No God But God

I’m about halfway through Reza Aslan’s book No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, published in 2005. I’ve read enough to recommend the book whole-heartedly. Aslan is an excellent writer who presents some very dry material with a lot of verve. At times the book is hard to put down.

On the other hand, I don’t entirely buy Aslan’s view of things.

As Aslan tells it, Muhammad was a social reformer of stunning moral insight, far ahead of his time on the subject of social, especially gender, equality. The notion of jihad, far from being a license to go out and kill infidels wherever you find them, was actually a sort of early just-war theory, and represented a major moral advance over the prevailing ethos of the time. The perception of Islam as hostile to women and militant towards non-believers was primarily the result of later politically-minded Muslims, twisting the words of the Prophet to their own ends.

Maybe. But it doesn’t pass the smell test. I’m not the only who has had that reaction, as this review from The Washington Post attests.

But that’s not the focus of this post. Instead I wanted to call attention to Aslan’s annoying tendency to speak in euphemisms, since I think it is typical of “high-minded” writing on religion. Consider this, from the prologue:

Religion, it must be understood, is not faith. Religion is the story of faith. It is an instiutionalized system of symbols and metaphors (read rituals and myths) that provides a common language with which a community of faith can share with each other their numinous encounter with the Divine Presence. Religion is concerned not with genuine history, but with sacred history, which does not course through time like a river. Rather, sacred history is like a hallowed tree whose roots dig deep into primordial time and whose branches weave in and out of genuine history with little concern for the boundaries of space and time. Indeed, it is precisely at those moments when sacred and genuine history collide that religions are born. (Emphsasis in original).

Sacred history? That sounds a lot like “mythology” to me.

There is a graver problem wirth this paragraph beyond Aslan’s desire to make religious myths and fantasies sound more admirable than they are. You see, I was led to read Aslan’s book after viewing this debate between Aslan and Sam Harris. (Well worth watching, incidentally, if you have about two hours to kill). Aslan’s main point during the debate was that Harris was badly oversimplifying and overgeneralizing the nature of religious faith in general, and Muslim religious faith in particular. (For the record, I didn’t find Aslan especially convincing. Harris is sometimes more flamboyant than he ought to be, and you can find places in his books where he is, indeed, guilty of overgeneralizing, but his major points are entirely correct in my view, and Aslan was not successful in explaining where a more sophisticated view of things would cause one to reject Harris’ account.)

But if Harris goes overboard in discussing literalist approaches to religion as if they are the only ones that matter, then Aslan goes way too far in the opposite direction in this paragraph. It is simply ridiculous to make a blanket statement that religion is not concerned with genuine history, but instead only with an ill-defined notion of sacred history. That simply is not true for tens of millions of religious believers worldwide. Most of the Christians I know do not believe they are trafficking in sacred history when they recount the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ. I have less personal experience with Muslims, but I think rather a lot of them would not be impressed with Aslan’s dichotomy.

Another example of the same thing is this paragraph:

Again, thie historicity of these topoi is irrelevant. It is not important whether the stories describing the childhood of Muhammad, Jesus, or David are true. What is important is what these stories say about our prophets, our messiahs, our kings: that theirs is a holy and eternal vocation, established by God from the moment of creation.

I’ll give you two good reasons for thinking the historicity of these stories is not, in fact, irrelevant. The first is that many religious people do believe these stories to represent historical truth, and they must be taken seriously for that reason. The second reason is that if there were any good reason for thinking these stories were true, or even plausible, that would cause us to seriously reexamine reliigous claims. I for one would take Christianity a lot more seriously if I came to think that Jesus really was, or at least might have been, born of a virgin.

So what could Aslan be thinking in dismissing the truth or falsity of these stories as “irrelevant”? I think that for him using the word “irrelevant” allows him to avoid having to say “obviously false.” If these stories were true their truth would not be irrelevant.

There are many other examples of this sort of thing in Aslan’s writing. Very annoying. But his book is fascinating nevertheless.

Comments

  1. #1 bobyu
    May 22, 2008

    Muslims seem not only to be some of the most skilled dissemblers in the religious hierarchy, but also the most skilled at enforcing the rules for proper dissemblance in their own ranks.

