5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 18 January 2014
Middle East prophet attempts to unify desert tribes with revealed message. Within a generation of his death the message is disputed, the leaders of his followers in murderous antagonism, and such discord is sown that even The Prophet's relatives meet untimely deaths. This then is a story of schisms and orthodoxies. Miraculously something very unorthodox eventually emerges. Sufi Islam is refreshingly mystical, loving and generous. It is of course, persecuted. This pattern of Muslims being very unhappy with other Muslims they consider to be heretics is further exacerbated in more recent times by colonial imperialism stirring the mix with its own particular brand of hypocrisy and power games. This brings us to the present day on which the author comments: "It will take many more years to cleanse Islam of its new false idols - bigotry and fanaticism - worshipped by those who have replaced Mohammed' s original vision of tolerance and unity with their own ideals of hatred and discord". The author also observes that there is not so much a clash between East and West today, but rather a struggle for the soul of Islam: an Islamic Reformation Reformation in full sway. He comments, "Christianity from is inception to its Reformation took fifteen vicious, bloody and occasional apocalyptic centuries....Fourteen hundred years of rabid debate over what it means to be a Muslim; of passionate arguments over the interpretation of the Quran and the application of Islamic law; of trying to reconcile a fractured community through appeals to Divine Unity; of tribal feuds, crusades, and world wars - and Islam has finally begun it's fifteenth century."
This is a brilliant book. I have made several attempts to try to understand Islam, but it was only by reading this, by seeing Islam in its both historical and geographic context, that things began to make sense and sink in. Of particular merit is the manner in which the author starts each chapter with an evocative vignette that he then explicates the theological, cultural and political significance of so that one has a sense of focus to insights. If you want to understand the essence of Islam and Islam in the contemporary world I think this book is essential reading.
I found the account of Islam's origins inspiring but the subsequent fratricide very depressing. My thoughts are mixed as to whether the whole project has done more harm than good but the world we live in will be shaped by whatever version/s of Islam emerges from the current storms...
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on 18 April 2006
A highly readable account of the origins, history and future of Islam, Aslan's book is suitable both for the interested observer and the serious student of Islam. Beginning with discussions of religious practices in pre-Islamic Arabia, Aslan lays the historical and theological bases for the development of Islam, before describing the life and time of the Prophet himself. Varying between present-tense narrative and detailed analysis, Aslan discusses the revelations themselves, whilst interweaving various historical facts into the tale.
Passing from the Prophet himself to the "Rightly Guided Caliphs", he explores the establishment of the hadith, presenting some interesting, though no doubt controversial, ideas on the inclusion of some of the apparently-more-contradictory of these hadiths. Presenting a full history of this interim period, he also describes the battles for succession in excellent detail, fully explaining the implications of these, and thereby lays the groundwork for a full discussion of Shi'ism. Using this as a springboard, he then analyses the leap between Shi'ism and Khomeinism, carefully interlocking facts and narrative to provide a thoughtful and in-depth critique of Islamic democracy in Iran. He also examines Sufism, explaining its connections with aspects of Islam, but also why some more mainstream thinkers believe it to involve aspects of associationism, rather than to see it as a pure mainfestation of Islam.
Aslan then looks at the rise of nationalism, primarily, though not exclusively, within the Arab world, and gives an excellent overview of the teachings and ideas of the main thinkers and movements of this period. He also examines some more contemporary thinkers, and discusses several ideas that are current within so-called political Islam today, including the nature of the state and the permissibility of democracy.
This book provides a comprehensive and accessible account of both Islamic history and Islamic political thought. The only disappointment in an otherwise meticulously researched and presented work is Aslan's treatment of the Indian Mutiny. Though admittedly one of the less glorious episodes of British history, he fails to do justice to the British victims - no mention is made of the brutal murders of women and children, which gave rise to the incredibly brutal executions he discusses at length, and he repeats the fallacy that cartridges were greased with pig fat, one of the rumours used at the time to encourage mutineers. That aside, though, his analysis of the British attitude is refreshing and intelligent, and thoroughly thought-provoking, but the combination of glaring error and serious omission meant that in good conscience I couldn't quite award five stars. This notwithstanding, I highly recommend this book, with the above caveat, and have given several copies to both friends and colleagues.
42 of 47 people found the following review helpful
It is quite a task in the Western world, in the post 9-11 world when there are still active warfare situations taking place in two different Islamic country settings, to set out to write a book on the history, culture and heart of Islam as being something other than that which seems to come across in mass media on a daily basis.
