PERSONAL: Born in Iran; immigrated to United States. Education: Santa Clara University, B.A.; Harvard University, Master of Theological Studies; University of Iowa, M.F.A.; University of California, Santa Barbara, doctoral candidate. Religion: Islam.
CAREER: Writer. Friends' Committee on National Legislation, Washington, DC, former legislative assistant; University of Iowa, Iowa City, former visiting assistant professor of Islamic and Middle East studies; Iowa Writers' Workshop, former Truman Capote fellow in fiction.
MEMBER: World Conference on Religion and Peace (president of Harvard chapter).
No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to popular and scholarly periodicals.
SIDELIGHTS: Reza Aslan, an Iranian who now lives in the United States, is the author of No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. The book sprang from the classes Aslan taught about religion in general and Islam in particular at the University of Iowa. "I was genuinely surprised at how popular these courses were and the hunger that people had to learn about the things I was talking about," particularly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Aslan told Blog Critics.org interviewer Keith Gottschalk. No God but God was written in part to help non-Muslim Americans understand Islam, but the book also has another purpose. As Aslan explained to Gottschalk, the book is also written for "first and second generation Muslims growing up in America as I did…. I wanted to explain to them that Islam is not an exotic religion of the past but a modern religion that can be adaptable."
Aslan starts at the beginning of the history of Islam, explaining what religious life was like in the Middle East before Mohammed, and then continues through to the present day. However, he reads the most recent two centuries of Muslim history differently than many scholars. To Aslan, the Western colonization of Muslim lands in the 1800s sparked a "Reformation" in Islam, as the residents and rulers of these Muslim lands were forced to confront the technological superiority of Western Christian countries. Aslan sees the recent spate of terrorism, ostensibly aimed at Western nations, as a continuation of this intrafaith struggle between Islam's conservative and modernizing factions. Aslan concludes the book with a plea for Muslims to endorse the progressive side of Islam and for Middle Eastern countries to embrace a Muslim form of democracy.
Aslan makes several arguments that may not sit well with more conservative modern Muslims. He blames the current conservative state of Islam on the clerical establishment, which, he claims, perverted the original Muslim state Mohammed established in Medina. According to Aslan, this community was progressive, egalitarian, and tolerant, a state of affairs Aslan says is well supported by the Quran. However, in the decades after Mohammed's death 700,000 "hadith"—brief stories that purport to record events in Mohammed's life and things he said—were created. Most of these hadith, Aslan argues, "were unquestionably fabricated by individuals who sought to legitimize their own particular beliefs and practices by connecting them with the Prophet." Aslan places the roots of the misogyny of modern Islam, for example, squarely in these apocryphal hadith. Thus, he argues, the progressive side of the current intra-Muslim struggle conforms more closely to the faith's original ideals.
Although No God but God is a work of history, Aslan's background as a fiction writer is apparent in his use of "vivid details and like-you-were-there, present-tense narration," John Green noted in Booklist. Houston Chronicle contributor William Grimes also commented on Aslan's writing skill, praising No God but God as "grippingly narrated and thoughtfully examined … a literate, accessible introduction to Islam."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Aslan, Reza, No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
Booklist, March 1, 2005, John Green, review of No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, p. 1114.
Houston Chronicle, May 27, 2005, William Grimes, "Struggle for Islam's Soul: Is the West a Bystander in an Internal Religious Rivalry?"
Library Journal, March 1, 2005, Gary P. Gillum, review of No God but God, p. 90.
Publishers Weekly, February 14, 2005, review of No God but God, p. 73.
Agonist, http://www.agonist.org/ (April 29, 2005), Sean-Paul Kelley, interview with Aslan.
Alternet, http://www.alternet.org/ (April 28, 2005), Lakshmi Chaudhry, "The Future of Islam."
Blog Critics.org, http://blogcritics.org/ (April 8, 2005), Keith Gottschalk, interview with Aslan.
Reza Aslan Home Page, http://www.rezaaslan.com (June 24, 2005).