Most helpful critical review
57 of 68 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2014
Let me begin by offering fair concessions. Aslan is a wonderful writer: there are portions of this book that read like poetry, like floating downhill on skis. In addition, much of his history sounds credible. I found great fault with his portrayal of Jesus in Zealot (see my reviews on Amazon and elsewhere), but it appears to me that Aslan knows much more about Islamic history than he does about Christian history.
However, I can't be sure, because almost every subject that he writes about here that I know independently, he gets wrong, or at least offers an extremely one-sided interpretation. And while his goal of reforming Islam to make Muslim societies more open and tolerant is probably noble, it seems to me he falsifies history to accomplish this aim, and holds out a model reformer -- the prophet Mohammed -- who is actually an awful example for any civilized people to follow.
In general, Aslan stands solidly in the tradition of Karen Armstrong and John Esposito, of trying to make Islam palatable for modern Western liberals as well as make liberalism palatable for Muslims. He does this by carefully selecting data, omitting some significant pieces, setting others in a certain light, and contrasting overly negative caricatures of history for Christians (on the Crusades, see Rodney Stark, God's Battalions) with overly positive simplifications of Islamic history -- at least, some parts with which I am familiar.
With Mohammed as with Jesus, his method is to simply pick what he likes, and leave the rest. If hadith say Mohammed did bad things, well they are just hadith, you can't rely on them. But if they say he did good things, Aslan relies on them without clear citations.
But mainly Aslan appeals to the Koran. Here, supposedly, Mohammed is revealed as a great man who heard from God and founded a liberal, multi-religious and reformist community in the Arabian desert that greatly raised the status of women, and furnishes a model of democracy for the modern world.
Is that what we actually find?
Late last year, I read through the entire Koran, and systematically studied every important passage on how "Allah" (or let me say, Mohammed), says we should treat women, and most minor ones. I had previously done the same for the gospels and Acts, and found Jesus really was the great reformer Aslan claims Mohammed to have been. Jesus cared for women, accepted their success, healed them, listened to them, defended them against misogenists, and broke numerous social barriers, without once exploiting the women in his life. The gospels really are revolutionary in their treatment of women.
The Koran shocked me by how consistently manipulative and callous Mohammed was towards women. True, he does seem to challenge female infanticide, and admits that women are spiritual beings who can attain paradise. But he also uses that very fact to control the women in his life, demanding that they remain covered, telling them if they disobey him, for instance kick up a fuss when he steals his foster son's beautiful wife, they will be evicted from their homes, scorned by the community, and THEN incur special punishment in hell. He makes it clear that in general, men are in charge, and can use violence to remain in that position. He says men can expose themselves to (have sex with, I assume this means) their female slaves. I finished reading the Koran quite disgusted with the man, who I am now convinced was just a typical megalomanical cult leader, a tyrant who raped and stole and (yes) committed mass murder (whether or not you want to call it genocide, a distraction Aslan wastes too much time on) against local Jewish communities. (Aslan claims the 700 or so Jewish men he murdered on one occasion only made up a few percent of the Jews in the valley -- which strikes me as ludicrous both demographically and morally -- and makes all the Armstrong-like excuses for these murders, which are too obnoxious to repeat.)
I should insert a short reply to the usual response, that Mohammed was in all this just acting like all the other strong men of his day. No. Mozi and the Jewish prophets had taught the Love of Heaven a thousand years before. Jesus had preached the Sermon on the Mount 500 years before. Mohammed praised Jesus and the prophets, but mostly by inserting his own doctrines into their mouths, not by building on their moral teachings in a very impressive way. (Though no doubt he was partially influenced, for instance in his strictures on female infanticide.)
After Aslan gets done white-washing Mohammed's career, he tells the story of Islam, then ends with an account of reform-minded Muslims, a group to which he belongs. I object much less to these two parts of the book -- they are quite well-done, and SOUND credible enough, to an outsider like myself, for the most part. But even there, I found some serious errors, aside from bizarrely building the foundation of his hopes for pluralism and democracy on a cruel dictator who put words in God's mouth to justify his own crimes.
That's an overview: no doubt some Aslan fans are angry with me. But let me now cite specific claims Aslan makes, and explain why I think they are terribly mistaken.
"Islam preaches the continual self-revelation of God from Adam down to all the prophets who have ever existed in all religions." (35)
Nonsense, unless you define "prophet" as "someone who can be made to agree with Islam." Mohammed's own method is to take Islamic doctrines and put them in Jesus' mouth.
