Islam simplified

I just finished No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan. It’s one of those books that I feel compelled to read with a pen handy, in order to substitute, perhaps, for arguing points with the author.

I’ve been on the lookout for a good ‘intro to Islam’ that I could keep around the office for reference, but I’m not sure this one qualifies. Aslan is a fine writer, though his personal beliefs intrude, making the book much less scholarly or philosophical than I’d like. As much as I emphasize with and even prefer his version of Islam’s origins, as it justifies the possibility of a modern liberal state based on an Islamic framework, I have never finished a book and felt compelled to write a rebuttal to it on the last page, until this one. I kept putting my pen down and picking it back up.

Perhaps I am just getting increasingly cranky. I don’t think so, however. Aslan states early on that he is going to tell the ’story’ of Islam rather than claim any historical accuracy, via ‘reasonable interpretation’. Furious scribbling on my part ensued. How can you champion reason and throw historical accuracy out the door? If you want to argue about the meaning of stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey are just as good subjects. Religious texts like the Quran are more than myths, more than stories – they insist, for millions of believers, on being literal truth. A discussion about Mohammed’s life and message shouldn’t avoid historical accuracy; it should begin there. Otherwise, all this idealistic talk about emulating the real ideal of Medina, the real Quran, etc, is, to quote Nero Wolfe, pfui.

The traditions of Mohammed’s life seem to me just as hazy as the ones that depict Jesus, with numerous, conflicting traditions and transmission histories – that haziness should be embraced rather than avoided, deemed irrelevant, or cherry-picked to make a point, as Aslan does more than once.

On page 21, Aslan says, “It is not important whether the stories describing the childhood of Muhammad, Jesus, or Davis are true,” and then states their rhetorical/theological message is more important. Ok, whatever. But then, referring directly back to the irrelevancy of whether those stories are true, he says, “Even so, when combined with what is known about pre-Islamic Arabian society, one can glean important historical information from these traditions.”

Well, if it isn’t important if the stories are true, then how can you justify certain parts of them are accurate? This is a common move on his part, alas. Overall, he is quite open minded, but like a lot of theologically minded folks I’ve read while trying to figure out Christian metaphors in the last half-year or so, he shies away very quickly from interrogating the foundation of his religion. There is no question for him that Muhammad existed, the various stories about him have historical underpinnings, that the Quran was transmitted through him from God (although he’s willing to note that the hadith have a strange, corruptible transmission), and we have a pretty accurate picture of Medina and Mecca at the time. The word hazy, that I used earlier, is what I would use, alas, to describe all of the same.

Now I would agree with him that the ideal Medina society is a useful model, whether it existed as reported or not, for the current versions of Islam. Humans love myths. The SCA is testimony to that. And myths can lead to great good. But religions, like everything else, are defined from where you’re standing. If historical accuracy is not important, then an Islam that dutifully reproduces Medina as the accounts describe is not Islam – it is a kind of pseudo or synthetic Islam. And lo and behold, much of the divisions, wars, and the current lack of a modern, democratic state that is predominately Islamic stem from pseudo or synthetic Islams (Wahhabism in particular) that corrupt what Aslan sees as the original, much milder message that is worth emulating and following. So I can’t see how historical accuracy doesn’t count – and how education about that accuracy wouldn’t count even more. I find this discrepancy in the text a little strange, especially considering the lengthy discussion in chapter 6 about the old-school differences between Traditionalist and Rationalist Islam, especially the position of Ibn Rushd. But, as I said before, it’s a discrepancy I’ve seen before.

I also have a bone to pick about 262’s “As recognized nearly two hundred years by Alexis de Tocqueville, religion is the foundation of America’s political system.” and the discussion of plurality that follows, as it smells of over-simplification of both de Tocqueville and the founding of the U.S., but that’s minor, and I think I ranted about that subject last week. The book succeeded in making me think and write a bit on here – that’s always good.

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