Demonstrating the Moderity of Islam

Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American writer whose first book, No God but God, met with widespread acclaim. In her review for, Helena Sabbagh praises Aslan’s combination of academic knowledge and an easy-to-read tone


Whenever the key words Islam or Muslims are heard these days, the topic is usually “terror.” Anyone who wants to learn something about this frightening phenomenon in our globalized world has a lot of material to choose from. Whether in print, television, radio or internet, reports on Islamist terror can be found on a daily basis.


But for those who want more than the daily news on issues such as the origins of Islam, its religious foundations, and the historical figure of Mohammad, what jumps out at you from the shelves at your local bookstore are the colorfully bound works by warhorse-type Middle East experts like Peter Scholl-Latour et al. A rarer find for the willing reader are the Islamic studies publications located one row further.


If you leaf through these a bit, you’ll probably put them back on the shelf rather quickly, irritated with the many footnotes, complicated transcriptions, and the lackluster academic speak all of which command the full attention of the reader, yet without rewarding him with even a hint of reading pleasure.


A literary and poetic quality


Now a German translation of an American publication by Reza Aslan offers much of what these other books had been lacking. No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam quite harmoniously combines reading pleasure with academic knowledge in an easy-to-read tone.


Reza Aslan was born in Iran and emigrated to the United States with his family when he was seven years old. He studied religion at Harvard and also taught at the renowned University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop.


No God but God, Aslan’s first book, reads as if you were sitting at the movies. The stories unfold skillfully and with ease, but not in a linear fashion. Instead, they are interrupted by scenes which Aslan illuminates as if with a spotlight by infusing them with a literary and poetic quality. The reader gets the feeling that he was there in the vast Arabic desert when Mohammad’s followers anxiously waited for the Prophet to arrive for the Hijrah, the migration from Mecca to Medina. Other passages liven up the narrative flow with tales of the author’s traveling experiences or Sufi verses.


The author is simultaneously able to impart a compact lesson on the history of Islam in 300 pages, from Mohammad to the present, and to relate this history to contemporary debates.


Differentiated account of historical events


Over the course of ten chapters, both elementary and pressing issues are addressed: What is jihad really about? Is Islam a bellicose religion? Are its foundations sexist? What kind of a relationship does Islam have to other religions? Laudable in this book is the fact that despite his literary flare, Aslan places emphasis on a differentiated account of historical events. Footnotes and literature are presented by chapter at the end of the book.


Of particular interest in the first two chapters is the introduction to the culture in Mecca in pre-Islamic times. The Quraish tribe, as keepers of the key to the Kaaba, had gained so much power that the tribe structures in Arabia were thrown off balance. For many people this meant they could no longer make a living and were forced to lend money from usurers, ultimately becoming slaves as a result. Mohammad, who was an orphan, was able to escape this fate. He was fortunate enough to have an uncle who protected him until he married the influential tradeswoman Khadijah.


When he later took up the struggle against the economic might of the Quraish, he did so armed with clear reform ideas and social goals. His revolutionary and egalitarian messages eventually forced him to leave Mecca.


9/11 inspiration


Following the September 11th terror attacks, Aslan, who was at the time a visiting professor at the University of Iowa, was surprised by the sudden interest in his introductory courses on Islam. His experiences motivated him to write this book, which was addressed on the one hand to Western audiences who know little about religion in general and even less about Islam. On the other hand, he wanted to demonstrate the modernity of Islam to second-generation Muslims in America.


Aslan thinks that Huntington’s “Clash of civilizations” thesis is inadequate to characterize contemporary developments. He describes the present as a period of internal Islamic reform, or, as he puts it at one point, a “Muslim civil war,” which is accompanied by violence just like all reform upheavals in the past.


In his book and in many of his public appearances, Aslan makes his position clear that victory will come in the end for those forces that understand Islam as compatible with democratic principles. He postulates the rise of an “indigenous democracy” for the Islamic world, for which not secularism but pluralism is the precondition.