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.
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I too am fascinated by religion without any beliefs of my own - I would be keen to hear of anything else you would recommend that covers any religion at all. These two you've mentioned are now firmly on my wish listReplyDelete
Thanks for this post :)
Beth, anything by Karen Armstrong is good. I haven't read it but I've heard she has a good biography of Muhammad that is well respected. I've read most of the Teach Yourself books on the major religions and they are good in the sense that they cover so much information but they aren't exactly written in an inspiring way.Delete
Sam, you write the best reviews. This does sounds interesting. I'm a Christian, but I love to read about other religions and religious history, as well as Christian religious history. Even historical fiction regarding history, which I guess is why I wanted to read The Dovekeeper's :) Sometimes it is a matter of knowing which book to read so thank you! I have read something by Karen Armstrong, I believe. I know I know that name. It is interesting to me too that you grew up in London! I can't imagine, being a small town girl myself. I actually live in what is known as the bible belt (church on every corner) in the South. Hope you're having a great weekend and I apologize for my long comments on your blog. If there is blog etiquette, I don't know about it yet. :-)ReplyDelete
I love long comments :)Delete
I like historical fiction with religious elements too and I'm sure you are going to love The Dovekeepers! Geraldine Brook's People of the Book is another good one with Jewish history.
On our honeymoon, my husband and I had a road trip through the Southern states of America. We absolutely loved it but it's very different to London! I grew up in an area that has a large Pakistani community, so I've been familiar with Islam from an early age. I now teach in a different area with lots of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, which is different again.
Enjoy your weekend :)
How interesting - all that culture in one place! I so hope to make it to the UK "one day"! Thank you for the recommendations. I have lots to add to the TBR list :)Delete
This is a book that sounds very helpful for those of us wishing to know more about Islam. I work in a public library and we have lots of Muslim patrons - I would love to know more about their beliefs and traditions. This will definitely go on my 'someday' list.ReplyDelete
Sounds like you would enjoy this book :)Delete
Thank you for a very good review on a difficult subject.ReplyDelete
Thanks Mystica :)Delete
Great review. I've only scratched the surface of the history of Islam from reading more general history of the time period. I'd love to understand it better and this book sounds like a great jumping off point.ReplyDelete
Susan it's a good one because it doesn't assume any prior knowledge but does still go into quite a lot of depth.Delete
Excellent review, Sam, and I'll hunt this one out.ReplyDelete
You've heard Karen Armstrong speak? I'm jealous!! Been reading her for years and she's a theologian I find consistent in scholarship and objectivity.
I don't know as much about Islam as I should. This sounds like a fantastic book!ReplyDelete
I still feel that way, but the book was a good start! :PDelete
Excellent review, Sam. I have been wanting to read up on the three major religions AND contemporary Islam. I'll add both of these books to my tbr now :)ReplyDelete
Hope you do get a chance to read either of the books - the Armstrong one might be better as it covers the three monotheistic faiths?Delete
I've been wanting to read a good book Islam but haven't taken the time to find one, so thanks for the review. I took a comparative religion class in college and got an overview of various religions and keep meaning to go more in-depth with some of them. Like Missy, I'm from the buckle of the Bible Belt in the U.S., specifically Oklahoma. I'm also jealous you grew up in London - I went last year and LOVED it as much I hoped I would.ReplyDelete
Oh - and I think it's funny that the author's last name is Aslan and she's writing a book about God. I kept picturing Aslan the Narnian lion when you used her name in the review. :)Delete
Religion is fascinating. My husband has a theology degree & is a religious studies teacher so I am never short of book recommendations in this subject! Glad you enjoyed London :)Delete
The whole way through the book I thought Reza Aslan was a woman but actually it's a man.
A brilliant review, Sam, that has done justice to the book I dare say, though I have not read it. Thank you for sharing new enlightening perspective on a religion that has been much misunderstood by non-practioners adn practioners alike.ReplyDelete
Yes, it's definitely misunderstood and deliberately so by some. Glad you enjoyed the review :)Delete
I also love reading about religion. I minored in religious studies and while that wiped any religiosity from my own self, it kindled a fascination with faith. I'll pick this book up as soon as I can.ReplyDelete
Interesting that you mention the scientific advances of the Ummayad and Abbassid dynasties. I read somewhere that when the House of Wisdom in Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongols in 1238 it set human technological advancement back half a millennium.
I'm the same - no religious beliefs myself but fascinated with people who do. I hadn't heard of that fact but I can well believe it. On my kindle I have a book called 'Science and Islam' that I'm looking forward to getting to soon.Delete
Sounds like a highly informative book! I took a comparative religions course in college that was very enlightening for me since I grew up in a very sheltered (not diverse at all) small town.ReplyDelete
You constantly amaze me Sam. I have wanted to read this book for a longest time. I have The History of God on my shelf. What would you suggest? Should I start with Armstrong first then read No God but God?ReplyDelete
I'm so glad I found your blog. You read diversely and I like it.