  2. #2 Dan S.
    May 22, 2008

    On the other hand, I don’t entirely buy Aslan’s view of things.

    Remember, he’s not a tame lion . . .

  3. #3 JM
    May 22, 2008

    “The perception of Islam as [not] hostile to women … doesn’t pass the smell test.”

    I think it does, at least as far as what is actually in the Koran.

    From “The Women” re. polygamy (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/k/koran/koran-idx?type=DIV0&byte=114839)

    “[4.3] And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course.”

    Note what’s being said? If you can’t take care of orphans, take on widows as extra wives (but only up to 4), and then *only* if you can treat all equally. If you can’t, take only one wife.

    It’s a sort of social security system, with the writer being dubious about the capacity of most men to be fair to all, and enjoining them to avoid polygamy otherwise.

    Islam’s misogyny is a cultural artifact, and Muhhammed clearly didn’t think much of it.

  4. #4 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 22, 2008

    JM-

    You spliced together two sentences from my post that were not inteded to go together. The thing that doesn’t pass the smell test is Aslan’s generally rosy picture of Muhammad, his views towards women being only one part of that picture. Nor is that passage you cite especially persuasive. It reminds me of people who try to argue that the Biblical exhortation that wives should submit to their husbands is somehow pro-woman.

    Monotheistic religion and gender equality are, to this day, two things that do not go well together.

  5. #5 phisrow
    May 22, 2008

    The notion of “sacred history” doesn’t pass my smell test as a concept, much less as an argument about what people actually do. It sounds dangerously close to a dignified recasting of “Believing what you know ain’t so” as some kind of weird virtue.

    “Again, the historicity of these topoi is irrelevant. It is not important whether the stories describing the childhood of Muhammad, Jesus, or David are true. What is important is what these stories say about our prophets, our messiahs, our kings: that theirs is a holy and eternal vocation, established by God from the moment of creation.”

    The rhetoric is cute; but the notion that something can be contrafactual nonsense and be evidence for certain attributes of prophets and whatnot seems absurd on its face. It is like claiming “it doesn’t matter whether the movies depicting the Matrix are true for false, what is important is what these movies say about artificial intelligence, that it is sucking our life energy and deceiving us utterly.” That’s not even wrong, just stupid. The truth of the text and the truth of its claims aren’t merely connected, they are identical.

  6. #6 JM
    May 22, 2008

    “You spliced together two sentences from my post”

    Yeah I know, I was trying to be concise. I do know that you were referring to the rosy picture, but I was trying to make my point in relation to one aspect of that picture – the treatment of women as a distortion of Muhammad’s actual views. I don’t think my paraphrase actually misrepresents you, but if it does I’m apologize.

    ” Nor is that passage you cite especially persuasive.” Then I’d suggest you read it again, or perhaps even the surrounding verses as well.

    I remember this passage because it really stuck out for me when I was reading the Koran a few years ago. The suria “Women” from which it comes is very interesting because it is the basis of the often stated islam-treats-women-better-than-xtianity meme. Having read it, I can see why many people adopt that view, even in the face of the extreme misogyny of much of modern islam.

    “Monotheistic religion and gender equality are, to this day, two things that do not go well together.”

    I agree with you, but my point relates to what Muhammad actually said versus the beliefs of his followers – which I think is your point, and from what you write here is the structure of Aslan’s argument.

    You appear – with the smell test comment – to believe that the mans philisophical views are *not* distinct from the religion that followed. Aslan appears to be saying his views *are* distinct, and should be viewed as a set of guidelines for living in a cohesive society of its time. Yes, I do also know that is a definition of religion and some may view it as a distinction without a difference, but it is possible (and often interesting) to read religious tracts as social and cultural documents rather than as mystical trash.

    Having read the Koran myself – which it appears you haven’t – all I’m saying is that I’m inclined to somewhat agree with Aslan.

    I don’t however, have any truck with religion – I’m a lifelong atheist and I mean lifelong, no deconversions for me, I was never a believer in the first place. Please don’t misunderstand me on that point.

