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No god but God: The Origins and Evolution of Islam Hardcover – February 8, 2011

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About the Author

REZA ASLAN has studied religions at Santa Clara University, Harvard University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He holds an MFA in fiction from the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in fiction. The original adult edition of No god but God was listed by Blackwell Publishers as one of the hundred most important books of the past decade. Born in Iran, Reza Azlan now lives in Los Angeles, where he is associate professor of creative writing at UC Riverside.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


Religion in Pre-Islamic Arabia

A Brief Word on Prophets and Religion

Prophets do not create religions. Because all religions are bound to the social, spiritual, and cultural landscapes from which they arose and in which they developed, prophets must be understood as reformers who redefine and reinterpret the existing beliefs and practices of their communities. Indeed, it is most often the prophet's successors who take upon themselves the responsibility of fashioning their master's words and deeds into unified, easily comprehensible religious systems.

Like so many prophets before him, the Prophet Muhammad never claimed to have invented a new religion. On the contrary, by Muhammad's own admission, his message was an attempt to reform the existing religious beliefs and cultural practices of pre-Islamic Arabia so as to bring the God of the Jews and Christians to the Arab peoples. "[God] has established for you [the Arabs] the same religion enjoined on Noah, on Abraham, on Moses, and on Jesus," the Quran says (42:13). It should not be surprising, therefore, that Muhammad would have been influenced as a young man by the religious landscape of pre-Islamic Arabia. As unique and divinely inspired as the Islamic movement may have been, its origins are undoubtedly linked to the multiethnic, multireligious society that fed the Prophet's imagination as a young man and allowed him to craft his revolutionary message in a language that would have been easily recognizable to the pagan Arabs he was so desperately trying to reach. For whatever else Muhammad may have been, he was, without question, a man of his time. And so, to truly understand the nature and meaning of Muhammad's message, we must travel back in time to that intriguing yet ill-defined era of paganism that Muslims refer to as the Jahiliyyah--"the Time of Ignorance."

The Time of Ignorance: Arabia, the Sixth Century C.E.

In the arid, desolate basin of Mecca, surrounded on all sides by the bare mountains of the Arabian desert, stands a small, nondescript sanctuary that the ancient Arabs refer to as the Ka'ba: the Cube. The Ka'ba is a squat, roofless structure made of unmortared stones and sunk into a valley of sand. Its four walls--so low a young goat could leap over them--are swathed in strips of heavy cloth. At its base, two small doors are chiseled into the gray stone, allowing entry into the inner sanctum. It is here, inside the cramped interior of the sanctuary, that the gods of pre-Islamic Arabia reside.

In all, there are said to be three hundred sixty idols housed in and around the Ka'ba, representing every god recognized in the Arabian Peninsula: from the Syrian god Hubal and the powerful Egyptian goddess Isis to the Christian god Jesus and his holy mother, Mary. During the holy months, pilgrims from all over the Peninsula make their way to this barren land to visit their tribal deities. They sing songs of worship and dance in front of the gods; they make sacrifices and pray for health. Then, in a remarkable ritual--the origins of which are a mystery--the pilgrims gather as a group and rotate around the Ka'ba seven times, some pausing to kiss each corner of the sanctuary before being captured and swept away again by the current of bodies.

The pagan Arabs gathered around the Ka'ba believe their sanctuary to have been founded by Adam, the first man. They believe that Adam's original edifice was destroyed by the Great Flood, then rebuilt by Noah. They believe that after Noah, the Ka'ba was forgotten for centuries until Abraham rediscovered it while visiting his firstborn son, Ismail, and his concubine, Hagar, both of whom had been banished to this wilderness at the behest of Abraham's wife, Sarah. And they believe it was at this very spot that Abraham nearly sacrificed Ismail before being stopped by the promise that, like his younger brother, Isaac, Ismail would sire a great nation, the descendants of whom now spin over the sandy Meccan valley like a desert whirlwind.

Of course, these are just stories intended to convey what the Ka'ba means, not where it came from. The truth is that no one knows who built the Ka'ba, or how long it has been here. It is likely that the sanctuary was not even the original reason for the sanctity of this place.

It is also possible that the original sanctuary held cosmological significance for the ancient Arabs. Many of the idols in the Ka'ba were associated with the planets and stars; additionally, the legend that they totaled three hundred sixty in number suggests astral connotations. The pilgrims' seven "turnings" around the Ka'ba may have been intended to mimic the motion of the heavenly bodies. It was, after all, a common belief among ancient peoples that their temples and sanctuaries were terrestrial replicas of the cosmic mountain from which creation sprang. The Ka'ba, like the Pyramids in Egypt or the Temple in Jerusalem, may have been constructed as an axis mundi: a sacred space around which the universe revolves, the link between the earth and the solid dome of heaven.

Alas, as with so many things about the Ka'ba, its origins are mere speculation. The only thing scholars can say with any certainty is that by the sixth century c.e., this small sanctuary made of mud and stone had become the center of religious life in pre-Islamic Arabia: the time known as Jahiliyyah.

The Pagan Arabs

Traditionally, the Jahiliyyah has been defined by Muslims as an era of moral depravity and religious discord: a time when the sons of Ismail had obscured belief in the one true God and plunged the Arabian Peninsula into the darkness of idolatry. But then, like the rising of the dawn, the Prophet Muhammad emerged in Mecca at the beginning of the seventh century, preaching a message of absolute monotheism and uncompromising morality. Through the revelations he received from God, Muhammad put an end to the paganism of the Arabs and replaced the Time of Ignorance with the universal religion of Islam.

