No God But God
Whether you watch Fox News or CNN the message about the part of the world that stretches from North Africa to Pakistan is remarkably similar: the no-good-scenario scenario, the sinking hopelessness that there is no remedy to the violence, Islamic Nihilism. This viewpoint is at least partly due to the fact that Western media has remained stubbornly ignorant of anything but a monolithic simplification of Islamic history, theology, and political culture. There’s painfully little discussion of how things got this way, the part played by European colonialism, philosophical positions beyond the mysterious Sunni-Shia death wish, the revolutionary function of digital technologies on Islamic culture and practices. This is the world in which Donald Trump lives. If it’s not ISIS and the monumental clash of cultures, it’s not worth discussing.
For that kind of discussion, you’ll need someone on the inside, someone who understands how Muslim culture progressed from small desert community to majestic global empire to chaotic present. Enter Reza Aslan. In No god but God, Aslan reviews Islamic religion and politics from its roots in Arabia to its current status, following the three main streams of Muslim thought—Sunni, Shia, and Sufi—through fourteen centuries, including the anti-colonialist roots of the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahabbist Saudi Arabia, and the Faqih of Iran.
Making this story comprehensible to Western readers is important political work, but the most remarkable message of the book is Aslan’s unswerving optimism, his belief that Islam is in the throes of a Reformation that will overthrow autocratic generals and Supreme Leaders alike. It’s the optimism of a believer, someone who can still identify the ethical egalitarianism that has guided the community of Islam since the time of the Prophet. Locating that optimism in the midst of apparent chaos and professing it to Western non-believers is truly God’s work, a prayer disguised as history, a miracle of hope conformed to reason, a bridge where none was previously visible.