Looking for Its Luther

Although it may not have felt like it, September 11 was just fallout. According to Reza Aslan, the West, with its great commercial center in downtown New York City, was “merely a bystander” in an ongoing conflict raging within Islam. This struggle has left a crater at the center of his religion that is so huge its creation generated a cloud of dust that we mistook for—and misnamed—the epicenter. In short, we’ve all been wrong about the location of ground zero.

Referring to 9/11 as fallout, or implying that Islam itself was in some ways more damaged by the attacks than the United States, does not minimize the tragedy of the day. Aslan, a doctoral candidate in religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara, knows well that thousands of dead cannot be considered collateral damage. And for this very reason, neither can the attacks be understood as jihad: Islam’s own highly regulated guidelines for “just war.” It is precisely because the attacks were so indiscriminate, says Aslan, that they were “roundly condemned” and unsanctioned within a Muslim world that takes seriously the requirements laid out in the Qur’an for jihad. Aslan belongs to this Muslim world, and No god but God is his explanation to the West, an apology and defense of his faith, and a “critical reexamination” of Islam that is as soulful as it is smart.

More than any other idea, event, era, or person discussed in his thorough and engaging history of Islam, jihad is Aslan’s focus—no doubt because the concept entered the Western consciousness mostly by way of 9/11. The terrorists were widely called jihadists in the Western media, and with this book, the author has attempted a kind of reclamation project. To this end, Aslan develops a verbal tic, a sort of religious stammer over his favorite word: strive. Through the power of sheer repetition, Aslan hammers home the primary religious meaning of jihad—an internal striving or struggle, as the Qur’an puts it, “in the way of God.”

By Aslan’s account, good Muslims have always been strivers, beginning, of course, with the prophet Muhammad. And while any history of Islam will be bloody, like histories of Christianity or Judaism, Buddhism or Taoism—“every religion,” Aslan avers—he is clear that there is nothing holy about the kind of violence that has been identified by some Muslims as jihad. Aslan writes, “There are a host of words in Arabic that can be definitively translated as ‘war’; jihad is not one of them.”

The West is wrong to see Muslims as murderers and not strivers, Aslan contends. Those who murder are misguided sinners. The prophet Muhammad never would have approved. In Aslan’s history, Islam takes the shape of a single embattled soul engaged in the internal religious struggle that characterizes “the greater jihad.”

If Islam itself is currently engaged in this greater jihad, then who are the combatants? On the one hand, there are Al Qaeda and other radical, revolutionary Wahhabist organizations (sects founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab). They divide the world into “the People of Heaven” and “the People of Hell” and interpret the first pillar of Islam, “There is no god but God,” in a puritanical sense, that God alone should be the object of religious devotion. Muslims who do not share these beliefs are to be killed as infidels. For these religious reactionaries, the rule of God is the only rule; to separate religion and politics makes no sense. These Muslim have made themselves well known throughout the West by very clearly identifying their enemies, often with bombs.

Modernist reform-minded Muslims, on the other hand, would have power broadly shared within an Islamic democracy grounded in the ideals of pluralism. They understand the first pillar of Islam to include devotion to both God and the community at large. The model for Aslan and other Muslim modernists is the first settlement of emigrants in Medina, where the revelation received by the prophet Muhammad was “dictated by the needs of the Ummah,” the community of believers. According to Aslan, representative democracy, “the greatest social and political experiment in the history of the world,” has taken hold among Muslims as the modern-day fulfillment of the Medinan ideal. It is thus in keeping with the way of God that “all legal and moral considerations be determined by the citizens of the Islamic state.”

Muslim democrats, though, are by nature both less exclusive and harder to classify than their reactionary opponents. In fact, Aslan shares at least one quality with the religious fundamentalists and political Islamists: He has a much harder time pointing out his friends than his enemies. If No god but God might be seen as a blueprint for democratic reform in the Muslim world, it remains unclear, by Aslan’s account, who today’s Muslim democrats are. In this sense, the book’s subtitle correctly identifies its scope and aspirations—the origins, evolution, and future of Islam—while the present moment remains conspicuously absent.

Surprisingly, and much to the author’s credit, the story of the battle over the soul of Islam will seem familiar to a Western reader. Consider, for example, Aslan’s description of the faithful strivers Muhammad led away from Mecca and who eventually established Medina as the “City of the Prophet.” Through his recitations, Muhammad’s early followers were taught an ethics of radical social egalitarianism, and an ideal of economic redistribution, realities for which the prophet struggled (or, strove) in life. Among Christians, there may be no more accepted characterization of Jesus and his community of disciples than as this sort of radical. And of course, God is always God in Aslan’s version, never Allah.

Today, Islam is about fourteen hundred years old, and if the history of Christianity is any example, the time and conditions are right for an Islamic Reformation to match Luther’s. Most important, this Reformation could serve to reconcile Islam with democracy. And just as John F. Kennedy had to calm Americans’ fears of “papalism” by pledging he would resign if there should be a conflict between his faith and his duty to uphold the Constitution, Aslan assures the reader that the same principle applies to Islamic democracy: “If there is ever a conflict between the two, it must be the interpretation of Islam that yields [in the secular sphere] to the reality of democracy, not the other way around.”

The history of Islam has never been one of successful consolidation. After the death of the Prophet and the split between what would become the orthodox Sunni and the sect of Shiism, not to mention the Sufi mystics, there have always been at least two stories, two claims on Islam—at least two writers of each successive chapter. One, though, has tended to hold sway. And while the same old factionalism still exists, the current chapter is up for grabs between reactionary and violent fundamentalists and striving and democratic modernists. Aslan is positive that the modernists will prevail. “Reformation is already here,” he declares. And No god but God is a beautiful early draft of the modernists’ chapter.

Published in the 2005-11-18 issue: 

Scott Korb is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. He is the coauthor with Peter Bebergal of The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God (Bloomsbury).

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