  7. #7 Paul Schofield
    May 22, 2008

    I read his book a while ago and did greatly enjoy it. It gave me additional hope for Islam, while not overly changing my view of the religion as a whole (not likely to be converting any time soon).

    For one thing, Aslan and others in his camp are not trying to describe Islam as is, but rather as they desire to see it. They describe the most liberal interpretation of the stories, the most realistic and rational reading of the histories, because they want to see more rational, liberal branches of Islam becoming dominant over the currently ruling branches.

    Since his book, I have paid far more attention to reforming movement, particularly those coming out of Turkey, as vessels for change and modernisation within Islam. Liberalisation from within seems far more likely than liberation from without as a vessel for democracy.

    It is interesting to note that one of the more successful schools from modern Turkish Islam has recently moved into Iran and is gaining some measure of acceptance from the more elite population.

  8. #8 JM
    May 22, 2008

    Sorry to harp, but

    “It reminds me of people who try to argue that the Biblical exhortation that wives should submit to their husbands is somehow pro-woman.”

    Read it. You’ll find it’s the opposite. It lays out detailed rules for the equitable – but not fully equal – treatment of women.

    It’s quite a lot different from the xtian view, and would be difficult to regard as misogynist until the early 20th century west. Certainly in comparison to the primogeniture rules of the west.

    Just to open the subject up a bit further, there is a real problem IMHO with westerners seeing other cultures treatment of women through the prism of the horror of our xtian heritage. We’re inclined to see relatively moderate inequality and condemn it in the same harsh terms that we condemn our own history. I’m thinking of east asia here where the common western view is that asian women are subservient doormats, whereas they are actually not (far from that in many cases).

    Unfortunately, we often don’t see that the inequality we observe is not the tribal nomad middle eastern solution of women-as-subhuman-chattel but rather a different set of rules suiting a different cultural situation. One that treats women as different, not fully equal, but not in such an appalling fashion.

    Because of our history we tend to make the leap from womens inequality = not a modern society (which is true) to womens inequality = women are treated as subhuman (which is not true).

  9. #9 miller
    May 22, 2008

    I am also inclined to agree with Aslan with respect to Muhammad’s social reformation. I think that if Islam seems backwards today, it’s partly because it hasn’t really changed its rules enough to keep up with the rest of society. But at the time of Mohammad, it was very progressive. Among other things, I believe he allowed divorce, and banned infanticide.

  10. #10 Pierce R. Butler
    May 23, 2008

    Can anyone here confirm or deny the claim that the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty” originated within Islam?

  11. #11 Paul Murray
    May 23, 2008

    In christianity, the literal truth of the resurrection from the dead is key. It is the basis of the christian’s hope – the expectation that they, too, will be resurrected from the dead. The ancient christians buried their dead in catacombs precisely in the hope that the bones would one day clothe themselves in flesh and start walking around. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, their hope is in vain.

  12. #12 Ian
    May 23, 2008

    “Reza Aslan”? Is that the author’s real name or a crib from the Narnia books?! “Contented Lion”….

  13. #13 Ruth
    May 23, 2008

    “Because of our history we tend to make the leap from womens inequality = not a modern society (which is true) to womens inequality = women are treated as subhuman (which is not true).”

    I’m sorry, but if women are regarded as inferior to men, then they are, by definition, regarded as ‘sub-human’. If men and women are regarded as equally human, then, by definition, they are equal to each other, and neither can be the inferior of the other.

    I think you are falling for the error that that if one culture is LESS misogynist/racist/homophobic than another, then it is somehow not misogynist/racist/homphobic at all. Which is a bit like the anti-feminists who say “you’ve got the vote, what more do you want?”.

  14. #14 omar ali
    May 23, 2008

    Reza Aslan is well intentioned and his dissembling is for a “good cause”. but the market for his brand of 21st century Islam is similar to the market for reform Judaism or Unitarian Christianity: Modern muslims who want some of their cake and want to eat some of it too….an entirely “normal” (as in “the norm”) desire, but its not going to save the world from fanaticism. Its an “after the fact” thing: AFTER someone has decided they prefer to live in the vaguely post-religious modern world without having to give up their group identity or their ways of marking birth and death or their symbols of hope and whatever else “modern” people still get out of religion, THEN he or she needs Reza Aslan around to provide the appropriate theology. He is fulfilling a need. Good for him. But lets not get carried away…

  15. #15 mufi
    May 23, 2008

    Ruth said to JM:

    “I think you are falling for the error that that if one culture is LESS misogynist/racist/homophobic than another, then it is somehow not misogynist/racist/homophobic at all.”

    Agreed. I find it more helpful to speak in terms of relationships, rather than absolutes.

    For example, *in relation to the modern feminist movement (particularly in its Anglo-American manifestation)*, I think it is generally fair to characterize as “misogynistic” dominantly Islamic countries and communities. We are often not explicit about that relationship, but I understand it to be an implicit assumption in most (albeit, not all) critical statements on the subject.

    That said, the monotheistic religious tradition that I am most familiar with is Judaism (particularly the Orthodox flavor, which I have direct experience with), and it is not hard to find examples there of apologists who cherry-pick verses and paragraphs from the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, and other books from their sacred canon, in an attempt to portray their tradition as having been modern, liberal, and progressive all along. I’ve witnessed Christians doing the same.

    The best thing I can say about this practice is that it helps to expose the historical plurality of voices represented within the canon (which is itself a product of a cherry-picking process; albeit, one that ended centuries ago). Unfortunately, the cherry-pickers often seem to ignore that more complicated picture in favor of presenting another simplistic, monolithic view of their tradition � only one they deem more satisfying or politically expedient.

    [BTW, a notable counter-example to this practice is "Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice" by Judith Hauptman, who not only exposes the diversity of views on women among the ancient rabbis of the Talmud, but also how they often seem to "correct" the more misogynistic views found in the Hebrew Bible.]

    mufi

  16. #16 Explicit Atheist
    May 23, 2008

    It is easy for us not living in Islamic countries to say nice things about gender equality in the Koran, but for people who actually live in those societies that implement the Koran as the law, it isn’t so equal, and the blame can be layed squarely to the words of the Koran. In Islam, women are entitled the right of inheritance, but often a woman’s share of inheritance is less than that of a man’s.

    In general circumstances, Islam allots females half the inheritance share available to males who have the same degree of relation to the deceased in some (though not all) circumstances. For example, where the deceased has both male and female children, a son’s share is double that of a daughter’s. Additionally, the sister of a childless man inherits half of his property upon his death, while a brother of a childless woman inherits all of her property.

  17. #17 Grimalkin
    May 23, 2008

    JM – I haven’t read the Quran, but I have opened it a few times and read bits and pieces of it in that way. One passage in particular struck me as directly contradicting your argument. I forget the number, it it provided instructions for how to beat one’s wife.

    How can you say that the Quran is not hostile towards women when it advises men to beat their wives and then instructs them as to how to do it?

    Now, I am not trying to argue that Muhammad was as sexist as modern day Islam (though I certainly think that the case could be made, especially considering some of the extra-Quranic material where he marries small children and has sex with them and then advises his followers to kill all the men folk of their enemies and then marry the virgins they find pretty – whether they want to marry or not). All I am saying is that the Quran is most definitely hostile towards women. Perhaps not quite as hostile as, say, Paul, but it isn’t happy friendly time either.

  18. #18 JM
    May 26, 2008

    I think a number of people here have missed the tenor of my remarks re. the Koran and women.

    Aslan is apparently (I haven’t read him) making a case that Muhammad was socially progressive for his time and culture. Jason said that this argument didn’t pass the “smell test”

    I expressed an opinion that it did in my view, and further explained that holding a 1400 year old set of social rules (which is what the Koran is) to a late 20th century western standard is a knee jerk – perhaps even ignorant – reaction and does not invalidate Aslan’s argument (at least so far as I understand it).

    I was also very careful not to claim that the Koran promotes the equality of women because it doesn’t.

    What it does do is promote just and equitable – though unequal – treatment of women and was a great advance on Judiac and Christian practice, which can be readily seen by reading it and comparing it with the bible.

