Reza Aslan's No god but God: the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam is an engaging survey of Islam from its origin in 7th century A. D. until today. It is written with an informative and sophisticated narrative for non-specialist readers. The book's research, based on scholarly medieval and contemporary sources on Islam, provides the background for the debate that is advanced by the author.
Aslan, a specialist on religious studies, takes issue with the present conventional view that Islam is a religion with inflexible and obdurate attitudes towards the West. He argues that Islam is a self-conscious religion that throughout centuries has been subjected to interpretation and evaluation among Muslims themselves.
For instance, the intellectual debates of the 9th century A. D. concerning the nature of Quran and the definition of faith, offer some insight into the dynamic history of Islam as a religion that has been embraced by diverse people and cultures. Aslan's study points out how the developments in Islam have occurred not in abstraction but through a tangible historical process. He calls attention to the diversity within Islam from its beginnings in Arabia until today.
No god but God poses a challenge to the familiar the clash of civilizations debate propounded by Samuel Huntington in a book of the same title in 1996. Huntington's analysis depicts Islam as an aggressive civilization in an antagonistic relationship with the values introduced by the Enlightenment. He argues that Islam is a religion of violence and that Muslims are one violent mass who provoke violence and invoke it in return. His theory is reminiscent of Kurt's cry “exterminate all the brutes” in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Aslan's analysis of Islam provides a lively response to this debate by shifting the focus away from perceiving Islam as a homogenized faith in a dichotomized relationship with the West. Rather than a clash of civilizations, Aslan argues for a clash of monotheisms and calls attention to the internal conflicts of Islam that have played a crucial role in the formation of the post-colonial discourse. The debates among Muslim traditionalists and the reformists are attempts to define Islamic modernism. And the relationship between Islam and modernity does not find its genesis in the affront with the West but involves varied constituencies that have gained momentum against the colonial background.
Aslan questions the relationship of Islam to democracy and rejects the assumption that their coexistence is a contradiction in terms. Aslan proposes that the coming together of democracy and Islam is an idea that cannot be imported from outside into the cultural fabric of a society but must grow out of it in time and through experience in order to better define itself.
Aslan further argues that it is not secularism but pluralism and respect for diversity that defines democracy. Given the presence of the politically oppressive regimes in the Middle East, both secular and Islamic, an indigenous democracy does not have the chance to express itself in the arena of everyday political practices. Therefore, political reform in state politics is an indispensable part of the development of democracy in the region.
Aslan's survey of Islam illuminates the most salient issues that concern Islam today. However, his argument does not resolve the questions of modernity, constitutionalism, Islamic-law, political representation, women's rights and human rights. These issues remain to be addressed in the continuing public discourse on Islam and politics.
Firoozeh Papan-Matin is Assistant Professor, Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, University of Washington, Seattle.