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on 30 December 2017
Reza Aslan is a good writer and a good historian of religion. His 2013 book Zealot on Jesus was excellent, so I had high hopes for this 2011 book on Islam. Many hopes were indeed fulfilled: the historical timeline is clear, the known facts are in place, the conjectures are properly flagged, the context for contemporaries and believers is sketched credibly, and the final result is easy and pleasant to read.

Any historian of Islam will be confronted with controversy and compelled to take sides. Aslan takes the side of the Sufis, a relatively gentle and reflective tradition in Islam with mystic leanings, which grew up in the shade of the Shia branch of the Mohammedan faith in lands that had rich and deep traditions of belief and philosophy. In doing so, he distances himself from the Sunni branch and those of its variants such as Wahhabism that have attracted Western anger in recent years.

What Aslan does not do, and what diminishes his book for me, is stand back far enough from the entire tradition of veneration for the revelations of the Prophet, and their expression in the series of texts that form the Quran, to see the wood for the trees. Even today, no pious Muslim would dare regard the revelations or their canonical expression as anything but holy, but for a modern Westerner with some respect for science and rational thinking the leap of imagination required to take such affirmed holiness at face value is just too great. This reader at least is driven to taking a remote anthropological stance on the Arab and related societies of a thousand plus or minus a few hundred years ago and regarding their strange belief system as shot through with hardly less nonsense than any other ancient myth or curious narrative.

Despite his Muslim roots, Aslan is a modern Western writer, so he must must see the need to keep such rational readers on board, even if in the end he parts company with them in continuing to venerate his holy relics. There may be a learning curve here, for he does a fine job in standing back from Christian or other pieties in discussing Jesus in his later book Zealot; perhaps it is easier to stand back from a faith one feels no residual need to defend or believe in. Modern societies with Christian or Muslim roots are surely robust enough to rise above superstitious awe in face of alleged revelations and the purportedly holy texts that spring from them, or at any rate we can only hope so, if we are to avoid a new clash of civilizations.

Like Aslan, I have some sympathy for the Sufi thread in the story of Islam, and feel some distaste for the hardened institutional forms of the Muslim faith, which like their Christian equivalents have led to serial disasters in the societies swayed by them. Unlike him, however, I see little hope for a revival of Sufism in the Muslim world and indeed little hope of sufficient reform within Islam to accommodate it to the constraints of life in an age of global connectivity, robots, and nuclear weapons. Only a clean separation of secular life, including politics, from the inner life of religion can enable us to regulate the modern world, it seems to me, and even a revived Sufism would be of no obvious help in doing so.

In summary, then, a modern history of Islam, especially one that like this volume takes us up to contemporary political issues surrounding the ongoing wars in Muslim majority societies, can only work for Western readers if it rises above a partisan perspective. As it is, Aslan seems to feel sympathy for the victim narrative that Western imperialists have cruelly exploited the Muslim world, which must therefore rise up and restore its fortunes by defeating the infidels. This cuts no ice with me, even in the context of a volume of history that otherwise deserves some praise.
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on 2 April 2016
The book is unquestionably good. It gives you a great account of the origin of the faith and its belief. It is not however, flawless. First of all, the writer is a strong believer himself and sometimes doesn't seems to be completely unbiased. Per se, this can be understood and forgiven, but sometimes it seems quite clear that the writer is "forgetting" to explain important bits, leaving the reader feel some degree of contradiction (i.e. I failed to understand how a "by no means wealthy man" that is just a Sheik of a "tiny oasis", like Ibn Saud could have been chosen by Wahhab as his ally and so be important in the astonishing successful conquer of the arabian peninsula).
Small grievances aside, it is a good book which I strongly recommend.
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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.
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on 9 September 2015
Really well explained aspect of todays Muslim life for someone who didn't know very much about it. He explains from the aspect of a `Westerner`what it is to be Muslim today and some of the difficulties they are facing within their own religion and among the different factions. I also liked to hear about Muhamads life and what an amazing man he was but I feel he would be turning in his grave if only he knew how his followers changed aspects to what he preached and lived. I have more peace of mind knowing that he respected other faiths (to a certain extent) and did not set about calling everyone else `non believers`, those where his followers who went to be more radical.
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on 5 March 2018
Easy to read, but very educational and provides a different view point on Islam. For anyone wanting to find out more about the religion and a view on we are where we are now, a very good read.
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on 4 August 2016
This book gives the history of Islam and its interplay with politics which marks events to this day. It is comprehensive and gives a very necessary background to people wishing to have an overview of what Islam is about and its various factions.
If you are looking for a single volume which will give you the above insights this is an excellent choice.
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on 10 December 2014
This is arguably the best book on the subject. It's an extraordinary achievement by a very talented writer. It will be of interest not only to those who want to learn more about the history and development of Islam but also those who wish to understand the issues that have been at the forefront of international politics for the last decade and a half.
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on 13 December 2014
Reza Aslan is a very skilled writer turning the driest subjects into interesting, though provoking discussions. I'd recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in Islam and religion in general, theists, atheists and agnostics everybody will find something interesting in this book.
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on 6 July 2014
A very clear book that makes one face the complexity of religious matters. I've discovered the author after reading his outstanding book Zealot, and I hope to study his books more thoroughly..
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on 8 January 2017
Everybody should read this book in our time faced with radicalism. Written by a muslim with an open mind.
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