The Islamic Reformation

In college, I had neither the time nor interest in taking a World Religions class. If I had, I might not have been so ignorant for so long about one of the world’s great religions – Islam. And by “great,” I mean its appeal to people around the globe – not anything inherent about its central tenets.

But, then, being more knowledgable about the world’s most popular religion would have diminished the satisfaction I took from recently reading Reza Aslan’s “No god but God.”

No_god_but_God_(Reza_Aslan_book)_US_coverAslan’s book, first published in 2005 – four years after the 9/11 attacks — and then updated with a preface to the paperback edition, purports to explain the origins, evolution and future of Islam. Ten years later, it reads as fresh and essential as when it first came out. It’s not an easy, breezy read by any means – certainly not for someone with little background in theology and lots of gaping holes in my knowledge about Middle East history.

But with perseverance and the sense that I was reading material that might well be covered in a college-level seminar, I stuck with the book – and I’m glad I did.


I picked the book up on a whim during a visit to a thrift shop at the Oregon Coast several months ago. I took a whole week to read during our recent vacation, and I finished the book with at least a dozen dog-eared pages marking facts I simply didn’t know or insights I hadn’t previously grasped.

There were multiple takeaways: Not just an understanding of when and how the prophet Muhammad founded the religion, but a far greater context for understanding more recent events of the 20th and 21st centuries. Just as I finished the book, I came across two important news articles that deepened my understanding of current events while simultaneously reinforcing the historical framework in which modern-day events are occurring.

atlantic-isis-coverIn The Atlantic, Graeme Wood explains “What ISIS Really Wants.

“The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths,” the intro reads. “It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.”

In The New York Times, Scott Shane wrote about a one young man’s journey in “From Minneapolis to ISIS: An American’s Path to Jihad.”

The young man had once talked of becoming a lawyer, Shane wrote, but last year he dropped out of community college at age 20 to become “one of a small number of Americans enticed by the apocalyptic religious promise of the self-described Islamic State, which has seized large sections of Syria and Iraq and claims to be building a caliphate.”

Both are terrific pieces of journalism, straightforward and riveting, in explaining the goals, objectives and appeal – to some – of the Islamic State, which has grabbed worldwide attention with its propaganda videos and barbaric beheadings.

Reading both on the heels of Aslan’s book made for greater impact.


Aslan’s book is, in essence, an introduction to Islam. It’s slow going at first because the author begins with a discussion of pre-Islamic Arabia in the 6th Century, sprinkling all manners of names of peoples and places of whom and which I’m unfamiliar.

For example (and I’m really admitting my ignorance here), I didn’t know that Muhammad was a 25-year-old orphan, “with no capital and no business of his own,” who relied entirely on his uncle’s generosity, for his employment and his housing.” I didn’t know that he married a 40-year-old widow named Khadija, who was a rarity, to say the least, “as a wealthy and respected female merchant in a society that treated women as chattel.”

Gradually, though, Aslan’s explanation of competing theologies and the tribal conflicts that went along with them begins to gel. As he tells Muhummad’s story, so too does he tell the story of how Islam supplanted other belief systems and became a dominant social, cultural and political force across the Middle East and, later, into Europe, Africa and Asia.

Abdi Nur, right, posted a photo online from Syria after traveling there from Minnesota. A friend, Abdullahi Yusuf, left, was stopped as he tried to depart. Top, an image of Western passports posted by a Twitter user who says she is an American with the Islamic State.

Abdi Nur, right, posted a photo online from Syria after traveling there from Minnesota. A friend, Abdullahi Yusuf, left, was stopped as he tried to depart. Top, an image of Western passports posted by a Twitter user who says she is an American with the Islamic State.

Aslan paints a picture of early Islam as an experiment in religious pluralism and social egalitarianism. Subsequently, he describes the development of various sects – the majority Shiites, the minority Sunnis and Sufis, and the Puritanical Wahhabis – and more modern developments, including the establishment of Saudi Arabia as “an utterly totalitarian and an uncompromisingly Wahhabist state;” the seeds of the Iranian Revolution and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power; and the emergence of a small group of dissidents, calling themselves al-Qaeda and led by Osama bin Laden, as a polarizing force dividing the Muslim world into “the People of Heaven” (themselves) and “the People of Hell” (everyone else).

The author provides a glossary and a chronology key events (starting with the birth of Muhammad in the year 570) as helpful resources. But he also frames the book in a way that might surprise some readers – as a narrative of a centuries-old struggle for the heart and soul of a religion, not unlike what we have seen in Christianity.

While it’s easy to focus on radical fundamentalist sects that use terror to intimidate, and to think of repeated attacks as targeted solely at the West, Aslan reminds us that many of these acts of violence have been perpetrated by Muslims against other Muslims. Most notably, in July 2005, when four British Muslims blew themselves and 42 bus and subway passengers up during rush hour. It was an attack carried out in London’s most heavily populated and moderate Muslim neighborhoods, where generations of Muslim immigrants from several countries lived harmoniously for generations.

“Theirs was as assault not only on innocent Britons but on their own community, indeed on the very existence of a moderate, pluralistic Islam that is anathema to their own puritanical beliefs,” Aslan writes. And, like similar attacks in other countries across the Muslim world, it revealed the civil war raging within Islam as much as it did the jihadist war against the West.

In short, Aslan says, “Welcome to the Islamic Reformation.”


It’s a provocative framework and Aslan acknowledges that both Muslims and non-Muslims take issue with his characterization of recent events as an internal struggle between Muslims rather than a war between Islam and the West. Certainly, it’s easy to question his thesis in the face of events like this month’s terrorist attack at Garissa University College in Kenya, where members of a militant group separated Muslims from Christians before executing nearly 150 Christian students.

Yet he also points to encouraging signs that young Muslims in the developing capitals of the Muslim world – Tehran, Cairo, Damascus and Jakarta – and in the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe and the United States – New York, London, Paris and Berlin – are merging the Islamic values of their ancestors with democratic ideals.

Think of the Arab Spring in Cairo and the promise it held, briefly, before the Egyptian authorities squelched it. Then think of reformations of the past, which have played out over centuries, amid much bloodshed and turmoil. That’s what we’re witnessing, Aslan contends.


The author, Resa Aslan.

The author, Resa Aslan.

The author is himself a native-born Iranian who immigrated to the United States with his family as a young boy after the U.S.-backed Shah had fled in exile and Khomeini had seized power. He has studied religions at Santa Clara University, Harvard and the University of California, Santa Barbara. In addition, he holds an MFA in fiction from the highly respected Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, so he comes at his subject with the knowledge base of a Ph.D and the skills of an accomplished writer.

Now a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside, Aslan has gone on to write and edit several more books, including “ Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

I’m a decade late getting around to his book, but I’ve got to say, I think I made a good decision earlier this year when I chose to buy this book instead of another pair of running shorts.

Photo montage: The New York Times

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