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245 of 266 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2013
Iranian born Dr. Reza Aslan was seven years old when his family fled the Iranian revolution and arrived in America. He would grow up a Persian Muslim in a relatively open America. Here he would earn a Master's degree from Harvard Divinity School and his doctorate in the Sociology of Religion from the University of California, Santa Barbara. In other words Dr. Asan grew up in a world where he was very separate and distinct from his surroundings and reacted to the situation by seriously studying the history and meanings behind these distinctions.

In his book No God but God the reader is given the benefit of this thoughtful man's years of study. The majority of this book is a readable and systematic description of the theology and history of the Muslim religion. One of my favorite old Bible stories is that of the "Still Small Voice". The lesson from this story is to ignore the storms and bombast the world can give us and listened to the quiet internal logic of real inspiration. Dr. Aslan would never claim to be the still voice of God, but the tone of his book is that of a calm, confident, and knowledgeable instructor.

In reading the biography of Mohammed we meet a man whose divine inspiration may be a matter of debate in the West; but who lived a life remarkable for his ability to succeed in building one of the world's great religions. Along the way he would negotiate alliances and conduct warfare with and without the advantages that would normally guarantee diplomatic or military victory. The collections of his sayings that would be later assembled into the Koran appear to reflect the co-mixture of the words needed to inspire an Army, promote cooperation from allies and to inspire fear in enemies. What undergirds all of these practical problems is a fundamental belief in promoting a system based on social justice and relief from an existing system that had promoted family good over, community good.

As one who has read the Koran, Dr. Aslan's explanation of how it came to be written allowed me the context to understand the apparent contradictions, which are typical of many sacred texts, and to appreciate why this text is so radically different from others. The Koran is not intended to be read as a history or as a collection of stories. It is a collection of speeches, revelations and instructions to be applied not merely in one's religious life but in one's daily life and the institutional life we would call government.

In trying to interpret the violent extremes present in the modern House of Islam, Dr. Aslan proposes the following hypothesis: The Christian West would undergo a Reformation lasting 100 or more years. During the Reformation conflicting ideas in the pressure to modernize thinking drove people to extreme acts of violence not only against each other but across continents where Christianity was either unknown or not wanted. It is Dr. Aslan's belief that part of what is going on in the contemporary House of Islam is a Muslim version of the Reformation. He believes that the Muslim world long withdrawn from modern influences is increasingly dealing with complexities and issues not found in the writings of Mohammed. This produces all manner of societal stresses. Some of these stresses will be fought out as religious violence. A second manifestation of this process is and will be violence directed at the non-Muslim world. How long this process will take and how severely it will manifest itself is unknown.

I very much hope that Dr. Aslan is correct. My read of Muslim history is that it has gone through cycles of adaptation and modernization followed by periods of repression including violent repression in efforts to restore the presumptive purity of an older time. The non-Muslim world however is under no obligation to tolerate or remain passive in any portion of that Reformation that expresses itself as violence in our house. If No God of but God is correct the events in the House of Islam will eventually burn themselves out with the more moderate face of Islam strengthened with a greater ability to function in a larger modern non-Muslim world. If this interpretation is too optimistic the rest of us must rightly concern ourselves with yet more militant efforts to draw more of this planet into a repressive and backward looking House of Islam.

No God but God has much to teach the Western reader. My recommendation is enthusiastic but conditional. Too much of Western discussion of the Muslim religion is based on shouting, ignorance, and fear. Too many who would make and are making policy decisions seem to believe that any actual knowledge of the "other" is almost a moral failing. The real moral failing is to not take advantage of books like No God but God as part of the process that real morality dictates. It is never enough to let doctrine drive policy. Both must be informed. Dr. Aslan makes a legitimate effort to provide this information.
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107 of 115 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2011
This book is a fascinating read. Starting with the pre-Islamic Arabia, it traces the evolution of Islam all the way to the recent popular pro-democracy uprisings in the middle east - the updated edition that is. Along the way, it marries history with erudite commentary, answers a few dogmatic points of views, & raises, rather honestly, quite a few questions.

