No god but God

Review by John C. Snider © 2010

To say that Islam has been getting a bad rap these last few years would be a massive understatement.  All religions–all cultures, for that matter–have their ups and downs, and for the last few decades Islam has definitely been seen by the West as “down.”  9-11 didn’t help matters.

It’s been extremely easy for the Western media to build a black-and-white case against the whole of Islamic civilization: they attacked us; they’re evil; it’s East versus West; we need to kick ass.  This oversimplification of things is made all that much easier by the shocking ignorance of Islam and Islamic history displayed, not just by the man on the street, but by our elected officials and influential policymakers.  One need only look at the complicated and bloody history of Christianity and Western civilization to sense that the history of Islam and the Middle East is no less complicated.  Only a fool would believe that every Muslim is a rabid jihadist determined to destroy Western freedoms, and that every Christian is a saintly martyr who just wants what’s best for everybody–yet that seems to be the worldview espoused by all to0 many of our fellow citizens.

In scholar and pundit Reza Aslan’s 2006 book No god but God, he makes a startling claim: the current violence and unrest from the Islamic world isn’t a “clash of cultures” against the West–it’s a civil war.  What we are seeing are the birth-pangs of Islamic Reformation.

If you think about it for a minute, Aslan’s theory makes a certain amount of sense.  9/11 was horrible and devastating, but it was an anomaly.  Nearly all terrorist activity has been perpetrated on Islamic territory–and that counts the so-called 7/7 bombings in London, which occurred in heavily Muslim neighborhoods.  Aslan maintains that Western bombings like 9/11 and 7/7 are meant as much to rally (or cow) moderate Muslims to the side of the fundamentalists than to strike a blow against the decadent West.

But No god but God isn’t just an analysis of the last nine years: it’s also a eminently readable primer on the history and diversity of the Islamic world.  Aslan provides a biography of Mohammad and an account of the struggle for control of the faithful in the early, expansive days of Islam.  Aslan goes on to outline the emergence of the various branches of Islam (Shiite, Sunni, Sufi, etc.) and to provide some historical context to explain the rise of movements like Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and “Khomeinism” in Iran.

In the end, Aslan (who was born in Iran but raised and educated in America) offers a sympathetic and surprisingly optimistic assessment of the future of progressive Islam.  He believes it is possible to use Islamic ideals of justice, fairness and tolerance to create tolerant, pluralistic societies in the Middle East.  The West subdued Christianity to create an essentially secular society that still calls itself “Christian.”  Surely the Middle East can do the same.  Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait 500 years to see it happen.

No god but God is available at and  Aslan’s latest book is How to Win a Cosmic War (published in US paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism).

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