Reviewed by Sean Badal
Reza Aslan’s book comes profusely adorned with lavish praise from the usual suspects – it was shortlisted for the Guardian’s First Book Award, and …cripes… there’s a quote from A.S Byatt on the front cover. Never figured her for an Islamophile somehow. Do they know she’s a white woman from the counties?
The Washington Post waxed lyrical about his “unusual background”. Er, he was born in Iran and fled the country with his parents in 1978, aged seven. This was in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. What the fuck is so “unusual” about that. The coffee-shops of North London are teeming with shaggy-haired, sad-eyed Iranian exiles and the New York Times bestseller lists of recent are cluttered with Iranian memoirs of varying shades.
Admittedly Aslan doesn’t quite fit that description. He’s a handsome bloke in that dark (but not too dark) and smoldering way so beloved by westerners who simply adore all things Middle Eastern.
Having got all that off my chest, the book itself is rattling good story. I know “accessible” is a clichéd word, but it’s hard to believe that there has hardly ever been a comprehensible account of the history of Islam that can be read as easily as Aslan’s book. The story of Islam from the birth of the Prophet Muhammad to the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks in the US is presented in one breathtaking sweep. It’s an artificial end-point but hey, if he’d carried on with the attacks, it would be like Groundhog Day in Basra.
The first half of the book is most compelling. Muhammed’s trials and tribulations are presented as a gripping narrative. From the moment Muhammed received his first revelation on Mt Hira in 610, he saw himself – quite unequivocally – as a messenger of God. His people though, were a bit dubious, referring to him as a “kahin”, a fortuneteller. Muhammed’s first major battles were based on issues of economic justice in the most commercial of all Arabic cities, Mecca. His fight with the Quraysh tribe is well documented in heart-stopping detail, and so is his flight to Yathrib which later came to be known as Medinat an-Nabi (the home of the prophet), Medina.
Although firmly monotheist, the author argues that "As far as Muhammad understood, the Torah, the Gospels and the Quran must be read as a single, cohesive narrative about humanity's relationship to God. ..." Interestingly the Ka’ba was also worshipped in pre-Islamic times, together with a panoply of other gods. They were all chucked out, with the exception of the Ka’ba. This I did not know.
Sadly the history of Islam after Muhammed’s death is grisly catalogue of slaughter, both within Muslim territory and outside.
The history of Wahhabism is also revelatory. It started with a small clan based in Najd, the eastern Arabian region, led by one Muhammed ibn Saud (you know where this is going). Saud, a wealthy landowner, offered refuge to an exiled preacher, Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab who was something of a religious zealot, to put it mildly. Powered by a puritanical ideology Al-Wahhab declared jihad on all forms of Islam – including Sufism – that didn’t conform to his rigid interpretation of the Koran. The author states that the alliance between the two men “not only altered the course of Islamic history but changed the geo-political balance of the world.” Phew.
It gets more interesting. The Ottoman Muslims, what with their drinking and whoring, weren’t too keen on the Wahhabis either. They sent an army to Arabia to crush them, but, guess what, the British, eager to get their hands on the Ottoman empire secretly funded and armed the Wahhabis.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Title: No God but God – the origins, evolution and future of Islam
Author: Reza Aslan
*** Once again, many thanks to Sean for providing this book review.