July 11, On a flight from San Francisco to New York: I first read this book in 2005, as the sectarian battles in Iraq were first beginning to dominate the headlines. We were four years into a War on Terror, four years into an intensive national Othering of Muslims, and here was Reza Aslan arguing Islam was a beautiful religion with a storied past and rich progressive traditions. He offered an American audience this humanistic account of a faith that was being vilified in our national conversation. Without evangelizing, without asking the reader to accept any piece of this religion as faith, Aslan offered a historical account of the Prophet, the Quran, and the founding of a system of belief. And perhaps most notably, Aslan presented the contemporary struggles in the Muslim world (and indeed even the September 11th attacks) as part of a “Muslim Reformation”— a bloody battle for the soul of a religion.
In No God but God, Aslan argues for the principles of the Prophet in Medina, making a case for tolerance, for a world in which other religions are respected and protected, and where class and gender are not inherent divisions. And it is only after this telling that he describes the rise of the Wahhabists in the Arabian Peninsula and how their version of Islam (followed by notable adherents such as the late Osama bin Laden) is only one version of the faith. In 2005, No God but God was an incredibly well-timed and important book.
It was interesting re-reading this book in 2014. It was a first for me: a book of contemporary non-fiction that has begun to feel dated since when I first read it. When Aslan wrote it, Egypt’s regime had not yet fallen, Osama bin Laden was still alive, and a different war was raging in Iraq. And then during the timespan in which I re-read the book, we had a group declaring the return of the caliphate. Slightly out-of-date or not, you should buy and read this book to help understand some small part of what in the hell is happening in Iraq and Syria right now. Just as it was so valuable to read during the 2005 sectarian battles in Iraq, this is still an incredibly important book. I think both for the history and context of Islam, and also for Aslan’s thesis of a Reformation.
Please go buy this book and read it. I cannot recommend it enough.