According to Aslan, the world, whether it recognizes it yet or not, is currently witnessing the long-due response to this disconnect between Sharia — the Islamic law formulated by generations of clerics after Muhammad’s death — and the teaching of Muhammad himself: the first Islamic Reformation. On one side of this clash are the traditionalists — embodied by much of the Islamic clerical establishment; on the other side are the modernists — embodied, Reza believes, by most of the world’s Muslims. At the center of their conflict is the question of whether the Koran is the literal word of God, and therefore inerrant and immutable, as the traditional clerics believe. The modernists believe not only that the Koran is a fluid, evolving document open to adaptive interpretation, but that the very notion of Islam as a static religion is an offense against God. Aslan believes — and argues convincingly — that the clerics are fighting a losing battle.
No god but God was chosen best book of the year in its category by the Financial Times, a “favorite book of the year” in the Los Angeles Times, and shortlisted for the Guardian (U.K.) First Book Prize. The acclaim is well deserved. Not only is No god but God an elegantly written primer on Islam, but it is a persuasive corrective to a number of biased assumptions about Islam that have become political orthodoxy in the United States. Aslan, who has studied at Santa Clara University and Harvard, and holds a Master of Fine Arts from the writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa, is currently a doctoral candidate at UCSB. Recently I spoke with Aslan; the following is an edited version of our conversation.
Many Americans who formed their view of Islam during the last four years tend to view Islam as fundamentally opposed to Christianity and Judaism; you argue in your book No god but God that the core message of Islam is social justice, that Islam is akin to Judaism and especially Christianity in this sense. The greatest misconception about Islam in the West is that this is a foreign and exotic religion, a religion of “the other,” when nothing could be further from the truth. Islam is part of the same sacred narrative history that most Americans are familiar with from reading the Bible. One thing the Prophet Muhammad said repeatedly to his followers was: “This is not a new message. … This is the same message that was given to Abraham and to Moses and to all the prophets. This is the same message that was given to John the Baptist and to Jesus — their God is your God, their scripture is your scripture. …” The Shia see God’s divine revelation as omnipresent — it is everywhere, it is the air that we breathe, and prophets are people who, because of God’s will, become attuned to that revelation and they suck it in. And then translate it, and expel it to a general population. That revelation is universal — it’s one communication from God, and it’s the same communication whether it came out of the mouth of Moses or came out of the mouth of Jesus or the mouth of Muhammad. In the Koran this concept is referred to as Umm al-Kitab — the Mother of all Books. The idea is that all of these scriptures are essentially derived from one single scripture, the mother book that rests in heaven. It’s a remarkably pluralistic idea about not just the relationship between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism as these three faiths of Abraham, but more importantly what revelation means, what scripture means — and what is humanity’s relationship to God.
You quote the Koran: “To you, your religion; to me, mine.” That runs counter to the very prevalent conception of Islam as a religion that seeks to convert nonbelievers by the sword. It’s a fallacy to talk about Islam as an evangelizing religion. It has never been an evangelizing mission. More than anything, for the last 300 years or so, what missionary work there’s been in Islam has been directed at other Muslims, to Muslims they feel have perverted Islam. It’s not like Christianity, whose very foundation is go and preach the message, go convert the masses — never the driving force of Islam in any way, either historically or theologically. … This notion of “the religion of the sword” comes from 7th- and 8th-century papal propaganda. If you were the Pope, if you were in charge of Christendom, and you saw [the first] Muslim empire within the span of a century swallow up half of your land, you would of course describe them as a religion of warriors, as a religion of the sword. And that propaganda has filtered into the very foundation of Western civilization’s idea of what Islam is.
The Bush administration seems to regard Al Qaeda as emanating directly from the Koran; it sees Al Qaeda as a theological movement, not a political movement using its interpretation of the Koran to justify itself. Like all scriptures the Koran is essentially a neutral document. … Scripture without interpretation becomes just words on a page, [so] it’s only natural that people are going to read the Koran through the lens of their own political, social, and cultural biases. I remind people all the time that 150 years ago, American slave owners and abolitionists not only used the same Bible to justify their arguments, they quoted the same verses to justify their arguments. That’s why scripture is so powerful, that is why the Gospels and the Torah and the Koran have lasted thousands of years, because they are eminently malleable, they are able to be conformed to a whole host of ideologies, whether they are political or social or whatever, and whether they are accepted by someone who lives in a desiccated African tribe in the middle of the Sahara, or by someone who lives in a mansion in Montecito. If they were not malleable, they would have ceased to exist.