But there is nothing in the Quran about God speaking through Buddhists or Hindus and not much through Arab shamans, though Mohammed was no doubt influenced by them. One gathers Mohammed, to give him credit, would also have been close-minded about human sacrifice in Central America, and the gods that provoked it. Aslan seems to be imposing a modern liberal Pluralism on his own religious community -- which does not strike me as very tolerant.
"Minority faiths would be protected from harm and allowed complete social and political participation in the community, just as they were in Medina." (265)
A scary thought, considering that thousands of Jews escaped Medina with barely the clothes on their backs, or were killed, after Mohammed came to town -- though they had a high status before that, as Aslan himself points out. Let us not mention pagan religions. No, on this front, I think the present Saudi government can claim to follow Mohammed's style -- which also included torture and assassination of critcs -- perhaps even a bit laxly.
"Perhaps nowhere was Mohammed's struggle for economic redistribution and social egalitarianism more evident than in the rights and privileges he bestowed upon the women in his community . . .Mohammed . . . strove to give women the opportunity to attain some level of equality and independence in society . . . "
This is perverse. Aslan seems a little embarrassed to remind readers that Mohammed's own initial position in society depended on marrying an already rich and independant woman -- he CLAIMS this was a rare exception, without offering any evidence.
In fact, the Koran specifies that men and women are NOT equal: not equal in court or anywhere else. Men are superior to women. Aslan uses the weasel words "some level of" to acknowledge that in fact, he did NOT think women were equal to men.
Personally, reading the Koran for myself and noting everything to do with women, I am convinced Mohammed himself is responsible for the fact, reflected for instance in a UN survey of 99 countries, that the status of women today is lower in Muslim countries than almost anywhere else.
"It is a religion that Samuel Huntington has portrayed as steeped in 'bloody borders.' This deep-rooted stereotype of Islam as a warrior religion has its origins in the papal propaganda of the Crusades." (80)
Poppycock. First of all, Huntington ascribed the bloodiness of Islamic boundaries, which is an empirical fact, not to the inherent nature of Islamz, but to an excess of unemployed young men.
But more importantly, Pope Urban called Europeans to go to the DEFENSE of the Byzantines -- read his speeches! Why? Because by that time, Islam had IN FACT already conquered half of Christendom!
This is thus an outstanding example of that sordid phenomena, blaming the victim. You can't go conquering millions of square miles of territory without eventually making someone upset.
zzzzzzzzzzzAslan admits that Islam did in fact spread by the sword, but then claims this was just an "existing fracas" and does not pecularly define Islam -- "everyone else was doing it."
But everyone else was not. Christianity spread for 300 years before it was made legal, and almost 400 years before it used force. Jesus set no such example, Reza Aslan's silly Zealot aside. (See my reviews.) Buddhism has also spread peacefully for the most part. Modern Hinduism does in some sense begin with a justification of warfare -- the Baghavad Gita -- but it did not much spread beyond India, certainly not by violence. Confucianism, Taoism, and other Chinese schools also made use of persuasion, for the most part, except for the Legalist school. Islam is NOT unique in its violent propagation -- the Tai Pings and Communists are two even more violent religions, and mesoAmerican religions were rather imperial -- but perception of Islam as inherently violent is neither new nor irrational.
Aslan often makes use of that popular "liberal" device, "Christians did it too, and worse!" Whenever he has to touch on some particularly unpleasant episode in Muslim history, he pulls out this or some other standard card in the standard playdeck. A few such plays are no doubt fair enough, but this gets tiresome -- almost no one does this when they decry the Inquisition. Plus I don't think he really understands Christianity very well. The comment, "It is principly one's beliefs that make one a faithful Christian" is an astounding, and astoundingly obtuse simplification of an eternal debate and an eternal balance within Christian theology. Aslan seems to ascribe most of the good in colonialism -- what there was of it -- to Enlightenment values, and must of the evil to Christianity. But read Mangalwadi or Sanneh or Yuan Zhiming, and you get the feeling it was more credibly the other way around, roughly speaking.
This may, in some ways, be a good book. I think most readers, if they do not know too many contrary facts, will enjoy it. I THINK I learned quite a bit about Islamic history, about Sufism and Shia, for instances, from it -- if what Aslan says about things I am ignorant on, are more reliable than what he says about subjects I know something about. And I THINK Aslan's motives may be praise-worthy at times.
But I cannot recommend it with a clean conscience. zI do not think Aslan has honestly struggled with the foundational text of Islam, nor does he represent it at all accurately. I do not think Muslims will make their societies better if they follow the example of Mohammed, and should not be encouraged to do so.