Wednesday, May 25, 2016

No god but God by Reza Aslan (Book Review #23 of 2016)


No god but God: The Origins and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan
This is really two different books together. I give the first half a star and a half due to the disengenous and unscientific nature of Aslan's writing. The second half, however, I find to be much more interesting and informative. I do not recommend reading Aslan's book by itself; I completed this book among several others on the history of Islam and the Middle East and several by modern Muslims highlighting injustice and pushing for reforms. Books regarding the history of Islam include Tom Holland's The Shadow of the Sword (5 stars), Robert Hoyland's In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (4 stars), Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted (4.5 stars), Malise Ruthven's Islam: A Very Short Introduction, and Michael Cook's Very Short Introduction to the Koran.  I found Ansary's book to be the most similar to the second half of Aslan's book, probably because of its similar highlights of Sufi and Shiia history since both Aslan and Ansary are quite familiar with those. Reform texts that I read include Heretic by Ayan Hirsi Ali (4 stars), Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars), and Mona Eltawahy's Headscarves and Hymens (3.5 stars).  I also listened to Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz's interfaith dialogue which I found uninformative (1 star) and Robert Spencer's Islam Unveiled (1 star).

Mansfield's Brief History of the Middle East (3.5 stars), and Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples (4.5 stars) were also helpful.

The first half of the book is written as an apologetic of Islam, the Koran, and the life of the prophet Muhammad. Having read Aslan's Zealot, in which he pulls from others invented narratives about Jesus, James, and Paul, I was not surprised to find Aslan's exegetical fallacies in this book; he has only a rudimentary understanding of historical criticism, good exegesis, and hermeneutics. Where he admits "pure speculation" it is only in passing and does not deter him from writing pure speculation as actual, historical fact-- just as in Zealot. His lack of actual exegesis ruined his attempt to analyze the Pauline epistles in his book Zealot, and it ruins much of his early chapters here. The difference is that in Zealot, Aslan set out to demolish the validity of historical Christianity by speculating things into the Bible that do not make logical sense whereas in this work he sets out to affirm the writings of the Koran. He never really engages with the analysis of someone like Tom Holland, who gives evidence of the Koran being a product of its historical context and pre-existing narratives in the Middle East. Aslan repeatedly chooses to tell a story by choosing certain hadiths that fit his preferred narrative, rather than noting that scholars differ as the reliability of the overlapping hadiths.

"The Clash of Monotheism" - Aslan begins with the heated rhetoric after 9/11/2001 and the "surge" of Christian missionaries into the Middle East, of which Aslan highlights a particularly bad anecdotal example. I reject his strawman because I knew missionaries (some of whom lost their lives) delivering aid, building schools, working in hospitals and orphanages, digging wells, and doing all they could to blend into the culture unoffensively, learning the language and respecting customs.

"Prophets have the goal of forming national identity in their prophecies," is a claim that may sound good but does not hold up to historical scrutiny either. Some prophets are lone madmen in the desert. "Religion is by definition interpretation," and while interpretations may by definition be valid "some are more reasonable than others." That is a bit too subjective for my preference, not all interpretations of sacred texts are exegetically and hermeneutically sound. Aslan writes that the Prophet's goal was not only national identity, but "moral egalitarianism" and he labors to prove this point with a mixture of relying on minority interpretations of key words and painting a narrative from his choice of history from hadiths and his own "speculation." Muhammad did not invent ethical monotheism, but Aslan might lead you to believe as such.

The author describes what is known about the region of Muhammad prior to his birth. The Kabaa, central to Islam, is "shrouded in mystery." There were plenty of worshipped polytheistic deities in Arabia prior to Muhammad, worshippers alongside Christians of various sects, Zoroastrians, Jews, and others. One sight in Yemen was already the "hub" of Christian activity in Arabia; a number of Arab tribes had already converted to Christianity. Many of these did not subscribe to the Nicene Creed and there were many unorthodox Christians present at the Kabaa in Mecca. Aslan also gives the origins of Zarathustra.

According to Islam, the Kabaa in Mecca was originally built or restored by Abraham the monotheist, Abraham was chosen not by grace but because he disapproved of his family's polytheistic practices (not explained by Aslan, this is from me for free). Eventually, polytheistic worship at the Kabaa made it a pagan shrine and this drew in the diaspora such that Mecca was a center of festival and trade for many tribes and religions of the region. According to Aslan, a monotheist named Zayd ibn Amr preached in Mecca about the time of Muhammad's youth, and Muhammad was influenced by this and adopted his method later; Zayd became one of Muhammad's first converts. This apparently comes from a hadith but Aslan does not tell of its reliability, and it is unclear to me how widespread this belief is; it is another example of how Aslan takes shaky information and tells it like fact. Aslan also claims he knows the intention of those who wrote about Muhammad. "One must sift through the sources" writes the author (700,000 hadiths?), his way of saying that he takes what makes the most memorable story for book sales.

