06 November 2007

"No God But Allah"

Reza Aslan's book "No god but God" has the subtitle: The origins, evolution and future of Islam. Thus the scope of the book is made clear to us. It is not a conventional history of Islam. It covers the following topics:
Origins - Pre-Islamic Arabia; Muhammad in Mecca; the first Muslims; from Medina to Mecca; the first Caliphs
Evolution - Theology and law; Shiism; Sufism; response to colonialism
Future - Islamic reformation

Thus half the book deals with only the first 50 years of Islam (the remaining 1350 years of history are dismissed in one page). The second half of the book deals with the development of the religion. And in the final chapter, the author gives us his view on what is happening in Islam today, and where it is headed.

So what does Reza Aslan say? In his introduction he says that critics will call his work an "apology". But he proudly embraces this label, saying that 'apology' means 'defence', and that there can be no higher calling than defending one's faith. He then proceeds to defend his faith. He describes the historical, social and religious context in which Islam arose (which he believes is crucial to understanding the religion). He sets down what he thinks is the correct Islamic view on issues such as the status of women, Muslim-Jew/Christian relations, meaning of Jihad, etc.

Aslan's knowledge of Islam is very deep. He is also a very sophisticated spokesman. It is more difficult to find holes in his arguments (compared to Karen Armstrong). But one pattern is clear: where he has a strong case, he dwells in detail; and where he's on a weak wicket, he moves ahead quickly. We must also remember that he is a Shiite. So where he talks about issues over which Sunnis and Shiites disagree, we have to take his words with a pinch of salt.

One problem with "No god but God" (a problem that most books on Islam suffer from) is that it focusses mostly on West Asia. It doesn't cover Islam in India in enough depth. A separate study of Islam in South Asia is necessary for two reasons. One, Islam in India has its own special characteristics. For example, the dominant school of Islamic law here is the Hanafi, as against the Hanbali in West Asia. Also, Sufism has had a far greater influence in the subcontinent than in the rest of the Islamic world. Two, Muslims are a minority here. When Muslims are a minority in a country, it throws up a whole lot of interesting questions - which do not arise in West Asia (where they are the overwhelming majority).

As a devout Muslim, Aslan does his duty of defending and explaining Islam. There is no doubt that he is a liberal, moderate and progressive Muslim. He sticks his neck out on many occasions, saying things that Islamic fundamentalists will find unacceptable, and will oppose violently. At the same time, there are many other things he says that we will find difficult to agree with. For example, he says that Islam respects other religions, but this respect is reserved only for monotheistic religions. Polytheists and idol worshippers are given two options: convert to Islam, or die.

All in all, it is a scholarly and well-written work that adds to our understanding of this intriguing faith.

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