“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.”