Aslan gives some details about tribes living around Mecca, which he writes was not a center of trade but rather a center of worship. There was no legal code among tribes, only a sheikh and maybe an arbiter between tribes and loose confederations or agreements along with marriage arrangements. Anything that weakened the tribe was ruled illegal. (We see similarities in the Canaanite cults, intermarriage forbidden, etc.) Hence, Muhammad's code had appeal and would have been understood in its power of ultimately increasing unity. Was Muhammad commanded by Gabriel to "read" or "recite?" Aslan claims that Muhammad is not the prophet of the illiterate (it is claimed he was illiterate), but FOR the illiterate. Muhammad's message was that God could be accessed without idols and the kabaa was unnecessary. What did "umma" mean? These were the early followers, the deciders. Could it mean "neotribe?"

Aslan stretches very far in painting Muhammad's Islam as women-empowering, and cites specific examples and omits others to make his case. He goes beyond too far in claiming that equality of sexes is found in Islam and not Judeo-Christianity. I am not sure what he means by equality and egalitarianism on this point. He neglects that women had property rights in Jewish law, much less that you cannot get far in the Pentateuch without encounting heroines, prophetesses, and judges. He disregards any actions by Jesus or comments by Paul on the standing of women before God. Aslan writes that, in his polygamy, Muhammad was protecting the widows of his fallen soldiers and uniting tribes through marriage. Thus, Muhammad "needs no defense" for marrying a nine year old. Aslan does not address how this is now still justified in Yemen today; read Nujood's book. In his narrative on the subject of Muhammad's marriages, Aslan conspicuously omits the Quran's tale of Muhammad taking his adopted son's wife. Al-Waqidi's early history of this event has been combined with other commentators over the years having various justifications for the action, none of which seem to play well into Aslan's narrative. Aslan claims the hijab came about because Muhammad's house was also the mosque, so people were constantly around and Muhammad wanted his wives to be protected and not to distract. "No other women wore the hijab," seems to be a ridiculous claim as just in the case of the aforementioned marriage of Muhammad to his adopted son's former wife it was because he saw her unveiled when he came upon their house unexpectedly. It was clearly already present in the culture from all sorts of historical sources on the Middle East. Aslan writes the hijab was later used by males to regain the dominance they lost under Muhammad's egalitarian rule. Further, he claims that the archaic Arabic often translated "beat them" actually might better translate as "follow them" or "sleep with them." That the majority of Arabic scholars, and at least every Muslim I've ever conversed with, disagrees with Aslan's preferred translation should be a caution.

Does Aslan deny that Islam spread by the sword in its early days, that Muhammad himself had to engage in bloody battle to bring about a unity of the clans under his authority? Even though Aslan admits there is little known proof or agreement about the massacre of the Jewish Banu Qurayza clan, he denies it even possible under his egalitarian Muhammad. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he writes. Aslan doesn't even note that Abraham sacrificing Ishamel was not established until centuries after the Quran was considered canonized, since the Quran does not explicitly state who was sacrificed-- many Muslim scholars are recording as believing Isaac was sacrificed. (See Bruce Feiler's book Abraham for the history of this scholarship.) To Aslan, the fact that Muhammad mentions the patriarchs so many times is evidence he "revered" the Jews, and not, as Tom Holland and others surmise, that he was copying or co-opting already widely-known stories. In some places the author writes that Muhammad was obeying the Quran and in others he seems to imply that the Quran was written later after Muhammad's death, so which is it?

Abu Bakr succeeds Muhammad as the first Caliph. Thus the rivalry with Ali begins; Bakr appointed another successor rather than leaving the choice to the shura. In 656 AD, Uthman is killed and Ali leads. Ali refused to accept the caliphate and was himself murdered in 661. The Muslim world has never been the same since. Thus ends the first half of the book, remarkably different from the second half which looks more at the socio-political Islamic history since Muhammad.

Theocracy
14 centuries of Islamic thought have been shaped by the Umma, the elite early group surrounding Muhammad and acquainted with his sayings or reported sayings. There is an "inquisition" over the doctrine of the creation of the Quran -- is the Quran eternal or was it created? Current orthodoxy is that the Quran is eternal. Aslan notes that because the Quran is considered eternal, it cannot be interpreted contextually (and all words in it must be considered eternal and not borrowed from other languages present in the region at the time it was written physically). But later he writes that the "Koran was in flux during the life of Muhammad." How do we square something that was "in flux" with something that is eternal? Aslan seems to want to hold the two in tension; you can't.

