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No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam Paperback – January 10, 2006
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From The New Yorker
Aslan, a young Iranian emigrant, lucidly charts the growth of Islam from Muhammad's model community in Medina—depicted as a center of egalitarian social reform—through the chaotic contest to define the faith after the Prophet's death. Within generations, seven hundred thousand hadith—accounts of Muhammad's words and deeds—were in circulation, many "fabricated by individuals who sought to legitimize their own particular beliefs." Out of this muddle was born the primacy of the ulema, Islam's clerical establishment. The ulema, in Aslan's view, foreclosed Koranic interpretation, detoured from the Medinan ideal, and obscured Islam under a thicket of legalistic decrees. Fifteen centuries after Muhammad, Islam has reached the age at which Christianity underwent its reformation; Islam's renewal, Aslan attests, "is already here." However, both modernizers and their "fundamentalist" opposites call themselves reformers, and the victory of the former is not assured.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Aslan's introduction to the history of Islam, which also devotes several chapters to the place of Islam in the contemporary world, tackles its subject with serious and well-informed scholarship. But, miracle of miracles, it's actually pretty fun to read. Beginning with an exploration of the religious climate in the years before the Prophet's Revelation, Aslan traces the story of Islam from the Prophet's life and the so-called golden age of the first four caliphs all the way through European colonization and subsequent independence. Aslan sees religion as a story, and he tells it that way, bringing each successive century to life with the kind of vivid details and like-you-were-there, present-tense narration that makes popular history popular. Even so, the depth and breadth here will probably be a bit heavy for some, who might better enjoy Karen Armstrong's shorter, if less authoritative, Islam (2000). That said, this is an excellent overview that doubles as an impassioned call to reform. John Green
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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No god but God, written 10 years before Zealot, includes a rather definitive discussion of the definition of “religion” as the story of faith. This definition is informative of the author’s perspective and will continue into his later work about the historical Jesus. Religion “…is an institutionalized system of symbols and metaphors (read rituals and myths) that provides a common language with which a community of faith can share with each other their numinous encounter with the Divine Presence. Religion is concerned not with genuine history, but with sacred history, which does not course through time like a river.”
Aslan dismisses the “clash of culture” arguments and focuses on the “clash of monotheisms” (much the same as the clash between Christians and Jews is a clash of monotheisms).
The book seems to be three monographs, woven together, very effectively.
First Aslan discusses Arabia in the Period of Innocence, from which Mohammad emerges and develops the Islamic traditions.(Chapters 1-2) Second, Aslan takes the reader through the trials, tribulations and triumphs of his tribe and his followers. (Chapters 3-5) as Islam is developed into its own unique set of symbols and myths. These chapters carry stories of the Islamic traditions through Mohammad’s death and for centuries to today (chapters 6-7), including a wonderful chapter on Sufism. (Chapter 8). And the third “monograph” brings the reader to about 2010, the story of Islam in these latter centuries (Chapters 9-11), perhaps more rightly focused on the colonialized period of Arabia. In this “monograph”, Aslan seems to be caught up in his own dream for the future, and that dream is highly influenced by his being born in Tehran and then (my words), in exile for some 24 years before his return for a visit. His hopes anddream does not change the wisdom of his scholarship, however.
Aslan develops clearly and historically the roles of Mecca and Medina within the both the Arabic and the Muslim traditions.
Regardless of the Arabic traditions of retaliation and restitution, Aslan perceives Islam as focused on community, inclusiveness (equality) and love. Mohammad, as Aslan describes, extended the Arab concept of tribe as the fundamental organizing unit of society, to be a “neo-tribe” that “because neither ethnicity or culture nor race nor kinship had any significance to Muhammad, the Ummah (tribe), unlike a traditional tribe, had an almost unlimited capacity for growth through conversion.” With regard to traditional tribal concepts of retribution, Mohammad’s revelation of the Word of God as written in the Qur’an states, “The retribution for an injury is an equal injury, but those who forgive the injury and make reconciliation will be rewarded by God.” The community of Islam was being created on the basis of moral and egalitarian ideals.
These positive attributes are overshadowed in the past several hundred years by colonialism, Western evangelization (of culture and religion and faith), which does not recognize the combination of Arabic tribes and Muslim community perspectives. Western installed and supported tribal leaders have only force by which to maintain legitimacy.
BUT, Aslan does not provide a one-sided argument. He clearly states the failure of Islam to evolve into the Modern world is the result of its theology being controlled by a small group of clerics, who position themselves as the only credible interpreters of the Qur’an. They are responsible for making the body politic subservient to the religion of Islam. This is not consistent with Mohammad’s teachings, or the Qur’an. While Aslan perceives Islam to be in a prolonged period of reformation, today, he notes the conflict between the role of a Caliphate as defined by Mohammad being limited to secular functions, and the role of clerics being limited to religious functions.
Until this internal conflict is resolved, globally, there will be splinter groups who claim power in the name of Islam.
A very valuable perspective on the world today.