Faith Healer

Religious historian Reza Aslan calls for a return to Islam’s tradition of tolerance

(Eric Jaffe)
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Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan, 35, is the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (2005).

What did you hope to accomplish with No god but God?

The book was an attempt to break through the cacophony of extremist and radical ideas about Islam. I felt as though the vast moderate majority was being completely ignored. I wanted to write a book that would express the Islam of the majority to a non-Muslim audience and give them a primer on the history, theology, practice and diversity of Islam. More importantly, I wanted to reach out to Muslims themselves, who are being bombarded by these different ideas of what they should believe and how they should act, and give them a counterweight to the voices from the margins.

In the book, you talk about a "Muslim Reformation." What do you mean?

I'm talking about a phenomenon that occurs in many great religious traditions, a conflict between institutions and individuals over who has the authority to define the faith. While this tension is always there, in times of great social or political upheaval, it can rise to the surface, often with catastrophic results. Islam has been going through this process, this fracturing of authority, since the colonial period. It's resulting not just in a breakdown in the traditional sources of authority in Islam—the mosques, the schools of law, the clerical institutions—but in new sources of authority arising and becoming widespread through the Internet. These jihadist elements, these groups like Al Qaeda, are very much a part of this Reformation. They are about as radically individualistic and radically anti-institutional as it gets in the Muslim world. But this is precisely what happened with the Christian Reformation: radically individualist interpretations of the religion battling it out with each other over ascendancy.

How long will it take before the conflict dies down?

I think we're witnessing its twilight. That doesn't mean it's going to get any better or less violent—probably quite the contrary. We can't talk about it as though one side is going to win and one side is going to lose. These tensions will always exist. But I think there is every reason to believe that with a proper approach to combating jihadism, it can go back to what it was before, a fringe group that will always be a problem and a threat, but certainly not the kind of global phenomenon that it has become since September 11, primarily as a consequence of the West's response.

What would be the proper response, both from the West and from moderate Muslims?

Moderate Muslims are belatedly recognizing that jihadism is far more a threat to them than it is to non-Muslims and that the only way to defeat an ideology of Islamic Puritanism or Islamic militancy or Islamic bigotry is with an ideology of Islamic pluralism, of Islamic peace, of Islamic tolerance. And that ideology is not going to be created by the West. It's going to be created by Muslims.

Why did you make islam your life's work?

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Michigan-based freelance journalist writing about cities, science, the environment, art and education. A longtime Smithsonian contributor, her work also appears in CityLab and the Boston Globe.

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