"The community is the church of the Muslim," which Aslan appears to be ignorant that this is the case in Judaism and Christianity as well-- the Church is not a building. In early doctrinal formation in Islam there were rationalists arguing with traditionalists, predestination versus other views. Aslan chronicles the role of the hadiths in the late 800s. The Hanbali became the most extreme of the four orthodox Sunni schools in the late 800s. From Hanbali later came the Wahabis and Salafis. Aslan covers a bit of the early Arab-Muslim civil war and the development of Shiism, Yazid versus Hussein. The Shiia eventually adopted the doctrine of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam; this doctrine was formulated in the 14th century and is state-sanctioned today in Iran. The Ayattolah Khomeni's belief is that his reign is as infallible as the Mahdi, and his job is to govern the kingdom in preparation for the Mahdi's return. Iran has "tried to merge tradionalism with pluralistic democracy and human rights and failed."

The most interesting contribution of Aslan's book is delving into Sufism; I find most books on Islamic history ignore or skip over Sufism, which is radically different than Wahabbism. I've lived in Central Asia where the "pir," a place where a supposedly holy person was buried and contains mystical powers, is still a large part of locally syncretised Islam. The author gave me greater knowledge of the origin of the pir and let me see the Sufi influence, likely via Shiite occupation, of Azerbaijan. Aslan recounts 13th century parables and the love poetry of Sufism. "Sufi poetry is love letters to God," something you don't see in traditional Sunni Islam where "love" is not one of the 99 names of God. Sufi works sound more like the Song of Solomon than anything else I've seen, and it's a shame Aslan does not make the comparison. The section on Sufism is a good reminder that Islam is not monolithic.

In the 19th century the Young Turks and Egyptian reformers united in an pan-Islamic cause to counter European colonialism. Salafis supported the Islamist movement, but this was later replaced by pan-Arabism as it "seemed easier." Aslan seemingly tries to connect Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Sayyid Qutb's roots to Sufism. Qutb initially believed in the arts and a diversity of education, and spent two years studying engineeering in America. He became increasingly critical of Western materialism and either through failing health or imprisonment became radicalized toward imposing Sharia through violence-- anything not purely non-Islamic was seen as corrupt and to be discarded. Nasser used the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power, and then quickly turned against it to consolidate his own power. Then, the Brotherhood allegedly split between those who thought social reform was possible by reforming hearts, and those who sought to take power and impose Sharia by violence, the movement we're most familiar with today. After Nasser's crackdown, the Muslim Brotherhood moved to Saudi Arabia, whose monarchy despised or was jealous of Nasser's Egypt.

Aslan, like many authors, felt the need to clarify definitions: Fundamentalism = Wahabbism, and Islamism is not the same as fundamentalism. So, he does not reject the term "Islamic fundamentalist." The author recounts the alliance between Ibn Saud and Abdul Wahab, the arrangement between which one would give tacit support to the other and exists in an increasingly fragile state today (as I write this there is a Reuter's article suggesting likelihood for this alliance to remain intact in the face of such low oil prices and economic difficulty is unlikely). In the wake of WWI, the Saudi alliance with the British led to Saudi control over the land from the Ottomans, but then exploitation from the British and the US eager to secure oil. (On these events, Mansfield's Brief History of the Middle East is a better primer.) The House of Saud turned Westward and become "corrupt." Abdul Wahab, and later Sayyid Qutb, had a "goal of purging the world of Islamic diversity." Aslan gives the West a warning today relevant in fighting ISIS (and agreeing roughly with Nassim Taleb's Antifragile mentality): "Fundamentalism is impervious to suppression." When you suppress something, it simply grows underground and arises stronger at a time when the suppressant becomes weakened. Aslan does not necessarily give a policy prescription, however, and his words above make it hard to see how to find a reasonable solution, if reason is outlawed in the minds of many fundamentalists.

The author agrees with those who write that the Thirty Years War is a good parallel with what is happening with fundamentlist versus moderate movements within Islam today. "Islam has finally begun its 15th century." There are several "Islamic states" already, which is why the Muslim world takes umbrage at using that term for ISIS, prefering "da3sh" instead. Aslan rejects secularism, "a closed theological view different from secularization where control passes from ecclesiastical to political control." America is 250 years of secularization based on pluralism, not secularism. Hence, the secular atheists are as much a danger to society as closed-minded Islamic fundamentalists. The author notably avoids using the "House of war" and "House of Islam" dichotomy that Muslim scholars use (begun by Sunni founder Abu Hanifa in the generation after Muhammad). As suggested above, Aslan sidesteps how Islam was spread in the early years, the "shadow of the sword" and never thinks to examine Muhammad's motives other than as that of a prophet with a national identity in mind. The second half makes up for the first half, but only just so. He never spells out what the "future" holds, contra the book title. 2.5 stars.

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