photo & text by nacrowe
as i've mentioned before at length, i used to live in KUWAIT, ALBANIA and NIGERIA. i have been to EGYPT, JORDAN and PALESTINE. i also attended a NEW ENGLAND boarding school that taught COMPARATIVE RELIGION as a core subject. so i have had some exposure to the precepts and culture surrounding ISLAM and the MUSLIM world in general.
but i knew i did not have a basic understanding of the history of the religion and its evolution over time, like i have gained over the years regarding CHRISTIANITY and BUDDHISM. i knew it was a gap in my knowledge.
NO GOD BUT GOD: THE ORIGINS, EVOLUTION AND FUTURE OF ISLAM (RANDOM HOUSE, 2005) by AMERICAN-IRANIAN religious scholar REZA ASLAN is thorough introduction to the often misunderstood history of ISLAM. originally published in the first few years after the 9/11 attacks, his book can be interpreted as an attempt at defining for a western audience what the faith is actually about.
for that matter the book provides a captivating summation of the life of the prophet, with asides taken during relevant moments in the narrative to both foreshadow later chapters as well as outline how interpretations have shifted over time. i am not a scholar on the subject so i wont go into detail, but what struck me was how revolutionary and progressive the original community in MEDINA was relative to my experience living in KUWAIT, which was a very culturally and socially conservative community. that distance is the story of the book, how the SOCIAL EGALITARIANISM of the original UMMAH (MUSLIM community) in MEDINA has shifted based on later innovations and scaffolding that were constructed by later community leaders seeking their own agenda. its a story that has more than a few parallels in the development of CHRISTIANITY.
after the description of the life of the prophet is complete, the next section dealt with the SUNNI, SHI'ITE and SUFI sects developed and diverged from each other with their own corresponding rituals, institutions and belief structures. again, i was aware that they existed but the history and the development of their rituals i was utterly naive about. in particular i was aware of the SUFI rituals found in parts of ALBANIA, specifically the southern city of BERAT, but was unaware of how these rituals were meant as a means of dissolving the ego to commune with God. in particular learning about the mysticism and experiential bent of the SUFI sect really opened my eyes to the diversity of thought and interpretation within the larger community.
attending a year of high school in KUWAIT the idea of religion seemed even like an even more draconian ideal than what i witnessed in CATHOLIC SCHOOL growing up in CALIFORNIA. there were in-country news reports of HONOR KILLINGS and the general abuse and exploitation of nameless workers from countries like NEPAL, INDONESIA, SRI LANKA, BANGLADESH and INDIA. it was beyond depressing to watch and experience and it is still something i grapple with. i always assumed that the political structure there was hopelessly corrupt and morally bankrupt and never associated such with the religion. greed is a god we can all agree on and the UNITED STATES is no stranger to such. our hands are not clean either. this book further reinforced that opinion.
the later chapters deal with how the MUSLIM community has dealt with COLONIALISM and modernity to date. its a complicated issue that ASLAN covers very efficiently and thoroughly and which i cannot due justice succinctly. what i can say is that the concept of nation states and the DAR-AL-ISLAM (community of believers) do not co-align perfectly to traditional precepts of MUSLIM identity. to which group does one's loyalty supersede: their religion or country? modernity has only further put into focus core issues regarding who defines and controls the faith. is it the scholars or the population that define what constitutes ISLAM? due to the democratization of the internet, this is still an evolving and highly dynamic issue. ASLAN argues that due to such transformative communication technology, we are very much living in the midst of a reformation right now. the traditional guardrails and institutions are being displaced by more tech savvy upstarts re-contextualizing and reinterpreting the QUARAN for a new generation. whether such moves forward or is caught up in back-currents with a counterreformation is to be determined.
and for me that is the big takeaway of NO GOD BUT GOD, that ISLAM is a dynamic faith with a diverse population of believers that are still in pursuit of a more perfect expression of that ideal MEDINA community fourteen hundred years ago. it is an ongoing dynamic and nothing about it is simple, which counters the western depiction of such that is unabashedly through the prism of colonialism.
i thoroughly enjoyed this book and will likely reference it for a long time coming. i am almost certain i will read this posting at a future moment and realize how much understanding i have gained in the meantime. i will be processing this information no doubt for some time coming.