    I then went on to say that often westerners are guilty of a form of smug cultural bigotry that says “our way is the best, and you are clearly less sophisticated than me”. The words mote, beam and eye come to mind here. Women are still not equal in the west.

    You can’t go ululating at a society’s cultural practices unless you understand why those practices have emerged. Let me elaborate using the example of some asian societies where women are clearly unequal in the western sense but have considerably more autonomy and power than might be first apparent.

    In some asian societies women are responsible for looking after their parents, and to some extent their siblings. Men are only responsible for looking after their wives and through them their wife’s family. This leads to a situation where women control all finances and place great demands on their husbands.

    This is not equality but it is not the chattel arrangement of xtianity, not by any means.

    Now imposition of a western standard of equality would break this arrangement, but at *great* social cost.

    The reason is that there is no social security in those countries, and this arrangement where women look after the old, and extract support from their husbands to achieve it is the *only* form of social security available. Remove the social arrangement and you have no care for the old.

    In other words there is a good reason for the differential treatment of women, and it isn’t as unequal as it looks. But removing it requires a huge change in social relations in those countries and isn’t going to happen any time soon. (I, like many other westerners would prefer that this change, but there are going to have to be great changes in the economies of those countries first, just as in the west there is a great deal still to do in improving the economic status of women before equality can be really achieved.)

    So looking down your nose at those arrangements is rude and ignorant, and also doesn’t help very much.

    The Koran can be understood in the same way. As I said earlier I don’t hold to the view that “women are equal in Islam”, but the view that the Koran treats women better than the bible is certainly pretty defensible. Many have pointed out that the misogyny of many modern islamic societies is not a feature of the Koran itself, but rather a cultural artifact of those societies themselves.

    Without having read Aslan, but having heard many people make similar cases, I think he does pass the “smell test” (although I don’t buy the sacred history argument).

    Grimalkin, the passage you’re looking for is verse 34 in the same suria that I urged Jason to read before. I’d only say that it is milder than similar injunctions that appear in the bible.

    But also read the following verse where disputes between husband and wife are to adjudicated by their families – ie. the woman isn’t chattel but is entitled to equal protection of her interests. (Verses 127,128,129 are also relevant)

  19. #19 mufi
    May 27, 2008

    JM,

    I agree that we should put these laws into their historical, geographical context. I also agree that “Women are still not equal in the west.” If we are to compare cultures, then the comparison should be well informed. That’s only fair.

    But if we are to espouse any ideals at all — and I believe we should, no less so with regard to gender relations as with, say, inter-cultural relations — then comparison is virtually unavoidable – especially when these cultures mix and begin to compete with one another politically.

    Besides, I thought your objection was not so much to the claim that modern Islamic countries afford women less social status than modern Western countries (and who here would disagree?), but rather to the attribution of that disparity to the Koran or other sacred Islamic texts. If so, then I would agree that a comparison between the sacred texts themselves, rather than between their modern interpretive communities, is more appropriate. (And, as I alluded earlier, the Hebrew Bible and Talmud by no means advocate gender equality.)

    After all, devotees can read all kinds of messages into their sacred texts that their original authors probably never intended. That’s one of the ways they keep them alive in different times and places.

    mufi

  20. #20 Silverloc
    May 30, 2008

    JM wrote: “I expressed an opinion that it did in my view, and further explained that holding a 1400 year old set of social rules (which is what the Koran is) to a late 20th century western standard is a knee jerk – perhaps even ignorant – reaction and does not invalidate Aslan’s argument (at least so far as I understand it).”

    It seems to me that the problem is that there are people who would like to apply their 1400 year old set of social rules to the 21st century world. I agree completely that we should not expect the 1400 year old rules to meet a modern standard, but there should also be no expectation that anyone would accept application of those rules as though the modern standard does not exist.

  21. #21 Islam Dersleri
    June 1, 2008

    Muslims seem not only to be some of the most skilled dissemblers in the religious hierarchy, but also the most skilled at enforcing the rules for proper dissemblance in their own ranks.