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Product Details

  • Age Range: 9 - 12 years
  • Grade Level: 4 - 7
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (February 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385739753
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385739757
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.7 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (80 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,143,221 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dr. Reza Aslan's bachelor's degree is in religious studies, with an emphasis on scripture and traditions (which at Santa Clara University means the New Testament). His minor was in biblical Greek. He has a master of theological studies degree from Harvard University, in world religions, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the sociology of religions. UCSB's doctoral program is an interdisciplinary one that draws from religion, history, philosophy, and sociology, among other fields. Aslan's doctorate in the sociology of religions encompasses expertise in the history of religion. Reza also has a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa.

Dr. Aslan is currently professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, with a joint appointment in the department of religion, and he teaches in both disciplines. He was previously Wallerstein Distinguished Visiting Professor at Drew University, where he taught from 2012 to 2013, and assistant visiting professor of religion at the University of Iowa, where he taught from 2000 to 2003. He has written three books on religion.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Please note that this book, published under Random House's "Ember" imprint, is an abridged version of author Reza Aslan's original book, edited for teen readers. Do not confuse this product with the original edition for adults. The two can be distinguished by looking closely at the title: the adult version contains the phrase "Origins, Evolution, and Future", whereas the teen edition contains only "Origins and Evolution". The updated adult edition can be found here: No god but God (Updated Edition): The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam
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Reza Aslan's original book 'No god but God', is a very strong and educational historical work, providing much information on Islam, for both Muslims and non- Muslims. It's a book which provided this writer with useful knowledge in discussions with some Muslims several years ago.

Aslan's new work is designed for the young reader, but is really excellent for every age. It is concise in its historical review of pre-Islam Arab tribes/communities, through to modern day Islam, delineating the differences between the Shia and Sunni, providing a basic understanding of how the religion has been used as a political as well as religious entity. Although only 140 pages long, plus a time-line, map, bibliography, and, of course, index, the book is a wellspring of knowledge on the subject.

Both editions should be read; there is much greater detail in the original version, and reading the current book will more than likely be a help in better understanding of some of that text's contents. One fact is certain - 'No god but God' is one book our country's leaders should read, since I believe it provides a clear and concise understanding of what the West is dealing with in its struggle against radical Islamic political and associated terrorist activities.
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As a fan of Reza Aslan’s work, (I had read ‘Zealots: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth’ before) I dwelved into this book to get a deeper understanding of what Islam is really about. Having read the “adult” version of this book, I felt that this book was a little more ingenuous than the original which is great for introductory readers. Aslan writes the book with intention of providing a historical background for both muslim and non muslims. His arrangement and delivery of the concept and ideas are thorough and easily understandable.
Aslan starts off with a brief history on preislamic Arabia. This helps ease the reader into understanding many different concepts of Islam, it even helps explain how and why certain traditions exist. Some may have been around and merely adopted while others were in order to reduce or replace an action that existed or was happening. The author does a great job in historically defining every aspect of how modern day Islam came to be. He starts off with historical background information on preislamic Arabia, moves into the life and times of Prophet Muhammad, and continues into modern day Islam. He even goes into detail on differences between Sunnis and Shiites. He also covers more modern/ controversial topics concerning Islamic propaganda(jihad, both internal and external struggle), political affiliations, media portrayal and religious Islamic extremism.
Though the book provides more than enough information on the history of Islam, I feel like there was a little bit more need to focus on many different traditions that exist in islam and why they exist in such manner. Aslan could talk more about maybe pilgrimage, prayers, fasting during Ramadan, etc. This would provide and even greater understanding of the religion and its practices.
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I had this book already, but wanted to buy a copy of it for a friend, I like it that much. Unfortunately, I didn't read the reviews and didn't know until this was delivered that it's for kids. It's my own fault, I guess, but I'm really not happy. The information that it's an abridged version should be displayed more prominently somewhere. Since I should have checked more before ordering this, I won't send it back. I'll give it to someone with a young person who may be interested and order another one for my friend.

Other than that, the book got to me quickly and it new.
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I am about half-way through it at the moment. I bought it because of Asian's book on Jesus (Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth). It doesn't appear to be as thorough a study as the Jesus book, but it does cover the early life and endeavors of the prophet Mohammed - a subject that has not been nearly explored enough by historians.
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UPDATE: Just read some of the other reviews and realized this is the abridged version...
Well that's just frustrating... I don't think it changes my review, but maybe explains why I didn't like it very much.


I'm not religious, but find religion fascinating. I also find islamic history very interesting, without knowing a whole lot about it.

I read Zealot and enjoyed that and was interested in seeing what Aslan brought to a history of Islam.

I wanted to understand both the history and beliefs of islam better.

A few areas where I wasn't satisfied.
1. As in Zealot, Aslan frequently doesn't distinguish when he is talking about what believers believe vs. what historians believe. I had several cases where I couldn't tell if what I was reading was what the koran said or what historians had verified. I know there is a balance (ie it would have been a SLOW book if every sentence was marked as history or koran).. but a chapter or two saying which was which would have been great..
2. Almost no time was spent on the basic islamic traditions... Why pray 5 times a day? What about the major holidays? etc... I don't think I really learned much about the religion itself.
3. He more or less abruptly stops long before modern times. Very little attention is paid to how modern Islam came about (for example, s***e and sunni are mentioned, but not followed through on... seems like these are sort of a big deal in modern islam, right?).
4. In the last few chapters, Aslan tries to explain why some of the uglier beliefs of Islam (attitude towards women, jihad, etc) are misinterpretations of the real message.
Which is fine.
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