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Taking History on Faith

By Nikki R. Keddie,
a professor emerita of history at UCLA and the author of "Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution"
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page C02


The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam

By Reza Aslan

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Random House. 310 pp. $25.95

America's painful recent encounters with the Muslim world have spurred a spate of books, including several that cover Islam as a whole. Reza Aslan's "No god but God" is one of the most readable, reflecting his unusual background as both a student of religion and a graduate of the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop. But his attention to good storytelling occasionally interferes with accuracy. Mostly reliable and usually entertaining, the book also has some problems.

Writing a reliable account of Islam's distant history is not easy. Most of the written sources on Islam date from two centuries or more after the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and while scholars disagree about their reliability as to earlier events, virtually all concur that they in part reflect later developments and concerns. Traditions about the prophet's sayings and deeds (hadiths) have come in for especially heavy criticism; early Muslim scholars divided hadiths into sound and weak ones, and recent scholars have been even more skeptical. In his long account of the life of Muhammad, Aslan sometimes relies on doubtful sources that support his view of the prophet as a thoroughgoing social reformer who was far ahead of his time on women's rights and countenanced warfare only in self-defense.

"Perhaps nowhere was Muhammad's struggle for economic redistribution and social egalitarianism more evident," Aslan writes, "than in the rights and privileges he bestowed upon the women in his community." Aslan follows the lead of contemporary Muslim feminist scholars, who have rightly noted that the Koran is far more egalitarian and protective of women's rights and status than most later Islamic practices in the Middle East. He correctly notes that the Koran does not enjoin the veiling of women, though he does mistakenly think that it was demanded of Muhammad's wives. (In fact, the verse asking men to speak to these wives from "behind a hijab" refers to the first meaning of hijab, which means both curtain and veil. Islamic jurists later interpreted this and another verse as requiring veiling, just as other aspects of the Koran were later interpreted in ways less favorable to women.) Aslan does not deny the gender inequalities enshrined in the Koran, but he minimizes them. To be sure, Islam's foundational text repeatedly treats women and men as equal believers. It also improved women's social position by condemning infanticide and regularizing female inheritance and property rights. The Koran was ahead of its times but not entirely egalitarian. It gives men privileges in relation to women, lets them control their wives and permits them to marry as many as four women. (Although polygamy is allowed only if the husband treats all his wives equally -- something that the very same verse that authorizes multiple marriages says is impossible -- only recently has this been interpreted to mean the prophet actually preferred monogamy.) Aslan would have been on stronger ground if he had discussed the regression of women's rights embodied in later Islamic law, which was influenced by tribal, Near Eastern, Jewish and Roman law.

Like many authors, Aslan gives the most space to Islam's founding era, on which we have the least-sure documentation, because he sees interpreting the Koran's guidance and Muhammad's motives as central to Muslims' views of their lives and religion even today. Aslan also ascribes undocumented feelings and motives not only to Muhammad but also to later figures -- a technique sometimes endorsed in creative nonfiction courses but not recommended for historians. Aslan's treatment of the later periods -- including the Abbasid, Ottoman and modern ages -- is mostly reliable and interesting, but his idea that Islamic law and legal practice stopped evolving at a very early stage is wrong. Scholars have found significant changes in legal writings and practices over the centuries. Several Ottoman rulers issued edicts that they said conformed with Islamic law but in fact went so far as to end executions and physical punishments, substituting fines and banishment, which became common practice in the Ottoman Empire.

Overall, Aslan presents a liberal and optimistic view of Islam. He attributes many of its past problems to powerful clerics who provided cramped interpretations of Islamic law, as well as to an imperialist West. This perspective has much truth to it and is shared by many liberal Muslims and Western scholars. Aslan's endnotes show that he is well versed in the scholarly literature and aware of many of its controversies -- which helps explain the tentative nature of some of his conclusions in those endnotes, echoing academic quarrels and uncertainties. But the rest of the book rarely displays such doubts or nuances.

Larger publishers, newspapers and magazines often prefer non-scholarly works to scholarly ones, which are (sometimes unfairly) deemed unreadable. But some books are both readable and firmly based on the best scholarship. "No god but God" makes it most of the way into this category, but not all. Aslan provides a lively, enjoyable and mostly accurate picture, but parts of the book are shaky. For the uninitiated, it may be hard to tell which is which.

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