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No god but God    by Reza Aslan order for
No god but God
by Reza Aslan
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

No god but God explains Islam from the perspective of a rational believer - someone I'd much rather hear from than the raving, rigid fundamentalist who has unfortunately become the symbol of Islam to so many Westerners. Though Reza Aslan assigns Western governments their fair share of blame for many of the modern world's conflicts, I found his account of the beginnings, history, fissures, and current state of his own faith both refreshing and reassuring.

He begins by defining religion as 'the story of faith', 'concerned not with genuine history, but with sacred history', and offers readers the story of Islam, beginning in 6th and 7th century Arabia with 'Muhammad's revolutionary message of moral accountability and social egalitarianism'. Sadly, most religions start off on moral high ground, from which they steadily slip after their founders die, and they become institutionalized. Aslan tells us that the Prophet's message 'was gradually reinterpreted by his successors into competing ideologies of rigid legalism and uncompromising orthodoxy, which fractured the Muslim community'.

Starting in pre-Islamic Arabia, the author describes the innovative religio-economic context of the society into which Muhammad was born in Mecca. Though orphaned young, he was taken in by a powerful uncle, and eventually married an older widow named Khadija, an influential merchant in her own right. After a revelation in a cave, he declared himself a Messenger of God, and called for radical social reform. After exile to Yathrib (renamed Medina), and years of struggle, he returned to rule in Mecca. After his death, 'Muhammad's small community of Arab followers swelled into the largest empire in the world'.

Just as in the development of Christianity, there were power struggles and differing interpretations down the years amongst followers of this expanding faith. A massacre of close members of Muhammad's family led to Shi'ism splitting off as a distinct sect in Islam. It's interesting to note that there is nothing about the veil in the Quran, and that it was only widely adopted generations after Muhammad's death. Aslan tells us that, again according to the Quran, war 'is either just or unjust; it is never "holy."' And Islam historically has been tolerant of other religions, in particular of Judaism and Christianity.

Aslan continues to examine Islamic movements and moments in history. These include Sufism, the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in India, the separation of Pakistan, the socialist Muslim Brothers in Egypt (who eventually fled to a welcome in Saudi Arabia), Khomeini's coming to power in Iran, and the rise of Wahhabism, Islamic fundamentalism and al-Qaeda. Despite the regular clash of civilizations rhetoric to which we are exposed, the author emphasizes that 'What is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West. The West is merely a bystander'.

Though he warns the reader that it will take time to deal with 'bigotry and fanaticism', Aslan makes a strong argument for an ongoing tide of reform (the Islamic Reformation), and for Islamic democracies based on pluralism. Read No god but God for an excellent education on the origins and evolution of one of the world's great faiths, and for a better understanding of the struggles within it that affect all of us today, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

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