Reza Aslan has been critical of Islamic fundamentalism. And he’s doing his best to articulate his version of Islam distinguishing it from the fanatical ones. Aslan, however, does not speak much about secularism.
Whatever issue people may have with the Western democratic system, Aslan and people like Aslan have managed to fulfill their potential in the West. In his book, Zealot, Aslan has even been able to portray a different picture of Jesus contrary to what most Christians in America believe. In another word Aslan has been highly successful thanks to political system which allows him to do what he wants to do. However, in Iran no one is allowed to portray a different picture of Muhammad or any of the Imams or even the ayatollahs. This is something Aslan needs to remember more often if he wants to remain sympathetic to intellectuals and people in Iran. Being a crusader for liberal Islam is one thing and promoting secularism in Islamic countries, especially in Iran the country of his birth another. Aslan may think he’s doing both but he’s the face of ‘progressive Islam’ and not freedom.
Aslan’s first book, No god but God, is considered by many as his best book up-to-date. In it Aslan helps the reader to understand that Islam is a very diverse religion like other major religions and Koranic interpretations are just as many. The book is also about history, how Islam was born and what existed before. The book deliberately leaves a blank chapter for the future of Islam as who is going to write the next phase of Islam. Of course this has been the case throughout history of Islam which depends to a large extent who’s in power or can slaughter the opposition and take on power.
It would be interesting to know if Aslan has changed his mind on any issues discussed in No god but God? I found the last chapter of the book, Slouching Toward Medina, very interesting. But also ambiguous. The fight for the soul of Islam or the next chapter of Islam is a wrong war. This is assuming Islam has one soul. No. Just as Christianity has two major branches and also many sub-branches within each branch. Just as there is no one school of Buddhism or Sufism, the fight we are witnessing today by Wahhabism, Al Qaida, ISIS, Taliban and Islamic Republic of Iran it’s all about power. It’s not about Islam. Any fight for a real Islam or an establishment of a just political Islam is a futile one and history has proven it.
A great lesson from the Medinan Islamic community for all Muslims to learn is that political Islam doesn’t work. The problem of succession is a big stain forever on the garment of political Islam. Why, because it happened immediately after the demise of their Prophet. Aslan idealises the Medinan framework for any future establishment of democracy. But the backstabbing that took place to elect the next leader was done by people who had the firsthand experience of the Medinan community, living day to day with their religious leader.
The next chapter for the Muslim countries is to find a secular political framework where all members of their societies will have equal opportunity and rights.
Even if Aslan means Medinan living should only provide the inspiration for the next chapter of Islam it is still limiting. People draw their inspiration from many different things, nature, cosmos, poetry, music, parents, teachers etc… It’s best not to fence the human imagination around a particular experience in history and allow people to find their own inspiration. It is a healthy habit for Muslims to remind themselves, perhaps daily if necessary, that there are billions of people on this planet who do not believe Muhammad is the last Prophet and Islam the finest religion. I am sure there are a few inspirational stories to be found among the ‘infidels’ too.
People today want to live in a world where they can freely choose where they belong. I have come across people who have converted to Islam, many more to Christianity and the Bahai faith, Buddhism, Taoism etc… Medinan framework does not allow for all members of a pluralistic society to be genuinely participants in their own affairs or treated equally. In a just and fair society (where Muslims are the majority) we can have Muslim politicians but not an Islamic political system (regardless how efficient and progressive) because it’s based on an ‘ideal’ community that lived 1400 years ago in Medina. But we can have community of Muslims who can choose to live that way without fearing persecution or stigmatisation. Most people do not want to be citizens of an Islamic state even if that Islamic state is a replica of the first Medina living. It would be ultimately a paternalistic government dressed in a new Islamic cloak. Only with the establishment of secularism, boundaries can be clearly drawn between the state and religion.
The next chapter for the Muslim countries is to find a secular political framework where all members of their societies will have equal opportunity and rights. Where there is a clear separation of religion and state. Where Muslim and non-Muslim share power equally and religious zeal is not a compensation for talent. Just as some who intensely identify with Islam (or other religion) there are many who don’t. In fact so many these days are ashamed of their religion and these people are respectable members of the society who simply do not want to be part of a feud and violence that never ends. Some may have ecstatic experience when they hear the Koran recited others may have panic attacks because of the horrors they had been through living under Islamic governments.
Aslan’s political ideals based on the Medinan model or the inspiration that model may provide is progressive, however, only in a free society where people can articulate their ideas, whatever those ideas may be, without fear of being persecuted, an authentic and sincere political system can emerge. Let’s not forget political Islam has a very poor record in facilitating such genuine outcome, from its nascent when the question of leadership became imperative for the survival of the first Islamic community, when they had to step out of their Eden (Medina) and enter the world of politics.
I think it was Rumi who said, any one should be able to speak what is right and people should listen and recognise its truth rather than look at the religion, race, gender or age of the person who speaks it. This is the inspiration I slouch toward for a better, fairer society.