An Antidote for Infidel-ity by Steve Clemens. Jan 1. 2009
After reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiographical Infidel, my eldest son recommended that I read Reza Aslan’s No god But God for a different perspective on Islam. Although both authors have ended up in the US, they came from both similar and quite different circumstances. Both fled their previous homes fearing for their lives – threatened by the zeal of “true believers” who sought to purify Islam of its wayward offspring.
Reza Aslan’s family fled from the excesses of the Iranian Revolution after the clerics seized power in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Shah and his Pahlavi dynasty in 1979. While the Revolution itself was at least partially engineered by the people who were pushing not only for an end to the US-supported oppression under the Shah, it was also a product of an Islamic reformation movement as well. However, in the power vacuum that followed, the Iranian people fell under the spell of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the other conservative clerics who pushed for a more theocratic state. Aslan’s family, supporting a more secular-run government, fled the country after the US-backed Saddam Hussein-led Iraqi forces invaded Iran in opposition to the Iranian Revolution. The ensuing Iran-Iraq War cemented the power of the Khomeini religious conservatives in Iran.
Where Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s and Reza Aslan’s stories diverge is in their analysis of their refugee situations. The former views the misogynistic abuse she endured as coming part and parcel from her direct experience of Islam as it was practiced in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and even in her immigrant diaspora in the Netherlands. Ali understood the patriarchy, paternalism, and misogyny she witnessed and experienced as being central to her understanding of the Quran and Muslim teaching. However, as I pointed out in my essay about Infidel, some of the practices (like female genital mutilation) had their origins in tribal and cultural traditions that often pre-dated the rise of Islam as a religion.
No god But God instead attempts to give its reader a broader historical outlook on the experience of the Prophet Muhammad, the revealing of the sacred text, the Quran, and the early history of the rise of the faith in the Arabian Desert communities of Mecca and Medina. In direct contradistinction from the practice in what Western critics have classified as “fundamentalist” Islam, insisting that women be veiled and covered in public –a practice especially pronounced in Saudi Arabia and among groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – the Prophet Muhammad himself did not advocate the veiling of women except for his own wives – and then primarily for their own protection from men seeking the Prophet’s favor.
Aslan contends that Islam is on the cusp of its own Reformation; one remarkably similar to what Christianity itself went through after its 15th century. That struggle (like the present one) was violent and disruptive over many years as those wielding the control and power of dominant institutions are wont in their reluctance to change and power sharing. After witnessing recent battles within Roman Catholic circles between the Vatican II adherents and the present-day pushback from the “traditionalists” typified by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, it is clear that more “Reformation” is the wave of the future as “modernists” and “traditionalists” strive for control of the religious institutions as well as the “hearts and souls” of “the faithful”.
Aslan sees the same forces at work within Islam as the faith is confronted by modernity. The power vacuum created upon the death of Prophet Muhammad was contested between various groups that now trace the divide between Sunni and Shi'a back to those early disputes. The clerics who stepped in to the power vacuum, the Ulama, (religious scholars) have dominated the interpretation of the Quran and the traditions of the faith for centuries and have remained a very conservative force. However, as the Muslim experience grows well beyond the Arab tribal culture, movements pushing for a more modern expression of the faith ebb and flow.
Ultimately, Aslan’s perspective is a hopeful one; he sees the coming Reformation within his religious tradition as both welcome and inevitable. His history includes the rise of the Shi'a, Sufi, and Wahhabi traditions which help the non-Muslim reader better understand the complexities within that faith. My own limited experience within local interfaith dialog circles and events has exposed me to both Jews and Muslims (as well as those from my own Christian tradition) who want to embrace a religious faith that promotes healing and reconciliation as, together, we strive for justice tempered with mercy. Both books have helped me better understand the hopes and struggles of my Muslim neighbors. As Minneapolis continues to grow more diverse with its inflow of immigrant populations, it is essential that we hear these voices of our brothers and sisters – because our own liberation is wrapped up in theirs.