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.