Quite a good many of the chapters dwell on the rise of Islam in the desert of the Arabian peninsula, the life of Muhammad & its strife, the power struggles after Muhammad's death, the expansion of Islam to far away corners beyond its humble Arab origins, & the consolidation of the ways & practices into codified religion. It further does a great job of articulating both the evolution & description, if not definition, of the various sects - namely the Sunni, the Shia, & the Sufi.

The tales continue into the modern nineteenth, twentieth & twenty first centuries - the story of Iran is a gripping one - & the book continues its journey into the many ideological branches that evolved in this period - the politics of Islam at battle with colonialism & a fast modernizing world, & the divergent pulls of reformist agendas against fundamentalist ones. Finally, the author speculates a little on the future of Islam, its diaspora in the western world with deep connections to each other & the larger community using the internet.

For me, the chapters on what defines a Muslim, to the extent possible, & the related symbolism of such practices was an eye-opener. Refreshing, & reinvigorating too, was the chapter on the Sufi - I think the author deliberately changed the tone of his writing in this chapter to sound more mystical - as was the content & commentary on the evolution of the Shia sect, its beliefs & symbols. I do think, however, that the author must have had a hard time choosing content from the colonial past to the current times that he thought were integral to the story of development of Islam. The story of Iran finds great resonance while the subcontinent's mention is definitely much more measured - middle-eastern developments & schools of thought being the mainstay of this story. That is not to say that the story is not a credible one, but I'd have thought that the subcontinent's history would have found more utterance than it did in the larger story of Islam. I may be biased, though.

I'd recommend this book very highly to anyone interested in a balanced, honest & unapologetic history of Islam.

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74 of 82 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 2013
This book doesn't simply recount facts, it places you in the desert and gives you a sense of what it might have been like to take sides with the Prophet during the war between Medina and Mecca. A master storyteller, Aslan turns the origin and evolution of the Sunni-Shia divide into an intriguing political yarn filled with all the knots of a modern thriller. I liked how he clearly connected the success of the ultra conservative Wahhabists to the development of the Saudi oil empire. And I loved learning that Sufism is as cool as I always suspected it was (though a great deal more diverse as well).

The only downside is that Aslan's skill as a writer allows him to overemphasize the positive. Somehow in the midst of massacres, assassinations, rivalries, oppression of women, modern extremism, and the dogmatic and even wicked Ulama, Aslan manages to present an idealized Islam that seems downright liberal, like it was born from the European Enlightenment rather than pagan tribalism.

A beautiful vision of what the faith could be.
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71 of 81 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2013
This book has been quite a revelation. As long as we in the West have been involved and engaged with the Middle East, not one American in a thousand could probably tell you anything about the origins, evolution or true beliefs of the Islamic faith. I must admit that I have to include myself in that pathetically provinial group. Although the book seemed to raise as many quetions as it answered, it has provided giant step toward understanding a magnificent culture with albeit, a sickly rogue minority element that tends to destroy the reputation of a good, holy and peace loving majority.
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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.
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63 of 82 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2013
First of all, I am of Middle Eastern origin. I have been in all the Middle Eastern countries except Yemen and Iraq. I have read a lot about Islam, but no where else have I read the history of Arabia before Islam started, and such a detailed account of the early internal conflicts among early Muslims which continue to this very day. This part of the book was very worthwhile.

Toward the end of the book , the whole thing starts to fall apart. Although it is obvious from reading the history of the Arab countries that the big thing holding back their development and culture is the the large, violent splits among the various sects of Islam, in the end, the author falls back on the old, tired excuses to explain why the Middle East has remained such a backwater.

