Nonfiction — print. Random House, 2005. 310 pgs. Library copy.
Subtitled “The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam”, Aslan’s book appealed to me because I wanted to read a book that presents Islam in a more positive light than A God Who Hates by Wafa Sultan in a relatively condensed and accessible way. I don’t know enough about the religion to be able to select something a little more in-depth and specific, but I also did not want finish the World Religion Challenge by allowing Sultan to have the last word on the religion of about 1.41-1.57 billion people (21-23% of the world’s population).
Islam is the second-largest religion and one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, but many in the West seem to have latched on to the idea that the actions of a few represent the thoughts of millions. That is, that we in the West are inherently locked into a “clash of civilizations” (to use Samuel P. Huntington’s misguided term) between the West and the Muslim world. Aslan’s book attempts to explain this religion by comparing its foundation and structure to that of Judeo-Christian believers, and therefore is really aimed at Western, Judeo-Christian readers.
I probably should have read this book before taking the class on U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East because religion does play a large part in the politics of the region (as well as in the United States) and other than a basic understanding of the reasoning behind the split between Shi’ism and Sunni, I really don’t know much about Islam. Aslan’s book offers an introduction into how Islam came into fruition, including how pre-Islamic Middle East approached religion and how Medina became a holy site.
Unfortunately, the book was not as interesting as I thought it would be. This is probably because I had a difficult time trying to keep all the names, theology, and chronology straight. Some of the chapters seemed to drag on, and there were a few instances where I would have preferred more of a chronological approach than the thematic approach he chose. There was also something about the lack of footnotes that bothered me. The last chapters of the book were very wide-ranging, and I think the topics – the Iranian Revolution, colonialism, Wahhibism – were too compressed to really be dealt with properly.
Without trying to spoil the book for anyone, I thought Aslan’s focus on the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and his conclusion were both interesting. My classmates and I had an interesting discussion on the prospects of democracy in the region last semester, and I wish we had read Aslan’s conclusion for our discussion. There is also some insightful discussion within the book about how Islam has been twisted to reflect the goals of others such as the Taliban or al Qaeda, but the book was clearly written for post-9/11 Western readers and it does not focus on other “problems” with Islam non-believers have outside of jihad. (There is a mention of the fight for women’s rights within Islam, which was Sultan’s problem with the religion.)
“Despite the tragedy of September 11 and the subsequent terrorist acts against Western targets throughout the world, despite the clash-of-civilizations mentality that has seized the globe and the clash-of-monotheisms reality underlying it, despite the blatant religious rhetoric resonating throughout the half of governments, there is one thing that cannot be overemphasized. 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 complicit bystander – an unwary yet complicit casualty of rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story.” (pg. 248)
I guess what really bothered me, though, was how apologetic Aslan is about his own religion. I appreciate what the book did have to say about the evolution and introduction of Islam to the region as I do feel like I learned a lot. But while I also understand that people angered over 9/11 wanted to learning more about Islam and why (some) Muslims hate America would not appreciate someone forcefully explaining Islam, I do not like it when people apologize for their beliefs. And that, above all else, is what bugged me about this book.