Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Review: No god But God, by Reza Aslan


No god But God is an extremely well-written introduction to the history and development of the Muslim faith. The author, Iranian religion scholar Reza Aslan, traces the key developments in the evolution of Islam, and also offers an alternative explanation to thesis that Islam is at war with Western Civilization.
Instead, Aslan argues that Islam is in the midst of its own Reformation, and just as the Christian Reformation was often marked by violence, the same is also true as Muslims struggle to modernize their faith.

The title stems from the confession of faith in Islam, the shahadah, which is translated: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God."

Aslan is a gifted writer, interweaving basic information about Muslim beliefs and practices in a fascinating narrative account of the rise of Muhammad, the struggle among his successors, and birth of Islamic extremism.

Far too often Christians satisfy whatever curiosity they have about Islam by reading the latest email forwards about the dire threat that President Obama is about to impose Sharia law on America! Books like this one are crucial because they describe Islam in sympathetic terms, and force critical thinkers to consider a more accurate portrayal of what Muslims believe and practice. In this regard, Aslan's discussion of the passages in the Quran that deal with warfare (pp. 83-87) and the various sources of Sharia law and its interpretation (pp. 162-168) are particularly helpful.

Another aspect of No god But God that really interested me was the emphasis Aslan placed on the struggle between traditional Islam, based on traditions handed down through the centuries and interpreted by various clerics (the Ulama), and modernist (what he calls Rationalist) movements which seek to restore the original ideals of Islam as reflected in the Quran itself and in the actions of Muhammad. As a believer in "restoring New Testament Christianity," I can understand this conflict!

There are certain biases in this book to be sure. Aslan's view of the study of comparative religions reflects a strong modernistic bias against the miraculous. And my guess is that most Muslims would say the book is slanted in favor of the Shia form of Islam, which makes sense considering Aslan is from Iran. But if you have an interest in a sympathetic introduction to Islam, this would be a great place to start.

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