No god But God: Waiting for an Islamic Enlightenment

No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan 288pp, Heinemann, £17.99 Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American writer, a Shia by persuasion, and informs us in the prologue to his book that he will be denounced as an apostate by some and an apologist by others, but that the latter does not bother him since “there is no higher calling than to defend one’s faith”, especially in times of ignorance and hate. He insists that this book is an argument for reform and concludes with a warning that, “like the reformations of the past, this will be a terrifying event, one that has already begun to engulf the world”. In reality this book is designed for the west. Its aim is to appease western ideologues who have embraced the “clash of civilisations” thesis. Aslan, who regards the US occupation of Iraq as a “liberation”, provides a much more nuanced and cultured view of Islam than the more dogmatic Islamists representing Shia or Sunni orthodoxy. He is a true moderate, and if western elites are in search of a more user-friendly Islam, this book will be much more helpful than the bearded moderates paraded on television after each new atrocity. Aslan’s account of early Islam is too literalist. The picture presented is that of an ideal Prophet and mostly unworthy successors. Some decades after Muhammad’s death the wars of succession led to the birth of the faction (Shia) that insisted on treating Muhammad as more than a simple messenger and demanded that his family alone supplied the caliphs, ie his son-in-law Ali and his heirs. Ali was, without doubt, a sophisticated theorist and leader, but his heirs were weak-willed and easily manipulated. The Shia sects and some of their more esoteric beliefs have little to do with Islamic theology. An Iranian equivalent of Monty Python’s Life of Brian will deconstruct all this one day. Shia mythology (some of it uncritically recycled here) transformed a crude bid for power by Ali’s son, Hussain, and his defeat and death at the hands of the Caliph Yazid, into a sacred martyrdom commemorated to this day with an annual display of self-flagellation and blood-spilling. The reform solution is to ban the self-flagellation and instead encourage participants to donate their blood to hospitals. It’s an amusing idea that misses the whole point about the processions, designed by the Shia clergy to encourage obedience, inculcate the idea of an eternal martyrdom and maintain their grip. What is underplayed in this book is the social and economic crisis in the peninsula that determined the founding moment of Islam. Muhammad was not a member of the Meccan trading elites, and the only written section of the Koran extant in his own lifetime concerned commerce. It is in that sense that Islam became the religion of underprivileged merchants and traders and the poor. Allah is the merchant. Life is a business with gains and losses. The ordinary Muslim sells his soul to Allah, an advance payment for later resurrection and entry to the most sensuous old men’s club ever invented: the Islamic paradise. The most useful section of the book is a discussion of Sufi beliefs and literature. Aslan is very good on Attar’s The Conference of Birds. His knowledge of mystical traditions in the Punjab is more limited. Here some of the great Sufi poets of the 17th and 18th centuries won over the peasantry and were denounced by clerics. Sufi existentialism co-existed with an open display of sexuality and homosexuality. What we need in addition to genuine reform (and this will come from below rather than hitch a ride on US tanks) is an Islamic Enlightenment. god   There were glimmers of this in early-medieval Baghdad, Cordoba, Palermo and Aleppo: philosophers who privileged Reason against Divine Truth, sceptics and poets who insisted that the Koran was a man-made document and not revealed, women who insisted on their rights. All this was there between the 9th and 12th centuries. It was crushed by a pincer movement led by the Catholic church and Islamic fundamentalists. Both had good reason to fear the philosophers of that period. Both encouraged the burning of books. Islam never recovered. Religion is on the rise again in the west. The US is the most obvious example, but New Labour is also deeply Christian (Blair the most ardent political believer since Gladstone). In these conditions, why should Islam be marginalised? Aslan and other reformers want a modern Islam that can compete in the west with Christianity and Judaism. It would be dishonest of me to wish any of them luck. It is a phase and it will pass. As for Islam, organic change will come from below. It would be ironic, but most welcome if, over the next decade or so, the Iranian people toppled the clerics and institutionalised a separation between mosque and state. Would Muslim reformers in the west regard this as a catastrophe? I hope not. · Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet is published by Verso. No God But God is on the longlist for the Guardian First Book Award, the shortlist for which will be announced at the end of the month source: 

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