This concept is known as abrogation in Islam, the idea that later verses abrogate earlier verses. … I think the really important thing to understand about this idea of abrogation is that it indicates the Koran is a living, breathing, evolving text. [Muhammad’s message] was revealed in the span of 22 years and it was in a constant state of evolution during those 22 years. … [Fundamentalists] believe that with Muhammad’s death the revelation ceased and that was the end of it. What we have is set in stone. This is how fundamentalists see the scripture — forever, unchanging. Just like there are fundamentalist Christians who believe that about the Bible, there are fundamentalist Muslims who believe that about the Koran. I think this is grossly offensive in all religious traditions, because what they are saying is that somehow God is static, that the community of faith is unchanging, that somehow the three or four thousand Muslims whom Muhammad left behind when he died in the 7th century are equivalent to the 1.2 billion Muslims living now — what was good for them 14 centuries ago is good for us today.
You write that what we’re currently seeing in the Muslim world
is an Islamic Reformation. Where is this Reformation coming
It’s important to remember there are no priests in Islam, there is no such thing as divine ordination. One’s authority in Islam comes solely from scholarship, from knowledge. It’s very much like Judaism — rabbis are scholars, not divinely ordained priests. Clerics in Islam have achieved their level of authority based on their education. … It’s the scholars who define Islam, so [Osama] bin Laden is unqualified. And he has absolutely no authority to issue a fatwa. Only an Islamic scholar can issue a fatwa. Bin Laden knows this. He doesn’t have the authority to issue these declarations — only a cleric has the authority to do this. His followers know this.
And in that knowledge there is something really fascinating going on. As in the Christian Reformation, the question becomes: Who has the authority to define faith — the institution or the individual? Osama bin Laden is saying it should be the individual, so he is similar in a sense to the reformation radicals of 16th-century Germany, who took that sense of individualism in religions to terrifying extremes, leading to revolutions and uprisings in opposition to the institutional authority of the Church. Again, Islam doesn’t have a church, but it does have institutions that reflect this kind of authority. So in a strange way, what he and I and are doing are the same, but from different points of view. I am also saying that the clerical institutions don’t have the authority to define what Islam is for anyone else. But of course whenever you have a situation in which that kind of authority passes from institutions to individuals, you are going to have individuals who are going to define their religion based on their social agendas and political ideologies, whatever they are. That’s precisely what’s happening know — it’s at the core of this conflict in Islam.
Moving to the notion of an Islamic democracy, most people in the West have a certain conception of democracy as fundamentally rooted in secularism, or at least the separation of church and state. So the idea of a religious democracy would be anathema. Right — the notion that a democratic state must be founded on secularism. But this is not the case. Israel is a democracy, and it is unapologetically founded upon a Jewish moral framework. England has a national church whose bishops serve in the upper house of Parliament; their monarch, Queen Elizabeth, is the head of the church. And then of course there is the United States, which in some circles prides itself on being founded on secularism. There’s no such thing! This is not a country founded upon secularism — read our founding documents. This country is founded upon pluralism. And what was called pluralism in 1776 was Protestant pluralism … it certainly didn’t include Catholics, and it most certainly didn’t include Jews or Muslims. Two hundred and fifty years later, Americans are still debating the role of religion in the state … we’re still arguing whether the Ten Commandments should be posted in a federal courthouse; after 250 years, we have Tom DeLay, the former Speaker of the House, standing on the floor of Congress and calling down the wrath of God — literally calling down the wrath of God — on federal judges he disagrees with. For 250 years we’ve been working on this. Maybe we ought to give Iraq a day before we start saying, “Oh goodness. It’s a theocracy.”
In talking about an Islamic democracy, all one is referring to is a democratic state founded upon the principles that define a democracy — constitutionalism, rule of law, popular sovereignty, human rights, pluralism, government accountability — but one that is founded upon an Islamic moral framework. One in which the mores and the values of the population itself helps define the mores and values of the state. And if the population is 96 percent Muslim, as Iraq is, guess what? Those are the values that are going to define the state. … As long as the requirements of a democracy are met — pluralism, both religious and social, human rights, popular sovereignty, the rule of law — as long as those requirements are met, who cares what the moral framework is? It’s irrelevant.
