I just finished reading Reza Aslan’s No god but God,which I picked up after watching the author interviewed on The Daily Show and reading Phil Carter’s recommendation over at Intel Dump. The author succeeds at his main task — explaining the history of Islam, from its origins in the Arabian desert, through the life of Mohammed, to the various changes and schisms that have brought us to the present day. Like any good history writer, though, Aslan’s main goal is to put forth an argument. I’ll get to that argument in a bit.
If you go into the book wanting to know how Islamists, Islamic fundamentalists, Wahabbis, Salafists, Shiites, Sunnis, and Sufis all differ from each other and where they come from, you’ll walk away happy. The book is a primer on Islam and its history, but it’s written in an engaging way. It’s no surprise to me that Aslan considers himself to be a novelist rather than a historian. The figures you encounter in the book are vividly drawn, and the stories are all well told, making the book difficult to put down.
Throughout the book, Aslan describes a struggle between two schools of theology, which he initially introduces as the Traditionalists and the Rationalists. As becomes apparent as you read the book, Aslan believes that while the Traditionalists have won out historically, the Rationalists are the ones who got it right. To oversimplify his definitions, rationalists believe that while the Quran is God’s message humanity, it is an artifact of the time it was written and is thus subject to interpretation based on its historical context. Traditionalists, on the other hand, believe that the Quran is an unchanging document equally applicable for all time, and that any sort of rational interpretation is precluded.
This ought to sound familiar to Americans. Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible is literally true and thus should not be interpreted or considered metaphorical in any way. The secular form of this argument is put forth by legal scholars in the form of “strict construction,” a belief that the US Constitution should not be interpreted based on its historical context either. Aslan goes on to explain the impact that this “traditionalist” thinking has had on Islam over the years and the need for modern Islam to return to rationalism. It’s also obvious that he believes that despite the labels, rationalism is much more in keeping with the philosophy and beliefs of Mohammed than traditionalism. I’d make similar arguments about the Bible and Constitution as well.
Since 9/11, I have felt compelled to learn what I can about Islam. Not only because we were attacked by Muslims and have since then America has invaded two Muslim countries, but because our relations with Muslims will define the next period of US history. After reading No god but God, I feel a lot less ignorant than I did before, and found the book to be thought provoking and entertaining as well. I recommend it highly.
For more on the book, see this Blogcritics interview with the author.