Like lots of Westerners, I probably don’t know enough about Islam. I read No god by God (recommended by Catherine) in hopes of correcting that deficiency. It was a good choice.
Reza Aslan is a young, Iranian-born-but-living-in-America, scholar of Islam. I have no idea how other Muslims regard Aslan or this book, but he seems to be the perfect author to introduce Western readers to the origins and history of Islam.
The early chapters tell the story of Muhammed and the rise of Islam. This section is beautifully written and easy to follow. Aslan writes from the perspective of an educated, critical scholar who is also a believer approaching these stories with reverence — in other words, he writes abut Muhammed the way someone like N.T. Wright writes about Jesus. I learned a lot I didn’t know before from this part of the book.
The later chapters, which trace the development of Islam from the time of Muhammed’s death down to the present day, got confusing at times, but I think this was more my problem than Aslan’s. There were just so many names and places to keep track of, but at least I emerged with somewhat of a picture of the complexity of Islam as a religion, some of the different views of how to interpret the Quran, and at least a sketchy idea of what Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Sufis are and how they differ from one another.
One of my favourite parts of the book was, unfortunately, one of the briefest. Aslan opens a chapter on the Iranian Revolution and the Iran of today by describing his own experience as an adult returning to Iran for the first time since leaving with his parents many years ago. This was the only part of the book in which he spoke in first person and gave the reader a glimspe into his own perspective and experience as a Muslim, and I wish there had been more of that. I enjoyed and learned from the history, but given my love for memoir I wanted to know more about the author and how he came to the understanding of Islam that he has today.
Aslan’s basic thesis is that Islam is undergoing a reformation not unlike the Christian reformation of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (as he points out, Islam is also now in its fifteenth century) and will emerge a very different religion. He also believes that democratic Islamic states are possible, but that the democracy of an Islamic state would have to arise naturally as something rooted in Islamic teachings and ideals, rather than a Western ideal imposed from outside. I learned a lot from this book and was left with many intriguing questions to ponder about Islam. In a world where the US is still at war in Iraq and Canadian soldiers are still dying from Taliban bombs in Afghanistan, every Westerner should have a better understanding of Islam, and this book is an excellent place to start.