Can you give me an example of an everyday manifestation of Islamic morality in an Islamic democracy? I just say it right away: One of the hardest issues would be things that are just absolutely forbidden in the Koran, like drinking or gambling. Those are things that the Koran is pretty black-and-white about. So quite likely, in an Islamic democracy these are things that would be legally prohibited or at the very least severely frowned upon. We in America could say, “That’s not a free democracy. If you’re not allowed to drink and gamble, that’s not a free democracy.”
That is not how the Arab world considers society. This is a world that is steeped in the tribalism in which it was originally founded. And that sense of community over individual is still very much a part of the consciousness of the Arab world. And it is quite likely that any kind of democratic government that comes out of that society is going to be deeply influenced by this notion that there will be instances in which the interests of the community will trump the interests of the individual. Again, we can look at that and say, well, that’s not right, or that’s not good, or that’s not admirable. But you know what? Our opinion is utterly irrelevant about what kind of society they should have. It makes no difference at all.
The other thing too is that a democracy is an experiment, and it is essentially defined by the values of the people themselves, and as those values change, so will the democracy. In the United States, around 200 of our 250 years, blacks were not considered equal citizens, they could not vote. Women were not considered equal citizens, they could not vote. Those were the values that Americans had, and as those values changed, our democracy changed. I think that’s exactly what would happen in an Islamic democracy. I think that realistically speaking, if you look at a country like Iraq, yeah I think the first experiment with democracy will be much more religious than we would like it to be, than I think it should be. I think that’s natural. It’s going to be a response to decades upon decades of religious persecution. But the key is: How will that democracy evolve?
How should we view this Islamic reformation in the context of Iraq? If modernization is underway, how will it reconcile the different faiths within Islam? In Iraq we are seeing, or are about to see, a civil war between the Sunni and the Shia, who the Sunni view as apostates. The Sunni-Shia conflict taking place in Iraq is less an issue of religion than one of politics. The Sunnis feel they are now the persecuted minority and that idea is frightening enough that they have lashed out against the Shia majority. Also there are outside influences in Iraq — the members of Al Qaeda — these fanatics and extremists who have a theological beef with the Shia and with all Muslims who don’t agree with their puritanical viewpoints. They are deliberately trying to create a civil war, a religious civil war, between these two sects. And they’re being quite successful in doing so, there’s no question about that.
In order to speak so optimist-ically of Iraq, I separate the issues. … There is the insurgency, the lack of security … the reconstruction has been going incredibly poorly for a number of reasons — there have been ridiculously executed plans in that country by this [Bush] administration. But on the other side of it is the actual political and civil order that the Iraqis themselves are trying to create — an indigenous Islamic democratic society. Quite frankly, they have done a marvelous job of doing that. I think sometimes it’s hard to see that because it’s hard to see past the issue of security, which is abominable. And really the political experiment doesn’t have a chance in hell of getting off the ground if the issue of security isn’t taken care of. But if this experiment is given a chance to come to fruition, if given a chance to become a modern, sophisticated experiment in democracy, then yeah, ironically despite the Bush administration, and despite the neoconservative agenda, it really could become the shining example of an Arab democracy.
How should we view reports that much of southern Iraq is now ruled by fundamentalists, that not only have religious minorities been marginalized, but women are being forced to wear the veil? Southern Iraq is unquestionably a very conservative region, dominated by conservative Shia. They have very traditionalist values, and a very conservative conception of religion and of the role of women in society. And there have already been a number of reports of violations of human rights of minorities and certainly of women’s rights. And these are obviously in violation of the constitution, and what we need to do is make sure that the principles embedded in the constitution — freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and the equality of men and women under the law — are observed regardless of where an Iraqi lives. But we also need to understand that like the United States, Iraq has certain geographical circles that have different values, different ways of dealing with social issues. We need to allow Iraqis themselves to decide what kind of society they want to live in, and as long as those values do not violate the principles of the constitution, then I think we’ll do okay. But we also need to understand that this will be an evolutionary process, and that it will take a long time for Iraq to become the modern, democratic state that people are hoping for it to become. It is good to know, for instance, that in Iraq’s Parliament — the first parliament in Iraq’s history — there are more women than there are women in both houses of U.S. Congress combined.
