Monday, June 18, 2007
05:42 No god But God
No god but God: The origins, evolution and future of Islam
Author Reza Aslan has always come across as one of the more reasonable, informed guests on shows like “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Daily Show.” I read “Imperial Life In The Emerald City” after seeing its author on “The Daily Show” so now I’m not only getting my news from Jon Stewart but also my reading list.
Aslan’s book is aimed at the Western non-Islamic reader so that s/he can understand the religion’s current conflicts and their historical origins. “What is taking place now in the Muslin world” writes Aslan “is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West. The West is merely a bystander – an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story.” The conflict is basically between fundamentalists and progressives – a similar battle that rages across most religions and political systems. “Fundamentalism, in all religious traditions, is impervious to suppression. The more one tries to squelch it, the stronger it becomes. Counter it with cruelty, and it gains adherents. Kill its leaders, and they become martyrs. Respond with despotism, and it becomes the sole voice of opposition. Try to control it and it will turn against you. Try to appease it, and it will take control.”
No god But God begins in pre-Islamic Arabia, providing an overview of what Mohammed was reacting against (polytheism, mainly, but also city-state corruption) when he began reciting the word of God. It continues with an overview of Mohammed’s life and the development of the Quran, taking time to address standard complaints about Islam, notably its sexism and being a “religion of the sword.” Addressing these concerns, if Aslan sounds defensive it’s because, well, he is. He attempts to justify ideas one would think incongruous with a peaceful religion through three methods. One: “Everyone else does it, too” (ie Christianity’s history is as bloody as Islam’s). Two: “The Quran has a verse that says NOT to do that bad thing.” Which is fine as an excuse for the scripture, but doesn’t excuse what people do in its name and ignores scripture that contradicts it. The third and final excuse “you have to understand these things in historical context.” This is where my problem with Islam (and other organized religions) begins.
I can not accept any spiritual teaching that explicitly favors part of God’s creation over another, such as proscribing different laws for men and women or members of one tribe versus another. The Quran, the Torah and the Christian Bible all contain such passages. “Historical context” is usually the excuse, but a truly spiritual teaching, not to mention the Word of God, would transcend human history. What would be as true in 6000 BC would be as true in 33 AD and would still be true tomorrow morning. I accept that ideas need to be understood in context, but then I can not accept those ideas as the legitimate edicts of an all-powerful, all-benevolent, eternal God. This applies specifically to Islam, which is said to be the recitation of the Word of God by His prophet Mohammed. Without this claim as divinely inspired speech, the Quran is a nice (abeit inconsistent) book of teachings, no better than most others.
Azlan's book is a great overview of the history of the religion. Islam, like all major religions, is particularly conflicted in the face of science and rational thought. The Muslims are just as skilled as the Christians in tying themselves in theological knots when they attempt to "logically" explain the nature of God. Like all religions, it always falls back on "you just have to believe" with the hidden corollary "if you don't believe, then you have to live with the fact that I believe."