Top positive review
One person found this helpful
Well researched and written but too pious and uncritical
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.