Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I have pages and pages of quotes from No god But God: The origins, evolution, and future of Islam by Reza Aslan, which covers exactly what the subtitle says in a scholarly but immensely readable fashion. His is a decidedly modern, progressive viewpoint, arguing that "religion, it must be understood, is not faith. Religion is the story of faith." And that "all religions are inextricably bound to the social, spiritual, and cultural milieux from which they arose and in which they developed." He then proceeds to describe the pre-Islamic society, Muhammad's innovations and revelations, and how the religion developed and evolved from that beginning, including its problematic relationship with women.

Much like Christianity, "the fact is that for fourteen centuries, the science of Quranic commentary has been the exclusive domain of Muslim men. And because each one of these exegetes inevitably brings to the Quran his own ideology and his own preconceived notions, it should not be surprising to learn that certain verses have most often been read in their most misogynist interpretation." That reminded me of a religion professor I had in college who admitted up front that the New Testament had a problem with women. I was a little shocked to hear him say it, but it made the class much more interesting because we delved into the origins of the words and how the meanings evolved over time due to cultural assumptions and mistranslation. In Islam, of course, this also applies to the veil or hijab which Aslan traces back to its original roots. "Although long seen as the most distinctive emblem of Islam, the veil is, surprisingly, not enjoined upon Muslim women anywhere in the Quran. The tradition of veiling and seclusion... was introduced into Arabia long before Muhammad, primarily through Arab contacts with Syria and Iran, where the hijab was a sign of social status. After all, only a woman who need not work in the fields could afford to remain secluded and veiled." The particular verse in the Quran used to justify the practice he explains, "was addressed not to women in general, but exclusively to Muhammad's wives." He goes on to detail the reasons why that was and continues, "That the veil applied solely to Muhammad's wives is further demonstrated by the fact that the term for donning the veil, darabat al-hujab, was used synonymously and interchangeable with 'becoming Muhammad's wife.'" He speculates "Muslim women probably began wearing the veil as a way to emulate the Prophet's wives, who were revered... but the veil was neither compulsory nor, for that matter, widely adopted until generations after Muhammad's death, when a large body of male scriptural and legal scholars began using their religious and political authority to regain the dominance they had lost in society as a result of the Prophet's egalitarian reforms." I was aware wearing the veil isn't compulsory, but didn't know the particulars of the history, so this section was particularly interesting to me.

The majority of the book concerns the history of Islam and covers the development of the three major schools of thought, explaining clearly how they split, why they differ, the doctrinal justifications for each, and also touches on others that have had lasting significance, notably the modern radical fundamentalism which gave rise to Al-Queda and the Taliban. Of those he remarks, "... Saudi Arabia quickly discovered what the rest of the world would soon learn. Fundamentalism, in all religious traditions, is impervious to suppression. The more one tries to squelch it, the stronger it becomes. Counter it with cruelty, and it gains adherents. Kill its leaders, and they become martyrs. Respond with despotism, and it becomes the sole voice of opposition. Try to control it, and it will turn against you. Try to appease it, and it will take control." Which I think is a rather marvelous, if worrying, summation of the fundamentalist mindset in any religion. Despite recent events he's optimistic about the future of Islam, insisting that "what is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West. The West is merely a bystander - an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story." And he compares this struggle to the fifteen "vicious, bloody, and occasionally apocalyptic" centuries of evolution of Christianity, from inception to Reformation saying, "Islam has finally begun its fifteenth century." This leads him to discussing the futility of forcing our version of democracy on the countries of the Middle East, insisting that much like how our framework for democracy was Christianity, theirs must be Islam. "A democratic state can be established upon any normative moral framework as long as pluralism remains the source of its legitimacy." He points to Iran as struggling toward this emerging model of democracy and advocates a hands-off policy so they can complete the transformation. Let's hope he's right and that we haven't screwed things up beyond repair.

Great work.
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