How does all of this dovetail with Iran? We’re hearing that the leaders of the Shia majority in Iraq are in close contact with the Shia leaders of Iran, and that what’s going to result is a theocratic Islamic state modeled after Iran, not a democracy. Bullshit. For two reasons. One, the only thing the Iraqi Shia have in common with Iran is that they are Shia. And they don’t even follow the same kind of Shi’ism. The Khomenist idea in Iran is not a very popular idea in Iraq, primarily because they can look at the country next door and see what a horrific failure it has been in every sense of the term. No Iraqi wants to become another Iranian. Quite the opposite. Even SCIRI, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has over and over again made it clear, publicly so, that this is not what they want for Iraq.
That aside, is Iran exerting an enormous amount of influence in Iraq? Of course! I find it amazing that anyone in this administration is surprised by that fact. I mean, never mind the fact that Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, all these countries are exerting influence in Iraq much the same way that the United States is. Of course they’re trying to exert influence — they want an Iraq that is friendly to their economies and their political systems. But as for Iran, there is a difference between exerting influence in Iraq and creating a new Iran. I don’t think there’s any real evidence of that happening at all. There is very little taste for clerical rule in Iraq. The Grand Ayatollahs in Iraq have no interest in that kind of Islamic theocracy that Iran has. The only cleric that seriously pursues that kind of agenda is Moqtada al-Sadr, and Moqtada al-Sadr is the lowest of mid-level clerics. He has no senior influence whatsoever. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any influence, he certainly does. But [this notion about Iran] is a paranoid fantasy.
What policy changes should the U.S. make toward Iraq? The only role the U.S. has in Iraq is to create enough stability for the Iraqis to put this political experiment into action. Allow it to actually have an opportunity to really take hold in that country. Thus far, we haven’t done a very good job of that. Probably the simplest thing that would make the largest impact on the security situation in Iraq is bringing Iraq’s neighbors to the negotiating table — bring Syria and Iran to the table. And recognize that while we all may have different interests in Iraq, and we may all have different ideas of what we want to see in the region, we all have one thing in common: It’s terrible for all of us if Iraq tumbles into chaos and disorder. In fact it’s much worse for Syria and Iran than it is for the U.S., and that’s precisely why they have been fiddling with Iraqi affairs. They want to make sure that their interests are taken care of, and that they have some stake in the future of Iraq. If we can give them that opportunity, we can enlist their help in closing the borders [of Iraq] and making sure that we don’t have any more foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq. Once that is done, we can deal with insurgency in Iraq in a political way. But there is no dealing with the jihadists, the foreign insurgents, in a political way. … There’s only a military solution to that.
After the London bombings, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, “Muslims need to wake up to the fact that they have a jihadist death cult in their midst.” As you talk about the clash between Muslim modernists and Muslim fundamentalists, you must come up a lot against the question: Where are the modernists? Thomas Friedman has no excuse for the ignorance that he shows repeatedly in stating that there have been no condemnations of bin Laden at all. Just do a Google search: Type in “Fatwa against bin Laden,” and you will see hundreds upon hundreds of fatwas written against bin Laden from the Muslim Affairs Council, the Fiqh Council of North America, the British Muslim Council, the Grand Ayatollah of Germany, the Grand Ayatollah of Iraq, the Grand Mufti of Russia, the Islamic Society of North America; I mean the list goes on, and on, and on. The institutions that have the right to issues fatwas have all issued fatwas denouncing bin Laden, denouncing September 11. Most recently, in Amman, Jordan in July, 170 of the world’s leading Muslim scholars came together from every school and sect in Islam — this was a gathering the likes of which had never occurred in Islamic history — to issue one final declaration that said that violence and extremism in the name of Islam is not only forbidden, but any kind of spiritual support — not physical, but any kind of emotional or mental support — for terrorism or extremism is a sin against Islam. But we don’t here about these things….It was in all the Arab newspapers, but it was in none of the Western newspapers….I get asked this question every single place I go. Where is the voice of Muslim condemnation? Open your ears. It’s everywhere.