The beginning of this text is the Quran - 'It is invaluable in revealing the ideology of the Muslim faith in its infancy: that is, before the faith became a religion, before the religion became an institution.' Aslan states that the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad are grounded in mythology (mythology not as false tales, but rather as stories of the supernatural) which has both credibility and legitimacy in significant ways - these ways are variously interpreted by different groups within the Muslim world.
Within the many chapters, Aslan looks at the early days Islam during the life of the Prophet, the immediate successors of Muhammad, the development of the Shariah and theological positions, and the mystical system of the Sufi. Aslan also looks at the contemporary aspects of Islam by tracing post-colonial sentiments (something still very much at work in the conflicts of the present time) and what Aslan and other have termed the Islamic Reformation, a return to early principles of the Islam that have been obscured in the history of the faith and its interplay with political reality.
Aslan's running motif is that Islam, at its philosophical and theological heart, is a pluralistic system with democracy as the best, final outcome. There is support for this - the long-standing Jewish communities in Babylon and Spain under Islamic rule, the recognition of the validity of Jewish and Christian theological bases by Muhammad, etc. However, the history of Islam is a very human history - as in other religious contexts, the rulers have frequently failed to live up to the ideals, persecuting not only outsiders, but also different members of their religion with special ferocity (not dissimilar to the stories of Moses imposing the death penalty on Israelites in the desert for collecting sticks on the Sabbath, or Christians burning other Christians at the stake for holding heretical views).
Aslan is passionate, but fails to persuade in many cases. In giving his own account of his return to Iran after the amnesty was announced for exiled Iranians to visit without fear of detention and punishment, there was still a sense of the failure of the government and culture to live up to its ideals, and Aslan is a bit quick to assign blame outside of Iran than on the rulers themselves. Still, the experiences are interesting to read, and Aslan's analysis worth considering.
Aslan writes that not only did the events of 9-11 set in motion a clash between the Judeo-Christian world and the Muslim world in broad terms, but 'also initiated a vibrant discourse among Muslims about the meaning and message of Islam in the twenty-first century. What has occurred since that fateful day amounts to nothing short of another Muslim civil war - a fitnah - which, like the contest to define Islam after the Prophet's death, is tearing the Muslim community into opposing factions.' We are in the midst of the Islamic Reformation, and it is too soon to tell what the outcome may be.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 11 February 2008
I liked Mr Aslan's book. It should be read by all those who make decisions about community relations etc in the West as it dispels many myths about Islam. In fact one sees how many parallels Islam has with other religions and that it is only those who twist its interpretation to justify their actions that have caused so many misunderstandings about Islam in the minds of citizens of Western countries.
As always if one looks back at history, certain groups take perfectly respectable ideas and use them to further their own narrow interests and in doing so cause great harm. Juts think how socialism was diverted into the horrors of Stalin's style of Communism. One genuinely hopes that the true and unpoliticised Islamic Reformation triumphs and in doing so saves this great religion from those who would send it back to the dark ages.
I learnt so much from this book and it is very enlightening. The only downside is that towards the end of the book there are several chapters that are require the reader to follow fairly complex theological discussions/arguments. This type of discussion is difficult for anyone to follow (see for example Christian theology re the status of the Trinity for a similarly difficult argument) all the more so if you have not been brought up in the religion being discussed. But overall it's well worth reading. I'm a hard marker which is why I have only given it 3 stars but I think many others would mark it more highly.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 20 July 2006
Aslan seems to speak for a new generation of global Muslims, and for an age he calls the Islamic Reformation. He claims that this age will involve momentous conflict over who defines the meaning of Islam, and that individual Muslims will increasingly take that responsibility for themselves. This book is a powerful, transparent account, covering as Aslan says, "Fourteen hundred years of rabid debate over what it means to be a Muslim; of passionate arguments over the interpretation of the Quran and the application of Islamic law; of trying to reconcile a fractured community through appeals to Divine Unity, of tribal feuds, crusades and world wars -- and Islam has finally begun it's fifteenth century". (p. 248)
I think Aslan manages to free Islamic history from the grip of any special interest group.
