No God but God, by Reza Aslan

Visions of an Islamic reformer
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

For many troubled Muslims, this book will feel like a revelation, an opening up of knowledge too long buried, denied and corrupted by generations of men (all men, like in all religions) who have succeeded in turning a religion of hope, liberation, imagination, spirituality and mercy into a heartless rule-book of control freakery.

Muslim keepers of the latter will rage against Reza Aslan as his careful scholarship and precise language dismantles their false claims and commands. Orthodoxies bite back when the daring interrogate them. For non-Muslim readers, the author is a fascinating guide who takes them through 1400 years of a complicated and exhilarating journey, starting with the birth of Islam, with animated debates about what it means to be a Muslim, and the tensions between eternal divine laws and human evolution.

This is not uncommon: there is a line of inspiring authors who have "explained" Islam and narrated the foundational stories of that belief-system. But Aslan and a small number of emerging voices have embarked on something much more radical. Ziauddin Sardar in Britain is one of them, as are Tariq Ramadhan in Switzerland and Amina Wadud, who proudly led a mixed congregation in prayers in New York this spring. Ramadhan has called for the end of hudood punishments - stoning, amputations, executions. Bravery indeed.

They are making history with poise and confidence. Like Martin Luther, most of these reformers shape their challenges in terms of simple faith, essence, and original principles which make more sense to them than the pontifications of dogmatists. Aslan writes of a worldwide battle: "a jihad if you will - to strip the Traditionalist Ulama of their monopoly over the meaning and message of Islam and pave the way" to realise "the long-awaited and hard-fought Islamic reformation." In the Muslim world, and in Europe and the US, the message of Islam is being re-defined by first and second-generation immigrants. This new-wave Islam wants Muslims to merge the values of their ancestors with the democratic values of their homes. The reformation Aslan anticipates will be "a terrifying event", but it will engulf the world.

Aslan is acutely perceptive when he writes that 11 September was as much a manifestation of this clash as a blow to the superpower. However, confused and solipsistic, the authorities in the US and UK cannot deal with audacious reformers whose intellect challenges their stereotypes and geopolitical games. So much easier to do business with tyrants, autocrats and lackeys. Ramadhan is labelled "dangerous", denied a visa to take up a post in the US; Aslan is branded a "fundamentalist". They carry on, in the creative space between two wilfully ignorant civilisations.

Aslan locates Islam in the historical landscape, unpicks myths and gives us a rounded Prophet, who was a man steeped in the influence of Christianity and Judaism. Before the prophetic visions, Muhammad was drawn to monotheistic thinkers, troubled about his wealth and privilege. Some readers will bristle to read this section, other may have their own interpretations. Such robust debates are essential. Ijtihad - independent reasoning - is intrinsic to Islamic scholarship.

My arguments with Aslan are political. He does not embrace the secular state - in my view, the only safe state for human rights and pluralism. Nations where majority religions dominate the public space inevitably relegate others to subservience. In time, authoritarianism takes hold. It happened in India under the Hindu nationalist government and in Iran under Khomeini.

Aslan remembers the early promises of the Iranian revolution. Now he imagines Islamic enlightened politics will arrive in Iraq - another hopeless hope, I fear. Iraq's secularism has been destroyed and its Islamicisation brings foreboding for secular Muslims, women, Christians and Jews. Maybe he will be proved right and a just Islamic, Iraqi state will emerge. If so, I will be happy to surrender to this young writer and his ideals.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's 'Some of My Best Friends' is published by Politico's

Buy any book reviewed on this site at Independent Books Direct
- postage and packing are free in the UK