It is now nearly four years since a group of 19 men seized control of four airplanes in the name of Islam and crashed three of them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Since then, the United States has spent at least $200 billion and deployed more than 150,000 troops to invade two predominantly Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. government continues to be reorganized to meet the challenge of organizations such as Al Qaeda that invoke Islam to support their acts of violence; and America, whose interaction with the Muslim world was almost nonexistent until the 20th century, finds itself more immersed in it than ever before.
You would think that this level of engagement would spur an intensive effort to learn everything possible about these groups, these countries and their ideologies. You would be wrong. Whether or not you admire Cold War America, that generation did everything it could to understand the Soviet Union and communism. The results can be faulted, but not the effort. There is no equivalent response today. The government still has an astonishing dearth of Arabic speakers, let alone people who know Persian (for Iran), Pashto (for Afghanistan) or Urdu (for Pakistan). Middle East studies enrollments are booming at universities, but funding for them is not. And in general, Americans do not seem much more knowledgeable about Islam, about Iran or about the Arab world than before 9/11.
This context frames Reza Aslan's "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam." Aslan, a native of Iran who now lives in the United States, makes it clear that he was moved to write the book for two reasons: an acute concern about the state of awareness of Islam in America and a fervent hope that out of the ashes of the present, Islam will undergo its own reformation.
As much as ignorance and misperceptions of Islam trouble him, Aslan is even more deeply disturbed by the "false idols" of "bigotry and fanaticism" that dominate much of public life in the Muslim world. For Aslan, the Islam of the fundamentalists is only one of many Islams, and not the one most true to the founding spirit of the faith. In the struggle among Muslims to define the religions, it's not clear who will win. But because Aslan is, at heart, an optimist, he believes that the reformers will prevail for the simple reason that both history and theology are on their side.
In a religion shared by more than 1 billion people, it should come as no surprise that there are competing visions and that the ideology trumpeted by Al Qaeda and its allies is more fringe than mainstream. Yet, whether because of prejudice or lack of awareness, there is a pronounced tendency in the West to reduce Islam to its extremists. The result, Aslan suggests, is that both Westerners and Muslim extremists define Islam far too narrowly, and that, in turn, fuels more conflict. "Considering how effortlessly religious dogma has become intertwined with political ideology since September 11," Aslan writes, "how can we overcome the clash-of-monotheisms mentality that has so deeply entrenched itself in the modern world?" One answer, he believes, is better understanding. More education will lead to more tolerance.
For the most part, Aslan offers an invaluable introduction to the forces that have shaped Islam. He traces the contours beginning with Muhammad through the initial conflicts over his legacy. He offers a useful primer on the evolution of the Sunni-Shiite split, which began soon after Muhammad's death in the year 632 and intensified over the next several centuries. He also traces the emergence of philosophy, science and mysticism, and charts the sad intellectual and cultural ossification of many Muslim societies which made them vulnerable to the expansion of European power in the 18th and 19th centuries and then hobbled efforts at reform in the 20th.
Though Aslan has done graduate work in and teaches Middle East studies, he is also a fiction writer and journalist, and that shows in his lucid writing. It also leads to an occasional tendency to over-dramatize with vignettes that try to re-create the time of Muhammad, to wit: "A stirring at the rear of the congregation, and every head turns to see Muhammad emerge from [his wife's] apartment."