--author of Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story
28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on 6 September 2006
Aslan's unputdownable offering suggests a rather different view of Islam as portrayed not only in the daily Western press, but also in bestselling offerings like Sam Harris's religo-phobic 'End of Faith'. According to Aslan, far from being a `Clash of Civilisations' in Sam Huntingdon's now famous words, the current religious tension that seems to be pitting Islam against the rest of the world is in fact an internal conflict to gain ideological control of the Islamic faith. Despite headline-grabbing atrocities, kidnappings and beheadings, the West and its citizens are merely bystanders in a bloody sectarian clash within the Moslem faith.
On Aslan's side is the weight of history and the casualty list. It is unarguable that more Moslems have died in sectarian violence since September 11 than people of any other religion, nation or ethnic background. More persuasive is Aslan's impartial and brutally honest survey of the origins and evolution of Islam. Not since the death of Mohammad has their been agreement within the Moslem faith on the principles of this religion. Widely differing interpretations of the Quran, the Prophet's life, and - importantly - the relationship between secular and clerical authority in managing the political affairs of Moslems, have led to such incompatible differences that it would be more correct to talk of many `Islams' rather than a single Islamic faith. Only the Shiite's recognise the authority of Ayatollah's and Imams; only the Sunni believe that religious and political authority should be distinct; Bin Laden's wahhabi faction, hated by both Shiite and Sunni alike, seeks primarily to eradicate moderate Islamic practices, rather than Americans, Christians or Jews. The Sufi sect - roundly condemned by all other Muslims - preach that Mohammad and the Quran are merely steps on the path to divine union. To claim, as Sam Harris does for instance, that Islam is united in its intolerance for the West may be missing the point. If Aslan is correct, Islam is united only in its intolerance for competing interpretations of Mohammad's life and work; the West is neither here nor there, except in so far as it takes a stance in support of one or the other ideology.
So what is the solution to this religious conflict that threatens us all, regardless of whether we are bystanders or not? Suppression is certainly not the answer. As Aslan wisely says, the more one tries to squelch a religion, the stronger it becomes.
Alas, Aslan's own remedy for ideological troubles offers little solace. Islam must undergo its own reformation to turn it into a pluralistic, secularised ideology that can incorporate both democracy and the moral teachings of the Quran, he says. However, almost fifteen hundred years of bloody conflict within the faith offer no paradigmatic example of how this might come about without violence. As Sam Harris grimly notes, in a world where fanatics now have the power of weapons of mass destruction, we can ill-afford the luxury of letting such a conflict play out to its natural conclusion.
on 3 December 2014
Reza Aslan is brilliant. The book is clear, engaging, beautifully written and very readable. It's a great reference on Islam, works well as a one-stop introductory volume or as a nuanced, thought-provoking overview to combine with other texts. It's arranged in such a way that you can easily pick out chapters on particular issues, such as jihad, Islamic law, Sufism, and women. I particularly enjoyed his discussions of Muslim feminism and the 'Islamic Renaissance'. He is great at dismantling the common misconceptions in a matter-of-fact way while openly and honestly exploring some of the challenges faced by contemporary Muslim communities. This is the level of discussion that we don't see often enough in the press, and which Western societies desperately need if we are going to be able to build healthy relationships with Muslims in our own countries as well as abroad. After reading this I immediately ordered three more copies for my parents and friends.
on 12 April 2014
I'm very interested in Islam and generally in everything concerning Middle East so I was no ignorant to the book subject that is why rather early on I've noticed that Mr Aslan is a bit too pro shism. However I think it's acceptable as many other books are pro sunni or simply ignore shia branch of Islam. The book however does not suffer much from it, Mr Aslan is a very knowledgeable gentleman and certainly can write, the book is full of interesting facts and anecdotes so I would certainly recommend it.
I think it's a good book for a person who know little or next to nothing of Islam as for someone else it can be probably a bit boring to read again what are the pilars of Islam and alike, on the other hand it's written in a way that I found it interesting despite knowing all this already.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 27 October 2013
Coming to this having read the same author's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth I was expecting the same clear sighted and dispassionate analysis of the historicity of Mohammed. Clearly the authors own Islamic faith has clouded his judgement. Despite the obvious problems he accepts the Koranic and subsequent heroic account of Mohammed's early years, while acknowledging that there is no external verification of the status of Mecca as a key trading post.
His accounts of the various strands of Islam is helpful and worth reading for its current relevance. His forward look is both overoptimistic and far too long
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 17 January 2015
Interesting, and an insight into Islam and Mohammed. Why cannot Muslems Jews and Christians accept ONE GOD and leave behind all the manmade differences ..