Friday, April 07, 2006

No god but God

By Reza Aslan, Random House

When I discuss Islam with American friends, they often say, “Someday when I have time, I’ll have to read the Koran.” I usually discourage them. It’s not because, as they like to joke, “it isn’t the kind of book a Muslim wants to find in a friend’s bathroom.” It’s because I don’t think it will help them understand Islam. Unlike the Bible, the Koran is not a self explanatory collection of stories in chronological order. The organizing principle of the Koran is not the order of revelation, but the length of the chapter, the shortest ones appearing at the end of the book. Even within one chapter the subject can skip from analysis of a battle to moral injunctions against usury. Without the context, the content is mostly opaque. For example, when the Koran says “When two parties from among you thought of showing cowardice, and Allah was the Guardian of them both,” It helps to know which battle and which two parties are being discussed. The Koran is a book that you learn, not a book you can just read. So to the Islam enthusiasts in the West, I recommend they save the Koran for later, and read instead Reza Aslan’s No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam.

This book has received enough praise from virtually all major reviews and all relevant academic institutions, so here I will just emphasize that its organizing principle is the antithesis of the Koran. It is highly linear and readily understandable to the Western mind. In keeping with its clarity I will list what you will learn by reading this book:

1. An overview of the politics, economy, and sociology of Arabia just before the appearance of Islam.

2. A functional but not excessively detailed biography of Mohammad.

3. A familiarity with the basic story of early Islam and its first battles under Mohammad’s leadership. You will know the major players, whether they were friend or foe, and how they were dealt with.

4. The early post-Mohammad era and the emerging politics, including how Shiites broke away from the Sunnis.

5. The story of the rise of Islamic civilization, including the origins and evolution of Islamic law. Here you will meet some major Islamic scholars and gain insight into Sufis like Rumi and Omar Khayyam.

6. A beginners skill in how to make sense of the attitudes and behavior of modern Islamic nations like Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Reza Aslan is a not only a scholar, he is a writer who is easy to read. All his meticulously researched and documented statements are framed inside stories, anecdotes, and personal experiences. The pages of No God but God go by so quickly and painlessly you will wish your dentist was that good. There’s even a love story.


Anonymous said...

The organizing principle of the Quran is not length of the sura. The organization was directed by the Prophet himself, as he was directed from Gabriel. The wisdom is there for any who have an open heart. Also, many many people come into Islam via translations of the Quran. They find in it what they desparately are looking for, regardless of order or preconceptions of what a book should look like and how it should be order. Actually, it's perhaps because the Quran does not curtsey before publication trends, but is part of the Wisdom from which it issues.

Anonymous said...

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.

Susan B. Anthony

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ari for introducing this book. It answered many of my Q's and helped me a lot.

Anonymous said...

I shall have to read the book to discover more.
I like your postings.