Islam is something that has held my attention since these last few years. It has been an interesting, sometimes scary, but mostly, an obscure thing for me. That’s primarily because I’ve never had any clear opinion on what kind of religion Islam really is. Is it peaceful? Violent? Neither? Both? The clamour of Islamophobics and Islamic extremists seemed equally loud, and it was impossible to discern any rational voice amidst the pandemonium. It did not help that the only Muslim friend I had was not a practicing one and did not take Islam (or anything else, for that matter) seriously.
Sometimes, I’ve found myself defending Islam from Hindutva fanatics (usually by pointing out controversially misogynistic Manusmriti verses) on Facebook and Twitter; and other times, ridiculing it before Muslim extremists (by recalling the parts of the Quran that at least seem to promote violence). But I could not really claim any authority on Islam, uninformed as I was. That changed after I read No god but God by Reza Aslan.
I got acquainted with Reza Aslan at a session in 2014 iteration of the annual Jaipur Literary Festival. Not long after, he became one of my favourite speakers on religion. Initially, I did not care overmuch about the facts, I just enjoyed watching Aslan breezily destroying the arguments of his discombobulated adversaries. He never hesitated, never faltered and spoke in a soft, leisurely and relaxed tone. And later, when I came to know that he had also written a few books on religion, I wasted no time to pick up one.
No god but God is, as the title suggests, a book on Islam (‘No god but God or Allah’ is one of the central tenets of Islam). It tells the story of Islam right from pre-Islamic Arabia until Muhammad’s death and goes on to describe how modern Islam came into existence – what were the transformations and reforms it went through over the course of the history, how it influenced the world history and how it developed into the complex faith as we know it.
Aslan’s writing and narration are as fun and gripping as his debates. In the book, he argues for a more broad-minded interpretation of the Quran and Muhammad. At times, this book does seem a little too defensive and Aslan’s justification, “There is no higher calling than to defend one’s faith” isn’t convincing either, especially for a seemingly dispassionate scholar. Also, I did not like some of the arguments put forward by Aslan in this book, but these are minor quirks in an otherwise incredibly informative and enjoyable book, and for the most part, this book makes sense. I liked the central argument, according to which the global Islamic conflict we are witnessing today is not a clash between civilisations, as most people see it, but they are simply ramifications of struggles within Islam – between its branches and sects and people and schools of thought.
I highly recommend this book to those who think they are not much informed about one of the most influential religions in the history of mankind. As they say, love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it. Even you do consider yourself a connoisseur, your beliefs and understanding of Islam might undergo some radical changes by the time you are done with it.