Believer

I recently watched the first episode of new CNN series ‘Believer’, hosted by religious scholar Reza Aslan. If you’re not particularly active on Facebook and Twitter, you might be unaware of the intense controversy that has engulfed ‘Believer’ even before it was released. The outrage culture that prevails on social media, especially Twitter, ensured that for many merely the fact that Reza Aslan, an alleged ‘Hinduphobe’, is the narrator has been enough to brand the show as anti-Hindu.

I would go on to hazard that at least some of those whose ‘sensitivities’ have been hurt by the show have not really watched it. The reason I can say that pretty confidently is because their views on the show mostly revolve around the promo clips that were tweeted out by CNN and Aslan. If they had actually seen the episode, I think many of them would be less sure of Believer’s anti-Hinduness.

It’s not that I am guilt-free of doing this TV version of judging a book from its cover. I gormlessly retweeted the dozens of tweet threads that sprang up after the show was announced along with short promotional clips. The promotional clips are supposed to scandalise and shock you to arouse the viewer’s curiosity – that’s their very purpose. You just have to take a cursory look at movie trailers to comprehend what I’m talking about.reza-aslan-press

That being said, what about genuine grievances coming from those who have seen it? I totally understand that. There are plenty of reasons why a practicing Hindu might be put off by the show as I will enumerate later. While my knowledge or indeed intellect is not wide enough to encompass the wider implications the show may have on American Hindus in Donald Trump-led America as Tulsi Gabbard, an American Hindu politician, has pointed out in a series of tweets, I can and I will judge the show purely on its merit.

So here are some of my thoughts:

First, there is nothing anti-Hindu about ‘Believer’. Yes, Reza Aslan doesn’t have even a basic understanding of not just Hinduism but also about Varanasi, and he betrays his ignorance several times during the course of the episode. Zero marks for homework. Second, Azlan sees Hinduism through an Abrahamic point of view, and that’s understandable because Reza is an expert on Abrahamic faiths. But what he doesn’t realise is that Hinduism and indeed other Dharmic religions like Sikhism and Jainism as faith and a set of beliefs are entirely different from what he’s used to. I would think any self-professed scholar of religions would know that.

So while I do wish he’d done his research before the production, Aslan, to his credit, does try to be as fair as possible and for the most part succeeds. Both good and bad (read caste-system) aspects of Hinduism are highlighted and despite his superficial understanding, Reza Aslan comes across as a largely sympathetic, if not terribly sophisticated, ‘spiritual adventurer’.

Sorry, conspiracy theorists. Your concerns appear entirely without credit.

 

Book Review: ‘No god but God’ by Reza Aslan

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. nogod

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.

Rating: 4/5