I actually haven’t ever really been interested in Islam as a religion, or culture. I’m sure we discussed it in my Religions of the World class at college, but I have absolutely no memory. That said, some time back I realized that if I’m going to be an intelligent, informed person these days (at least on a world scale) and if I’m ever going to understand the reason people want to strap bombs to themselves and blow up others, I ought to learn a bit about the religion that’s driving the events in that part of the world.
No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan is the perfect book for that. It’s essentially a history book — he begins at the beginning with Muhammad and follows the history of Islam up through current times. I’m not sure if it’s at all accurate — having no other exposure to the history of Islam — but given that Aslan’s devoted his life to this (aside from being a Muslim) I’m pretty confident he’s not spouting tales. Anyway. I found myself fascinated by the origins of Islam, the prophet Muhammad in particular. I kept drawing parallels with my religion, and wondering what (if any) place the Muslims have in God’s plan. Needless to say, it made for some interesting discussions with my husband. The middle section — after Muhammad dies and Islam dissolves into several competing factions — weren’t as interesting. I’m still not sure if I’ve got Sunni, Shi’ah and Sufi Muslims all straight in my mind. But I guess it’s helpful to know that the conflicts between the three (or more) factions aren’t new. The last two chapters are worth reading for anyone (even if you already have a pretty thorough knowledge of the rest of the stuff) — that’s where he gets down to what’s going on currently. And he has a fascinating take on it. In short: Muslims are fighting internally for control of the religion and how best to interpret an Islamic state. The West just happens to be a bystander. Not to make the events of 9/11 seem less, but, in his view (if I got it correctly), they just happened to be a byproduct of a bigger conflict, not a direct assault on the west in general and the US in particular. What is more important to al-Qaeda is the “near enemy” (as Aslan puts it): the unbelievers (or those who don’t believe the way they do).
He spent a good deal of space talking about how an Islamic democracy isn’t an oxymoron. Essentially, Islam is supposed to be able to be diverse. And moral. Which both support democratic ideals. However, extremists (like al-Qaeda) refuse to see that point. He’s actually very harsh on the factions of Islam (throughout history) that have suppressed the various individual sects. He blames colonization, and the US for some of it, but mostly he points to the limited interpretations that have been held by a few (not the majority) throughout history as warping the ideals of Islam.
In the end, though, Aslan’s hopeful that something good will come out of all this bloodshed.