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.
photo & text by nacrowe
i was suggested this book by a history teacher in high school. it was the end of my sophomore year at a NEW ENGLAND boarding school and i had made the decision to join my parents the next year in KUWAIT. i had previously attended middle school in NIGERIA and had some familiarity with PAN-AFRICAN politics but none of that prepared me for THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X: AS TOLD TO ALEX HALEY (GROVE PRESS, 1965).
this was a book that pulled no punches and described an upbringing spent in the midwest under the thumb of segregation and overt racism. MALCOLM X, so self-monikered later in life from his birth-name MALCOLM LITTLE as a means of denying the name imposed on his family by a past slave master, was a man constantly in search of an identity which mirrored that of his following and really, AMERICA writ large. this book describes a leader and intellectual with a singular gift for oration and a sense of well-placed fiery righteous indignation. he is an interesting counterpoint to MARTIN LUTHER KING JR in his pre-HAJJ period in that he called for revolution. with a more than a hint of MARCUS GARVEY, he called for using all available instruments of persuasion and even coercion, a fight fire with fire strategy to ensure political rights. to some he is a patriot and others an insurrectionist. i side with the former.
again, for me the context of reading this book was my move to a MUSLIM country for the first time. whats interesting about MALCOLM X is that he belonged to the NATION OF ISLAM, an ISLAMIC-adjacent religious community that followed the controversial teachings of ELIJAH MUHAMMAD. given his background it makes sense that MALCOLM X would find a home within a community that promoted BLACK NATIONALISM and the political, economic and cultural empowerment of such therein. now the NATION OF ISLAM is well outside of the mainstream of modern ISLAM, and this book gets into that friction which to me was the most interesting aspect of his life's trajectory.
when i arrived in KUWAIT in the late summer of 2000, it was around the same time i got to the part of the book when MALCOLM X goes on his HAJJ to MECCA. for those that are not familiar, a pilgrimage to the holy city of MECCA in SAUDI ARABIA and bearing witness to the KAABA, or "The House of God," is mandatory religious duty of all MUSLIMS that have means and are physically able to do so at least once in a lifetime. for MALCOLM X this journey was a revelation. his religious and political belief system was very much intertwined with perceptions rooted in internal AMERICAN politics, attitudes and deep-seated beliefs regarding RACE. on pilgrimage he was stunned to see MUSLIMS of all ethnicities joining together as one religious community. like i said, this was a revelation and changed the tone of his politics until his death. it also marked his second conversion, this time to SUNNI ISLAM. with that conversion came a more muted political outlook that sought nonviolent means of persuasion in the pursuit of personal and political freedoms which found him more in line with the teachings of KING. this was his evolution.
for me this book was an introduction to the politics with ISLAM, something that provide a point of empathy in the post 9-11 period as well as my later time spent in MUSLIM-majority communities in ALBANIA and KOSOVO as a PEACE CORPS volunteer. this book gave me some sense of how religion cane be a deeply unifying and positive force fo connecting with others, even those that wish you harm. religion cane be a base of empathy. my time visiting SARAJEVO (BOSNIA) as well as KUKES (ALBANIA), PRIZREN and GJAKOVA (KOSOVO) taught me that in spades. this book only becomes more prescient and relevant as AMERICA continues to navigate and negotiate a tension within ourselves and our body politic to come to terms with our RACIST and SEGREGATIONIST past. to me MALCOLM X is a manifestation of that tension and his evolution serves as a reminder of what we can accomplish with a collective sense of moral strength and personal courage to evolve together.
i recommend this book to anyone interested in history that is complicated, counter-intuitive, entangled, passionately debated and highly instructive. could not recommend it any more strongly.