Sithara's Reviews > No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam

No god but God by Reza Aslan
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Dec 22, 2007

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Read in June, 2007

In this interesting book, Aslan starts each section by presenting 'the idealized' view of a topic, as narrated by early Muslim scholars (what he terms as 'myth') and then presents what he believes 'really happened' (objective history). Myth typically includes miracles, and heroic portrayals of people involved. Those inclined to believe in miracles may have difficulty with this approach, as he says that it doesn't matter whether miracles happened, but what role such myths play in shaping the beliefs of a particular religious community. I disagree with Aslan - it matters a great deal whether the beliefs of a religious community are shaped by actual historical events (including amazing ones) or whether such beliefs are based on falsehood.

I greatly appreciated Aslan's candor about the religious personalities involved. Sunni Islamic scholarship presents early Islamic historical figures almost absolutely perfect human beings. I was always struck at the incongruity of such idealized descriptions and the fact that within a few decades after the death of the Prophet (s), the early Islamic community entered a massive civil war from which one could argue Islam never recovered. How could such a supposedly perfect community get into such a serious mess so quickly? Reading Aslan's descriptions of the personalities involved was very helpful in this regard: they weren't perfect people, but were deeply religious, well meaning people who had their share of faults, misunderstandings, and disagreements which built up over the years, and in the chaotic transition after the Prophet's death, exploded into civil war.

Aslan is unable to hide his obvious, and rather unobjective, disdain of the Ulama. He paints them entirely in a negative light, as a power hungry, control-mad group which has stifled all flexibility from the religion. While this view undoubtedly has a good deal truth to it (I am extremely sympathetic), it must also be admitted that the Scholars did a great deal of work to preserve the religion, and its history, without which we may not even have the religion today, and certainly would know far less about the events surrounding its birth and rise.

On the other hand, Aslan is positive about Sufism, defending all its variations, despite admitting that at least some Sufi beliefs don't square well with the basic Islamic creed, "No God but God." Aslan correctly states that Sufism is not generalizable. But he tries to generalize anyway, which leads to occasional contradictions: for example Aslan states that all Sufis follow Islamic acts of worship such as 5 daily prayers, but then also says that some Sufis believe acts of religious worship are only important for the masses, and others believe it is a shell that can be cast off once deeper layers of spirituality are realized.

Aslan's finishes by presenting his vision of Islam's future. He believes in Islamic pluralism, and believes that it can best be represented by a democracy. Furthermore, he believes that when God's law and the popular will contradict, the popular will should win out. The limits of Islamic pluralism is hotly debated today in the Muslim world, but for me, the claim, "No God but God" is the key to Islam, along with the belief in Muhammad (s) Prophethood. These two aspects should be the backbone of anyone calling themselves a Muslim.

The issue of popular sovereignty over divine law (properly understood and contextualized) is complex. I agree with Aslan, one cannot force on a community any law, including a law from God, over a people who want it implemented in their community. But Aslan leaves it there, but I would argue that every effort should be made to make the community see the wisdom of divine laws, emphasizing positive consequences in implementing them (improved justice, social harmony, etc) and pointing out negatives of not following them (chaotic society, broken down families, etc), both in this world and in the afterlife.
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