Religious historian Reza Aslan calls for a return to Islam’s tradition of tolerance
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?
I have always been interested in religion, ever since I left the country of my birth, Iran, in the midst of a revolution that, while not Islamic in nature, certainly was fueled by religious enthusiasm. The power that religion has to transform a society was deeply ingrained in me. And I've always had a spiritual interest in these issues. In college, I began to study world religions and the phenomenon of religion. In graduate school, I began to focus on my own traditions in an academic way and had almost what I'd describe as an intellectual conversion to Islam.
Did your focus change after September 11?
I was teaching Islamic studies at the University of Iowa at the time. After September 11, it became very clear to me not only that there was this great need for someone who could provide a bridge between the West and the Islamic world, who understood both and could communicate one to the other, but also that I didn't have a choice in the matter. There was a real responsibility that had been dropped on my shoulders from heaven above, and it would have been immoral of me to not take up that cause. I feel as though I really have no choice. I'm not alone in this. I speak to a lot of people like me in Europe and the United States who are working, not just to reframe the perceptions of Islam but also to battle this jihadist ideology. And none of us asked for this job. I was planning on becoming a novelist until all of this happened.
Is this a calling in the traditional sense of the word?
It really is. Part of it has come from my own intellectual and spiritual pursuits, but a lot of it comes from my education. I was taught by the Jesuits at Santa Clara University, and in the Jesuit tradition of Catholicism, it's constantly pounded into your head that you are responsible for the world, that there's no way to shirk that responsibility. I think it really came home to me after September 11 what it was that I was being called to do.
Your family left Iran in 1979, during the revolution. Were you forced to leave?
My father has always been a deeply anti-religious man—a militant atheist. I think he had such a distrust of the clerical establishment in Iran that he had a premonition that they were going to try to seize power once the shah had gone and once the post-revolutionary chaos really set in. Unlike the rest of his family. Nobody else really left. We left fairly late; we were [among] the last people to leave the country before the airports closed down.
Considering that his cynicism about religion was proved right in a way, how does your father feel about what you're doing now?
Now that I'm successful, he's very happy. He's always been unconditional in his support of whatever I wanted to do, but I think he always thought to himself, "How did I raise this boy?"
Does he support your ideas too?
He may be anti-religious, but he's deeply anti-Islamic. He read the galleys of my book, and it was hard for him to understand everything. He actually ended up reading the book three times, and afterwards he said to me, "I think I really get it, I think I get what you're saying. It makes a lot of sense." That was a wonderful moment for me.
Is he less angry at Islam now?
I think he has a better perspective on it now. He's still a committed atheist.
You have a new book coming out in 2008, How to Win a Cosmic War. What is a cosmic war?
Well, the term "cosmic war" is something that was created by my mentor, [University of California at Santa Barbara sociologist] Mark Juergensmeyer. Many religiously inspired terrorists, confronted with a conflict that cannot be won in any real or measurable terms, recast the conflict into cosmic terms, so that they're not fighting a real war; they're fighting an imaginary war that's actually taking place in heaven, not between nations or armies, but between angels of good and demons of evil. That's the kind of conflict that the jihadists are fighting. And the reason that we are doing such a poor job of counteracting the jihadists' mentality is that we're fighting the exact same unwinnable conflict. The way you win a cosmic war is by refusing to fight in one.
This conflict exists in the real world too. How should we define it?
We define it as a criminal investigation of people that need to be brought to justice. You can't win a battle against an idea with guns and bombs, you have to win it with words. Words become the greatest tools. The rhetoric that we have been using to define this conflict, this religiously charged, us versus them rhetoric, has made victory a more distant prospect. The way that we are talking about this conflict, as though the jihadists have it in their power to bring down human civilization as we know it, does nothing more than validate the jihadists' cause and provide them with the illusion of power.
Do YOU believe in God?
Oh yes. Many people who study history of religions come to the discipline from a position of faith but quite quickly lose that position. But I think it's because so many people, even academics, confuse religion and faith. In the course of their intellectual studies, they recognize that no religion has a monopoly on truth, and in fact they are talking about the same issues, asking the same questions and often coming up with the exact same answers. For some people, that is a reason to no longer believe. For me, it's the primary reason to believe.
What is the difference between religion and faith?
[With faith,] we are talking about inexpressible ideas, transcendent ideas. We need a language with which to talk about it. And religion's purpose is to provide that language. I think the problem comes when the language becomes not a means to achieving transcendence but the end in itself. That's where we are right now. I try to not just educate people about the religions of the world but about what religion actually means, what it's supposed to be. We need not only a better understanding of our neighbor's religion but a better understanding of religion itself.
What Is religion's role in modern society?
If you believe that nothing exists beyond the material world, then you have no need for any kind of religion. But if you believe that there is something beyond the material world, that's called religion. I don't think that religion is becoming less relevant. I just think it's changing.
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A former editorial assistant at Smithsonian, Amy Crawford is a student at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.