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Tradition, reform and the future of Islam Reza Aslan's "No god but God" puts the current debate within Islam in historical context

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Now is an exciting time to be Muslim.

While even the most casual news reader might find this statement odd, the changes chronicled in Reza Aslan's thoroughly engaging and excellently written "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam" leave little doubt that Islam is amid a reformation that will decide the future of the faith and, possibly, the future of the world.

Aslan, a doctoral degree candidate in religion and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, places Islam in its historical context in order to tease out those events and practices that are confirmed by revelation (the Quran) from those that arose from extraneous events -- whether they are of an economic, political or personal nature.

One example he offers is the segregation of the sexes during worship, which does not have a basis in the sacred text. In fact, scholarly evidence suggests that men and women worshipped side by side during the Prophet's life. It was not until the middle of the seventh century, during the Caliphate of Umar (whom Aslan calls "a known misogynist") that segregated prayers were instituted, a practice that has endured throughout Islam's history, except during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, where logistical problems make segregation impossible.

Tensions have always flared between traditionalists and reformers, Aslan argues, and each side has scored victories during Islam's 14 centuries of existence. Since the late 19th century, however, a particularly virulent debate has taken place between those who want to apply the Quran and Hadith (written traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) to the letter, and those who wish to interpret them in light of the context in which they were revealed.

What is interesting about these two factions is that they both want to reinstate the model set in Medina, the city in which the Prophet established the first community of Muslims. Each event is interpreted in starkly different ways by each camp. The traditionalists look at the conflict with and perceived treachery of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza as evidence that Muslims should never trust Jews, while the reformers consider the peace with the rest of the Jewish tribes (Banu Nadir and Banu Qaynuqa), the alliances that Muhammad forged with Jews and Christians, and his marriages to Rayhana (a Jewish woman) and Mariyah (a Coptic Christian) as proof that the Prophet fostered a multicultural community.

Debates such as these, Aslan concludes, show that Islam is as ordinary in its development as Christianity or Judaism: It is going through the same tensions between traditionalists and reformers that its monotheistic predecessors have. At this moment in its history, Aslan says, the Ulama, or clerics, still wield an enormous amount of power over the interpretation of faith in most Muslim countries, as well as a large amount of control over matters of the state in places such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Afghanistan. But that is changing, with reformers in Iran, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and the United States speaking up and demanding changes.

In much of "No god but God," Aslan castigates the Ulama for the powers they have retained. But Aslan himself is an alim (interpreter of Islam) of sorts. While he might claim to be a mere scholar of the Islamic Reformation, he is also one of its most articulate advocates.

Laila Lalami is the editor of the literary blog