It is all the fault of Western colonialism! The British and Americans are to blame. Frankly I am sick of this point of view! So what if Britain was not the benevolent colonial master, GET OVER IT! That was years ago. Until the Middle Eastern countries accept responsibility for their own cultural and material condition (which is not good), they will never be able to resolve their internal disputes and take a place at the table of nations.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2014
This book caused a lot of discussion, which was my goal. The issue was after reading it no one could really tell what Muslims believe. I have read a translation, and own one, of the Qur'an, 1935 edition, and none of his quotes could be verified. Not a very good academic work. I found the introduction in the actual translation of the Qur'an more beneficial.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2014
It is a great book, really helpful. But what I find more interesting is the way that Reza approach the Christian religion and the Islam. Right before I started reading this book I read "The Zealot", he literally try to kills all your beliefs in Jesus, degrading him to a simple mortal guy. Putting Catholicism and others Christian religions as a mere sects of the Jewish. But when he talks about Islam, all their non sense rites are trascendentals. And he never admitted Islam as a mere syncretism of the Jewish and Christian religions. It is because he's afraid of this people, or because it is what he believe? And comparing Hitler massacre whit the massacre of the Banu Qurayza it is really shameful. Hitler was a twisted Christian, but we never revere him as our "Prophet". This book helped me to understand many things about Islam, and the more I learned make me assure that I will rather be an atheist than a Muslim.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2013
Even though this was a great book, I had no real interest in the subject, so any direction the book went in would not have offended me. While learning many things, and admittedly having some misconceptions going into the book, I found the information on Sufism, the mystical arm of Islam, to be the most fascinating.

I believe that at the heart of every religion, there was originally an esoteric mystic, or group there of. This is fine, at least at first. It's how new religions are birthed. However, at some point the mystic dies, or continuing revelation is deemed dangerous to the status quo, and the State or powers that be put a stop to any new revelations. Now, frozen in time, the religion gradually loses its passion and becomes rigid, dogmatic, and legalistic. How long does this process take?

The Quaker mystic, Thomas Kelly, said, "Perhaps four centuries is the most human beings can possibly be expected to keep alive a participative knowing based on 'continuously renewed immediacy, not receding memory of the Divine Touch.'"

That Islamic Fundamentalist slaughtered Sufis shows that Islam has nothing to do with God and everything to do with controlling the masses, in much the same way that western colonialism loosely draped it's political, economic, and military conquest in Christianity. There is about as much irony there as America continually subverting genuine attempts at Muslim democratic revolutions in order to keep a United States' friendly despot in power.

I find it interesting that when true freedom allows people to choose their beliefs without the use of public or State coercion, the populations gravitate away from religions and more to mysticism. In the US, Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) is the fastest growing segment of believers. In Islamic states where religion is not enforced by the blade of a sword, Sufism flourishes. Sufism is even growing in the United States.

By their very nature, religions are about changing other people. Reza Aslan wrote of the Sufi philosophy in "No god But God," "you can't change your king, but you can change yourself." In fact, the only person in the world that anyone has the power to change is themselves.

Since the Abrahamic religions have continually failed at forcing change by use of the sword, it will be interesting to see the results when everyone stops worrying about everyone else and attempt to fix themselves instead.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2011
In my opinion, this book was a very well done. He chose to tackle a very difficult topic, and he did it with much grace and eloquence. The history section of book was enlightening and thought provoking, with a strong mix of factual based history and beautiful traditional Islamic stories that helped the book to consistently remain engaging and interesting. Most importantly, he was good at being a relatively unbiased author. One of my favorite aspects of the book was that fact that he could show off the beauty and power of this religion without being afraid to point out and discuss any obvious flaws or mistakes. It is a difficult task to be passionate about your culture and faith, and simultaneously strong enough to criticize its faults, discrepancies, and inaccuracies, and my respect for the author is very deep for this reason. I am curious as to how the book would be different if it had been published more recently. Aslan published his book in 2005 and the Arab Spring of earlier this year, along with the latest developments in Egypt and Libya, have greatly affected the prospects of Islamic government in the Middle East. I would be interested in asking him what his interpretations of the uprisings in Middle East are, and what they mean for Islam as a whole. Overall, my understanding and respect for the Islamic faith has greatly increased, and I think that is exactly what Aslan was hoping to do.
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