Saturday, 1 September 2012
No God But God by Reza Aslan
Despite not being a believer, I've always been fascinated with religion. I grew up in inner London so have been surrounded by people of different faiths from an early age and this has made me curious about them all. No God But God is simply the best book on Islam that I've ever read. It covers the development of the religion well and includes lots of discussion but more importantly, it's beautifully written in an almost narrative style that makes it easy to keep turning the pages. Aslan shows a lot of respect for his faith but at the same time is keen to separate historical fact from myth.
I think most readers could learn a lot from this book. Although I was already familiar with the history of Islam and the Sunni-Shi'a split (went to an amazing Karen Armstrong lecture at the British Museum once), there was much in this book I didn't know. I found the chapter on Sufi Islam fascinating, they are an almost mystical group that believe in destroying your ego in order to achieve 'oneness' with Allah. They practise many rituals to distract them from the sense of self, from breathing patterns through to dance, fasting and intense spiritual training. Interestingly, they believe that there are many paths to God and the path you choose is irrelevant as long as you are making the journey.
Aslan's main argument in this book is about what some call the 'clash of civilisations' following 9/11. It's certainly true that Muslims have been tarred with a fundamentalist/terrorist brush and that some in the West think we are the prime target of groups such as Al-Qaeda. However, Aslan argues that the West is simply caught up in what is an internal conflict between Muslims, a sort of Islamic Reformation where different groups are vying for the heart and soul of Muslims. He traces the development of Al-Qaeda through Saudi Wahhabism (and it's funding from the West) and contrasts it with nations and schools of thought that want Islamic democracy - to live in a state where Islam is important but to still have civil rights. If nothing else, Aslan's reminder that not all Muslims are the same is timely and one that certain groups in the West should learn.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and was struck by how religion as an institution is certainly different from faith. After Muhammad's death his followers couldn't agree on how best to interpret his message and how to pronounce on matters that were not covered in the Quran. Although the arguments of the different theological schools were hard to follow at times it was fascinating to see how things changed over time (much like Christianity) and how different issues became relevant at different times through history.
My only complaints about the book are that I would have liked to read more about the Ottomans (but then I love anything to do with the Ottomans) and that I think Aslan missed a trick by not mentioning the scientific developments in Islamic countries whilst European countries were still in the Middle Ages. If you're interested in religion, this is definitely a book to read and it's also one to recommend to anyone who needs their perceptions about Muslims challenged.
First Published: 2005
Score: 4.5 out of 5
A History of God by Karen Armstrong - I read this one pre-blogging. It's an excellent non-fiction account of the birth and development of the three major monotheistic faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam.