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Author Aslan on the Evolution of Islam


Since the September 11 attacks, we've heard a lot of warnings about a clash of civilizations. That's the theory that the world is engaged in a battle between the forces of fundamentalist Islam and secular democracy. Reza Aslan is a scholar of Islam who takes a different view. He spoke to Renee Montagne.


In his book, "No god But God," Reza Aslan offers an intriguing premise. The West, he writes, is merely a bystander, a complicit casualty. The real struggle is between Islam and Islam, a rivalry between a rigid, dogmatic brand of Islam and one that embraces modern notions of pluralism and tolerance. Aslan argues that Muhammad's seventh-century teachings were actually closer to those modern ideas.

Mr. REZA ASLAN (Author, "No god But God"): Well, the Mecca that Muhammad was born into was, at that time, the financial, cultural, social and religious capital of the Arabian Peninsula. I mean, this was about the closest thing to an Arab cosmopolitan city that the ancient world had seen. And most importantly, this was a city that was surrounded by a host of different religious groups, Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians from Iran, and a whole variety of various pagan groups. This was just this religious melting pot that Muhammad grew up in and had access to. And it quite clearly informed his own spiritual identity.

MONTAGNE: When Muhammad--it was revealed to him that he was a prophet, what were the key elements of his thinking that changed everything?

Mr. ASLAN: Muhammad, when he felt that he was being called by God to become a prophet, to bring the God of the Jews and the Christians to the pagan Arab peoples, saw his first task not to be a religious reformation but to be a social reformation. The reason that Mecca had become this financial empire was because of the Kaaba. This was a sanctuary that housed all of the known gods in the Arabian Peninsula, including Jesus, including Abraham, including all of the various pagan gods as well. And people from all over the peninsula came to Mecca to worship their gods, but they also came in order to trade with one another, and the influx of money into this city had made the ruling aristocracy enormously wealthy. Throughout the first, three, four years of his preaching, the vast majority of the message that Muhammad revealed to the Meccans had to do with financial reform and distributing the wealth to the poor and the needy.

MONTAGNE: So at what point and why did violent conversion become part of Islam's success? How does the sword fit into the teachings of Muhammad, or is that some sort of perversion of the teachings of Muhammad?

Mr. ASLAN: Of course, the Koran, a good half of the Koran, was revealed in the midst of a war. I mean, Muhammad's revolutionary movement caused a fracture in Arabian society between those who wanted to maintain the status quo and those who had joined Muhammad's egalitarian movement. And a war erupted between these two groups. It is also important, I think, to understand that Islam expanded in a time of global empires and conquests. So all religions at the time--Christianity, Zoroastrianism--were all religions of the sword. I think the reason that this image has really stuck to Islam is really a part of the colonialist experience.

MONTAGNE: Which, in fact--What?--at one point had--about 90 percent of all Muslims were under colonial control?

Mr. ASLAN: That's right, about 90 percent of the Muslim population. So during the colonial period, in the 19th century and early 20th centuries, this was the first era in which Muslims were forced to confront the realities of the modern world, and what happened is that there was a split that took place between those modernists who actively strived to reconcile their faith and their traditions with these enlightenment principles of human rights and constitutionalism and, to a lesser degree, democracy, and those Muslims who reacted to those enlightenment values by reverting to a more fundamentalist version of their faith. It was undoubtedly a reaction to Western secularism and Western cultural hegemony.

MONTAGNE: Muhammad had a vision of a divinely inspired state.

Mr. ASLAN: Well, Islam from the very beginning has never been content with just focusing on metaphysical contemplation. Islam inspires every aspect of a believer's life, and from the very beginning I think Muhammad understood that there is no difference between one's private faith and the public expression of that faith.

MONTAGNE: Can you paint a picture for us of what would be a model Islamic democracy?

Mr. ASLAN: When we speak of Islamic democracy, we are not talking about a theocratic regime. What we are talking about is a democratic country dedicated to pluralism and human rights and constitutionalism and popular sovereignty, all of the wonderful values and principles that make a modern democracy, but one that is founded upon a distinctly Islamic moral framework. I think it's important to understand that that may not look exactly the same way that democracy in America would look like. But the only way for it to be viable is for it to be an indigenous and Islamic movement. Afghanistan right now is, I think, a wonderful example of that.

MONTAGNE: What would you say to someone who's listening right now and says, `There's a reason there's a democracy in Afghanistan. It's because there was a war and our coalition forces came in and freed them from the Taliban, and where left to their own devices, like Iran, they're in the grip of a theocracy'?

Mr. ASLAN: I think that there's a tendency now to look at the stirrings of democracy in the Middle East as the Bush doctrine coming to fruition, and that the neoconservative agenda was the correct agenda. That's one way to look at it, but in reality what's really taking place in the Middle East--and Iraq is a perfect example of this--is that Muslims themselves are taking advantage of this opportunity. The Muslim world, like any other people, is hungry for democracy. They're hungry for liberty, but they want it to be on their own terms and in their own versions and created by themselves.

MONTAGNE: Reza Aslan is the author of "No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam."

Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. ASLAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, with Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.