations, which have such conflicting ideologies, clashed with each other in some catastrophic way. And what better example do we need of this inevitability than September 11?” (Prologue). He claims, instead, that certain circumstances were the reason why the Muslim world is so much behind in these fields.
In the first chapter of the book, ‘The sanctuary in the desert: pre-Islamic Arabia’, the reader can virtually live through the conditions and events that were taking place in Arabia before the emergence of the religion. Here we find many indications to the fact that, contrary to the reality of today, the Arabian Peninsula was populated by the followers of many religions: Jews, Christians, and others.
“It is here, inside the cramped interior of the sanctuary, that the gods of pre-Islamic Arabia reside: Hubal, the Syrian god of the moon; al-Uzza, the powerful goddess the Egyptians knew as Isis and the Greeks called Aphrodite; al-Kutba, the Nabataean god of writing and divination; Jesus, the incarnate god of the Christians, and his holy mother, Mary” (Aslan 3).
And in reference to the Jewish community the author states: “The Jewish presence in the Arabian Peninsula can, in theory, be traced to the Babylonian Exile a thousand years earlier, though subsequent migrations may have taken place in 70 C.E., after Rome's sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem, and again in 132 C.E., after the messianic uprising of Simon Bar Kochba. For the most part, the Jews were a thriving and highly influential diaspora whose culture and traditions had been thoroughly integrated into the social and religious milieu of pre-Islamic Arabia” (9).
The following three chapters, ‘The keeper of the keys: Muhammad in Mecca’, ‘The city of the prophet: the first Muslims’, and ‘Fight in the way of God: the meaning of Jihad’, give the reader an in-depth clarification about how Islam came to life, from the beginning of the story of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, his life before recognizing the mission that he was set to accomplish and the various events that shaped the era of the beginning of the new religion and how the Muslim believers, including the prophet himself, were treated by the people of their tribe and all the conditions that led the Islamic state to be established in Medina instead of Mecca, the original city of the prophet.
What is interesting in this book is that it makes, during the telling of the story, references to many things that we see today in the Muslim world. One of the examples of this is the reference made to the story of the Hijab or the Islamic clothes and head cover of Muslim women, which has became an identifying characteristic of Muslim women today. It is surprising to find out that the whole idea is not even brought by the Quran or the original Islamic teachings: “Although long seen as the most distinctive emblem of Islam, the veil is, surprisingly, not enjoined upon Muslim women anywhere in the Quran.
The tradition of veiling and seclusion (known together as hijab) was introduced into Arabia long before Muhammad, primarily through Arab contacts with Syria and Iran, where the hijab was a sign of social status. After all, only a woman who need not work in the fields could afford to remain secluded and veiled... the veil was neither compulsory, nor for that matter, widely adopted until generations after Muhammad’s death, when a large body of male scriptural and legal scholars began using their religious and political authority to regain the dominance they had lost in society as a result of the Prophet’s egalitarian reforms” (65-66).
The next chapter, ‘The rightly guided ones: the successors to Muhammad’, goes through the events that took place after the death of the prophet, and how conflicts appeared on the succession in what concerns the position of Islamic leader of Caliph, or successor.
The sixth chapter, ‘This religion is a science: the development of Islamic theology and law’, is the one that contains most of the information about the teachings, the myths, the different philosophical views, and the various rituals that make up the religion. Here, the reader will have an idea about the different schools of thought.
The following chapter, ‘In the footsteps of martyrs: from Shi’ism to Khomeinism’, presents the story of how the Shi’ite Muslim sect appeared as a result of the killing of Ali, the fourth Caliph after Muhammad and the political and religious consequences of this appearance that we can see in our world today. It relates the new factors of faith that were introduced into Islam by the Shi’ite sect and how those factors were always being used according to desires and wishes of the leaders, such as Kommeini in what concerns modern Iran.
Next, the chapter ‘Stain your prayer rug with wine: the Sufi way’ is a description of another sect of Islam, which is Sufism. It goes through many of the different concepts that Sufis use and believe in which are completely different than those of mainstream Islam and Shi’ite Islam.
The ninth chapter, ‘An awakening in the east: the response to colonialism’, talks about the effects of European colonialism on Muslim countries and the way that it was faced: “the nationalists sought to battle European colonialism through a secular countermovement that would replace the Salafiyyah's aspiration of religious unity with the more pragmatic goal of racial unity: in other words, Pan-Arabism” (Aslan 233)
The final chapter, ‘Slouching toward Medina: the Islamic reformation’, discusses the establishment of the Muslim states after the end of colonialism. An interesting idea that the author presents in this chapter is the comparison between the reforms that took place within the Christian history which led Christian societies to move towards democracy, human rights, and pluralism and the conditions that are being shaped today within Islamic societies. And he states that Islamic societies may need to go through violent and extremely shaky conditions before reaching the final desired destination that others in the Western world reached.
According to the author, there is an ongoing struggle taking place in the Muslim world between the forces of traditional religious beliefs and those that want to move their societies into the modern foundations of democracy and human right. He states that “in the developing capitals of the Muslim world – Tehran, Cairo, Damascus, and Jakarta – and in the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe and the United States – New York, London, Paris, and Berlin – where that message is being redefined by scores of first and second generation Muslim immigrants. By merging the Islamic values of their ancestors with the democratic ideals of their new homes, these Muslims have formed… a ‘mobilizing force’ for a Muslim reformation that, after centuries of stony sleep, has finally awoken and is now slouching toward Medina to be born” (Aslan 254).
In many parts of the book, there is a mentioning of terrorism and the reasons that led to its creation. Ben Laden is mentioned several times, even though the concepts that the author wants to express are not presented in the level that a reader expects. Aslan states that Ben Laden’s concept of Islam is wrong and that it is not the conception of the majority of Muslims: “Muslims may share bin Laden's grievances against the Western powers, [but] they do not share his interpretation of Jihad” (87).
The book is a rich source of information about the history of Islam and the about the Muslim societies of today. It gives the reader a full, even though not detailed, description of everything that led the reality of those societies into what is being seen today.
The writer tried to show the true face of Islam and to explain to everyone that what extremists stand for today is something that has nothing to do with religion, and that they have their own version and interpretation of the Quran. The author, to a certain extent, succeeded in clearing many points about the religion and to underline the idea that Islam is originally a peaceful religion.
The book was certainly worth writing and publishing especially in this time when everyone should know more about the other in order to avoid and prevent further confrontation.
- Aslan, Reza. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. New York: Random House, 2005.
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