Sunday, 12 July 2015

Book review: No god but God

No god but God
Reza Aslan
Arrow Books, 2005

Reza Aslan does to the Prophet and Islam in this work, what he did to Jesus and Christianity in his Zealot.  He takes a measured approach to unraveling a rich and complex religious phenomenon, one that has the world passionately discussing its pros and cons, and comes up with a revealing account of the formation and dissemination of Islam.  

If you ever wondered about the baffling practices of this religion and found nobody to seek answers from, grab hold of this work.  Everything from pre-Islamic Arabia (apparently called Jahiliyyah); to the revelation; to the Hijra (the Prophet's flight from Mecca to Yathrib, which later became Medina); to the law of Shariah; to the five essential rituals that Muslims have to do - called the Five Pillars of Islam; to the reasons behind the births of several sects of Islam - Sunni, Shi'ah, Khomeinism, Sufism, Wahhabism and yes, jihadism; and many more issues are covered in this work.  

The only pieces of information that I did not find in the work were: a) why circumcision is so important to Muslims, and b) why the pig is considered to be a 'dirty animal' in Islam.

As Aslan paints the picture of the birth of Islam in the deserts of Arabia, we find that the Prophet was an orphan who was brought up by his uncle who used to send him on business errands to other cities.  The Ka'ba, the desert sanctuary that is said to have housed several idols of different pagan gods such a Hubal, was under the control of a tribe called Quraysh.  It was the Prophet - after he had a series of revelations, which later became the contents of the Quran - who built up his community in Medina, and eventually freed the Ka'ba after several attempts at subduing the Quraysh.  

Aslan reveals that the Prophet had actually set up a very egalitarian system in Medina, in which he frequently consulted his wives in political matters, married Jewish and Christian women, did not compel women to be closed behind veils, and considered the three Abrahamic religions (Jewism and Christianity being the others) as followers of one Supreme Source of holy books.

Unfortunately, as with Jesus, it was the people who came after him who hijacked the entire philosophy, and according to the prevailing sociopolitical situation and their own whims and ulterior motives, converted what was essentially an inclusive and peaceful movement into a divisive and fundamental way of life.  And therein lies the tragedy.

Indeed, barring the revelations (for which Aslan does not, or probably cannot provide any convincing evidence), if one considers the evolution of the nascent religion - the fights that erupted each time a leader had to be anointed; the exclusion of Ali (the Prophet's son-in-law) and his family; the killing of his son, Husayn in Karbala; the way the Ulama usurped for itself the authority to lay down the laws and responsibilities of the believers; the expansion of the religion in the Middle East and beyond through imperial conquests and conversions; and the infighting that led to the birth of several offshoots of Islam that often competed with one another for religious legitimacy - one is hard-pressed to discern any evidence of divinity, peace and truth in any of these occurrences.

Aslan also rightly points out that the revelations themselves, and what was essentially a social-economic-political movement that was locally relevant to 6th Century Arabia, cannot be appropriated by a self-appointed group of law makers and enforcers such as the Ulama to apply to the other communities, societies and countries of the entire world.  

I must also consider the entire situation from my own point of view as an Indian, about which there is very little to glean from this work, as Aslan only makes passing references to the Indian situation and the Hindu-Muslim interaction.  After all, the Muslim invasion of India started as far back as in the early 8th Century, and continued till the end of the Mughal dynasty, leaving in its wake several frenzied and bloodthirsty assaults by invaders such as Ghazni and Ghori.  The bitter effects of Partition and the subsequent wars that India has waged with its Islamic neighbour, to the present day 26/11 type terrorist attacks, are ample testimony to the fact that inter-faith issues involving Islam is highly relevant even in India.  

Having said that, the fact that Indian Muslims are arguably the most integrated and peace-loving followers of Islam than any other in the world, is also worth noting, and is probably attributable to the acceptance of Islam into the diverse religious framework of India.  This in turn was made possible due to the inclusive and magnanimous philosophy of advaita, which forms the core of Sanatana Dharma.  

In fact, in what is surely a rare and happy overlap of spiritual principles, advaitic Hinduism and Sufism share the common goal: that of annihilation of the body and the lower self to merge with the Supreme Self. 

Back in the book, even the First War of Independence of 1857 is explained from the point of view of the Muslim soldiers and Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor.  Aslan argues that it is not only Islam that has defined state policies in several Muslim countries in the present world.  Even England and America, he points out, still maintain a religious underpinning to their state policies.  In this context, Aslan has this to say about India:

'India was, until recently, governed by partisans of an elitist theology of Hindu Awakening (Hindutva) bent on applying an implausible but enormously successful vision of "true Hinduism" to the state'.

Sorry?  Until recently?  Enormously successful?  Let's take a closer look: India was, for the major part of the time from Independence to now (a period of 68 years), governed by the Congress and its affiliates.  The very same parties which are considered to be pseudo-secular, minority appeasing, and prone to caste based 'vote bank' politics.  It was also during the Congress regime that India experimented with the Emergency of 1975, during which civil liberties were suspended for nearly two years.  

Even under the so called 'right wing' governments - most notably the BJP-led ones - it is not as though civil and religious liberties were snuffed out of ordinary people's lives.  And Hindutva certainly has not been made into a state policy.  

Coming back to the book, Aslan provides a wholesome take on the intricacies of the religion of Islam and its adherents, thanks to the painstaking scholarly research work that he has come to be associated with.  

In the end, Aslan paints a hopeful picture about the future of this religion, pointing out that the new generation of forward looking Muslims - especially those born into the second or third generation of immigrants to non-Islamic countries - would make use of the technological innovations at their disposal to rethink, debate, re-fashion and disseminate the tenets of Islam to make it more congruent with the needs of a changing and inter-dependent society.  In other words, he tells that we are already in the midst of the Islamic Reformation.  

Let's hope he is right.

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