Reza Aslan can’t help but chuckle when he looks back on the 1980s, for he says he spent much of the decade pretending to be Mexican.
The Iranian-born immigrant mastered break dancing and embraced the nickname “El Pinguino,” (The Penguin) a nod to his bowlegs. Assuming an alternate ethnic identity suited a singular purpose for the young Aslan, who came to the United States in 1979 at the age of 7.
“I was scrubbing myself clean of any hint of my ethnicity or my religion,” says Aslan, whose mother was a less than enthusiastic Muslim and whose father was a more than enthusiastic atheist. “It was not the best time to be Iranian in America.”
Two decades later, Aslan — author of the bestseller “Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” — still seems to be calibrating his identity in small but telling ways. Even as he has achieved phenomenal success as the author of well-crafted religious history books that appeal to a mass audience, he’s eager — perhaps overeager — to present himself as a formidable academic with special bona fides in religion and history.
The boy who posed as something that he was not has become the man who boasts of academic laurels he does not have. Aslan, 41, has variously claimed to hold a doctorate in “the history of religions” or a doctorate in “the sociology of religions,” though no such degrees exist at the university he attended. His doctorate is in sociology, according to the registrar’s office at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Aslan, who has an undergraduate degree in religious studies and a master’s in theological studies, is not currently a professor of religion or history. He is an associate professor in the creative writing department of the University of California at Riverside. He has asserted a present-day toehold in the field of religion by saying he is “a cooperative faculty member” in Riverside’s Department of Religious Studies.
Yet this is not so, according to Vivian-Lee Nyitray, the just-retired chair of the department. Nyitray says she discussed the possibility last year with Aslan but that he has not been invited to become a cooperative faculty member, a status that would allow him to chair dissertations in her former department.
Aslan dismisses criticism of his credentials — which has reached a feverish pitch on the Internet and in parts of the academic world — as the result of misinterpretation of his unconventionality more than anything else. He’s irked by academia, saying it’s populated by scholars prone to “sit around in dusty rooms arguing about the vowel markers of ancient texts for the next 30 years.”
To be sure, Aslan has toggled between teaching creative writing and religion. He was a visiting scholar, he says, at the Drew University Center on Religion. “I like to go back and forth. I get easily bored,” Aslan says in an interview. “The reason there’s been so much suspicion about my credentials is because academics tend not to do that. For the life of me, I can’t understand why there’s so much controversy.”
Aslan argues that he is within his rights to claim a PhD in the sociology or history of religion because the history and sociology of religion are encompassed in the larger field of sociology. To back him, he refers questions to his graduate adviser, Mark Juergensmeyer, of UC Santa Barbara.
“We don’t have a degree in sociology of religions, as such,” Juergensmeyer acknowledges. But he says he doesn’t have a problem with Aslan’s characterization of his doctorate, noting that his former student did most of his course work in religion.
Juergensmeyer helped arrange the shift of Aslan’s doctoral dissertation on Jihadism from the religious studies department to sociology. Juergensmeyer says the shift was undertaken to get Aslan out of time-consuming required language courses; Aslan says he moved to another department because religious studies professors were jealous about the 2005 publication of his best-selling book “No god, but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.” Juergensmeyer did not recall resentment among professors being a factor.
Dale Martin, a Yale University religious studies professor who reviewed Aslan’s “Zealot” for the New York Times, sees Aslan’s characterization of his credentials in a different light. “I think he overplayed his hand,” Martin says of Aslan in an interview. “He’s just overselling.” Martin, who has praise for Aslan’s writing skills, was critical of his seeming reliance on the work of previous scholars to formulate one of the central theories of his book: that Jesus was a revolutionary executed because he posed a political threat to the Roman Empire.
“The record needs to be corrected,” Martin says. “Both about his credentials and his thesis.”
On July 26, Reza Aslan was looking forward to a big interview — an appearance on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Aslan — who can be a charming, energetic and engaging interview subject — was far less focused on another part of his schedule, a much more low-profile sit-down with FoxNews.com. Although popular, the site has less cachet as a venue to promote books than the network’s highly rated cable channel.
Aslan wasn’t expecting a comfortable chat. He held Fox in low esteem. “I know what Fox News is about,” he says. “This is a network that has spun fear-mongering about Muslims into ratings gold for 10 years.” Fox did not respond to a request for comment.
What he didn’t see coming were the astonishingly absurd questions lobbed at him by the interviewer, Lauren Green. Green repeatedly questioned how a Muslim could write a book about the central figure in Christianity. It was as if his religion somehow disqualified him, a loopy suggestion for countless reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Christian authors write about Islam.
Green, who did not respond to an interview request, also accused Aslan of concealing his religion. It was another ridiculous assertion. Aslan often discusses his spirituality, and he talks about being a Muslim on the second page of “Zealot.”
Green did, however, accomplish one thing in her much-ridiculed interview: She goaded Aslan into talking about his academic qualifications. “I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions,” Aslan said. Then he said it again. Moments later, he said he was “a scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject.”
“I left the studio just a little bit dumbfounded,” Aslan says.
The cringe-inducing interview became an Internet sensation after it was posted by the Web site Buzzfeed under the headline, “Is this the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done?” It has become a popular misconception that the interview launched the book as a bestseller. In fact, “Zealot” was already No. 4 on the Times list prior to the interview. It glided to No. 1 afterward.
The interview had been a strange yet utterly arresting spectacle. And in some respects, it was a sad episode, too. Aslan is a supremely talented writer, an author in possession of that rare gift of distilling complex material into compulsively readable narrative. But being a celebrated author did not seem to be enough.
The story of Reza Aslan is a story of perpetual religious discovery, of passions found and discarded.
His family left Iran, Aslan says, because his father was concerned about living in a state dominated by a religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini. “He’s just somebody who has always disliked and distrusted religious people,” Aslan says in an interview from Southern California, where he now lives.
The family settled briefly in Oklahoma, where his father — who had an advanced business degree in Iran — worked on a master’s in business. They then moved to Northern California.
There was “absolutely zero religious instruction” in the family, Aslan says. But when Aslan was 15, he attended a camp where he was exposed to biblical Gospel stories. “It was the first time I’d been given an outlet for my spiritual desires,” he says. He was riveted. “There’s a reason why it’s called ‘the greatest story ever told,’ ” he says.
He became an evangelical Christian. As a youth leader in a group called Young Life, he says he spent four to five years “missionizing” at camps and schools. His father thought he was “crazy,” but he succeeded in converting his mother into a passionate evangelical.
Aslan’s drift from Christianity began after he enrolled at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution not far from the family’s home in San Jose. He detected a “chasm,” he says, between the Christ he was introduced to in church and “the Jesus of history.” He seized on “errors and contradictions” in religious texts. “All of these things rocked my faith,” he says. “They left me totally spiritually unmoored.”
The Jesuit priests he met encouraged him to respond to his doubts by examining Islam, the faith of his forefathers. He’d never read the Koran and knew nothing about the prophet Muhammad, but the more he read, the more he wanted to know. He’d had an “emotional conversion to Christianity,” he says. Now he was having “an intellectual conversion to Islam.”
Aslan, who also runs BoomGen Studios, a company that develops content for television and other platforms, was surrounded and would remain surrounded by Christians. His mother, who is still a devout evangelical, initially was “heartbroken,” he says. She fretted that he would “burn in hell for all eternity” but later came to accept his choice.
His wife, Jessica Jackley, is Christian, and her brother is an evangelical pastor.
From their first date, the couple concluded that their values were the same even though their religions were different. The couple are raising their 11 / 2-year-old twins in both faiths, he says, and later it will be up to their children to make their own choices.
“It’s not [that] I think Islam is correct and Christianity is incorrect,” Aslan says. “It’s that all religions are nothing more than a language made up of symbols and metaphors to help an individual explain faith.”
Aslan writes with verve, and in some sections, his book moves at a breathless, pulse-pounding pace. Jesus doesn’t just overturn the tables of the money-changers at the Temple in Jerusalem. He is “on a rampage. He is “in a rage.”
“As the crowd of vendors, worshippers, priests, and curious onlookers scramble over the scattered detritus, as a stampede of frightened animals, chased by their panicked owners, rushes headlong out of the Temple gates and into the choked streets of Jerusalem, as a corps of Roman guards and heavily armed Temple police blitz through the courtyard looking to arrest whoever is responsible for the mayhem, there stands Jesus, according to the gospels, aloof, seemingly unperturbed, crying out over the din: ‘It is written: My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of thieves.’ ”
Aslan portrays Jesus as an illiterate peasant who was crucified by the Romans because his “messianic aspirations” threatened their occupation of Palestine and because his “zealotry” threatened the authorities at the Temple in Jerusalem. Though zealotry and zealot tend to have negative connotations now, Aslan writes that in the time of Jesus, the term referred to people who strictly observed the Torah and refused to serve a foreign master.
Some scholars have noted that his main conclusions bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the work of S.G.F. Brandon, author of the well-known 1967 book “Jesus and the Zealots.” In a New York Times book review, Martin, the Yale professor, writes that Aslan “follows Mr. Brandon in his general thesis as well as many details.” Martin and some others would have preferred Aslan give more credit to Brandon; Aslan says the renowned scholar is frequently cited in the book’s extensive notes.
Aslan’s publisher is pitching the book as a work that “sheds new light on one of history’s most influential and enigmatic characters” and “challenges long-held assumptions.” But Aslan is not quite so hyperbolic in an interview. He says he sees his book as a way to “re-package” the story of Jesus “in an accessible way for a popular audience to read and enjoy. If you’re a Bible scholar, there’s nothing new.”
Indeed, many of Aslan’s assertions have become received wisdom for a large number of scholars. But few could deny that Aslan stitches the narrative artfully.
In the book, for instance, Aslan explores his contention that Jesus was born in the small village of Nazareth, rather than in Bethlehem. “I’m in complete agreement; I’m actually yawning at the same time,” says John Dominic Crossan, a former Catholic priest who is a professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University and author of many books, including “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.”
Crossan differs with Aslan, however, on a key point: the book’s suggestion that Jesus might have been predisposed to violently resist the Romans. “Jesus was not a fool,” Aslan writes. “He understood what every other claimant to the mantle of messiah understood: God’s sovereignty could not be established except through force.”
Crossan says Jesus’s approach was “programmatically nonviolent.” In a Washington Post review, Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, also took issue with that portrayal of Jesus. “What are we to make of Jesus’s apparent lack of interest in doing anything practical whatsoever to prepare for holy war? If he has come to fight for ‘a real kingdom, with an actual king,’ where are his soldiers and their weapons? And why no battle plan? The short answer to these questions is that Aslan is more a storyteller here than a historian.”
Yet readers don’t seem bothered by such queries. In the past week, “Zealot” has lodged firmly at the top of both the Amazon and New York Times bestseller lists.