When the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in 1979, he was welcomed by the coalition of merchants, intellectuals and clergy who led the shah's ouster. The ayatollah would swiftly disillusion many of them as he consolidated his power in the name of Islam, ordering women to wear veils and adopting a violent vision of jihad that paved the way for the Hezbollah suicide bombers.
In the eyes of Los Angeles-based religious scholar Reza Aslan, Khomeini's rise is a metaphor for the hijacking of his faith by power-hungry demagogues, self-serving clergy and the radical fundamentalists behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In Aslan's new book, "No god but God," he has become the latest of an emerging group of scholars who are turning to the Koran and the origins of Islam to oppose what they see as its misuse.
Aslan writes that the Koran, unlike the Iranian government, doesn't require women to veil. He points out that one of the prophet Muhammad's wives, Khadija, was said to be a merchant, and another, Aisha, led an army into battle -- high-profile roles that he and other scholars say call into question the religious basis for a number of repressive laws that, in Saudi Arabia, don't even allow women to drive. Proponents of the ultraconservative creed of Wahhabism, which is braided into the foundations of the Saudi state, might cast themselves as Islamic purists, but their Koranic interpretations are neither literal nor pure, Aslan and his fellow scholars say.
"What is taking place in the world right now is an internal battle of Islam," says Aslan, 33, a vivacious, curly-haired, blue-jeaned scholar in wire-rimmed glasses and a paisley shirt. "If we are going to have a reformation in the Muslim world, there must be a new interpretation of the Koran."
Many of the most repressive interpretations of Islam are not found in the Koran at all, Reza says. The edict calling for the stoning of adulterers, for example, was written by a follower of Muhammad named Omar in a hadith, a companion's account of Muhammad's actions -- something akin to the four gospels of the New Testament. Within two centuries of Muhammad's death in 632, there were 700,000 such hadiths, "the great majority of which were unquestionably fabricated by individuals who sought to legitimize their own particular beliefs," Aslan writes.
Most Shiites, the minority school of Islam that predominates in Iran, reject many of the hadiths because they discount the authority of the narrators, including Omar. The Sunni majority, however, revere Omar and have faith in most of the hadiths, and as such, the narrations played a great role in the creation of Islamic law.
Some experts find it optimistic, at best, to think that greater understanding of the Koran will temper the complex social and economic forces behind religious fundamentalism. Iran's much-celebrated reformist movement of the last decade did not preclude the election Friday of an ultraconservative, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- who, as mayor of Tehran, introduced separate elevators for men and women in municipal buildings -- amid widespread frustration over unemployment and corruption.
But scholars who are fighting scripture with scripture at the front lines believe the debate is posing a challenge to autocratic interpretations of Islam.
"There is quite a discussion right now in the Islamic world, a confrontation between modernity and tradition," says Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, in a translated telephone interview. "Many undemocratic governments are abusing Islam and Islamic teachings in order to justify their abuses of human rights and the principles of democracy.
"Many Islamic governments have tried to suffocate this debate, but they haven't been successful. It is growing every day, from Saudi Arabia to Algeria."
One of the factors fueling tension in the Muslim world, Aslan says, is the inevitable progression toward modernization and reform. In his view, the Sept. 11 terrorist attack was not primarily a clash with the West. It was an attempt by militant Islamic extremists to use the West as a polarizing force to galvanize support in a century-old struggle with Muslim moderates over the future of Islam.
"There's always going to be a backlash against modernism," he says.
The self-serving distortions of Islam espoused by terrorists and abusive governments are partly manipulative covers for such destructive forms of social control as fascism and authoritarianism, Aslan says.
"You have these small groups of extremists who, because they have such a loud voice, are allowed to frame the discussion," he says. "If [Osama] bin Laden wants to use the Koran to justify his murderous agenda, I'm going to use the same Koran as a counter-argument."
Saudi petrodollars have helped to underwrite the proliferation of the once-marginal strand of Islam, Wahhabism -- the creed that informed Bin Laden's conception of Islam.