Islam in the Modern World

Reza Aslan, Author, "No god but God"
Tuesday, May 3, 2005; 4:51 PM

Despite the increased prominence of Islam, its history remains obscured by the focus on its role in current events. Through the actions of its radical elements, many Muslims feel the tenants of the faith have been distorted. Reza Aslan, author of "No god but God," counters the idea of a "clash of civilizations" and describes an internal conflict between those who have reverted to fundamentalist and rigid practices to counter the spread of modernism, and Muslims who are trying to reconcile tradition with democracy and open society.

Reza Aslan was online to take your questions on Islam in the modern world.

A transcript follows.

Washington, D.C.: I watched your interview with Jon Stewart last week and was impressed with the way you held your own. Do you think a time will come when Muslims in general will be able to come out from under the cloud of terrorism?

Reza Aslan: The vast majority of Muslim throughout the world are peace-loving, moderate people of faith who go about their daily lives, struggling with their values, trying to reconcile them to the realities of the modern world, striving to be morally upright, conflicting with their desires, going to mosque when they can, and in general trying to walk the straight path to God. Muslims are no different than any other peoples of faith. It is strange that they are seen so often as "different."


Toronto, Ontario: My question is about the acceptance of Islam as a continuation of Judaism and Christianity in Christian world. Or does the Christian world see Islam as a fake belief system? The origin of my question is from my observations. Muslims believe Jesus and Moses as much as they do Mohammed. But I don't think Christians see the same way.

How can Islam be saved from the hands of image of the religion of poverty and ignorance?

Reza Aslan: Islam is often seen in the west as some kind of foreign and exotic religion: a religion of the "other." But Islam is nothing of the sort. This is a faith firmly rooted in the same sacred history as Judaism and Christianity. You are right that Islam reveres all of the Propehts of the Hebrew Bible and that Muslims consider Jesus to be the Messiah and eagerly await his return at the end of time. These three faiths--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--represented a single cohesive narrative about God. Of course, there are differences between the three faiths of Abraham. But these are not differences of values or even faith. They are differences of emphasis.


Washington, D.C.: Like anything, Islam can be distorted to things that it is not. However, why do a significant portion of the (could be 20 percent) people in Pakistan and parts of the middle east believe in suicide bombings as legitimate? That seems to be why a noble religion like Islam is getting a bad reputation. What do you think?

Reza Aslan: Islam, like all religions, can be used to justify a wide range of beliefs and practices. It is true that many throughout the Muslim world do see suicide bombings, particularly in the occupied territories, as a legitimate act of self-defense over what they consider to be an oppressive military occupation. Let us not forget that terrorism is the tactic of the weak. And in large parts of the Muslim world, people are living lives of enormous oppression at the hands of their governments or as a result of outside forces. It is only natural that they would respond not just with violence, but with religiously-sanctioned violence. After all, it is the language of religion that holds the most currency with the masses. That is why political and social agendas are so often framed in theological terms (anyone remember "a crusade against evil-doers?") That said, there is absolutely no justification whatsoever for the murder of civilians. Indeed, the killing of non-combatants for any reason is expressly forbidden in the harshest terms possible in the Quran.


Davis, Calif.: Dear Mr. Aslan,

I have a question about Islam that is quite sincere, as I am honestly trying to understand the religion (I am not a fundamentalist Christian and am not trying to convert anyone, nor am I an atheist--I am a man of science who nonetheless believes in God).

Is it true that in order to be a Muslim, one has to believe that every word and every letter in the Quran was dictated to Muhammad by an angel, without any room for (cultural) interpretation on Muhammad's part? And if so, what do the Muslims make of those parts of the Quran (or the Hadith) that advocate cutting off a thief's hand, stoning adulterers to death or flogging them "without compassion," or that describe an apparently vengeful God who sends people to suffer eternally in a vividly horrific hell, simply for doubting His existence? Is there no room in Islam for considering the possibility that the Prophet's cultural background may have crept into the Quran, and certainly into the Hadith?

Also, Muslims insist that Islam does not consider Muhammad to have been God nor a manifestation of Him. But doesn't Islam come close to venerating Muhammad since Muslims are obligated to say "peace be upon him" after every time his name is mentioned, and some even capitalize pronouns referring to him (Him). Often I have heard Muslims describe him as a "perfect" or "sinless" man, which is exactly how Christians describe Jesus. Doesn't the exaltation of Muhammad and the Quran (and Hadiths), if taken to extremes (e.g. the assumption that everything that may have been said by Muhammad, not just the Quran, is to be taken as divine), ultimately take attention away from God?

What I am really asking is this: Is there really any role in Islam for the individual's thought and conscience and communion with God? Or is Islam nothing but textual authority, enforced by threats of worldly or eternal punishment, or both?

I have found much to admire in Islam, particularly in its social implementation in some places. I just have these questions sticking in my craw.

Thanks for your views in response.

Reza Aslan: What an excellent question! Of course all great scriptures are equally shaped by the moral and metaphysical issues that they tackle as they are by the cultural and historical landscape in which they were written and in which they are interpreted. The move towards literalism and away from looking at scriptures as being somehow beyond any historical context exists in all religious traditions. We see this a lot among American evangelicals who consider the Bible to be the literal and inerrant word of God. This idea is perhaps even more prevalent in Islam because the Quran, unlike the Torah and the Gospels, was not written by many hands over hundreds of years, but in one sustained flow of narrative. However, the Quran is not a history of Islam the way the Hebrew Bible is a history of Judaism. The Quran is essentially God's dramatic monologue. It is simply God speaking through the mouth of Muhammad. However, the Quran is also an eminently evolving text that is unquestionably a part of the cultural and historical landscape of 7th century Arabia. To claim otherwise is to restrict the word of God as being static and unchanging--to claim that the community of Muslims today (over a billion strong) has the same needs and demands as the tiny community the Prophet built 14 centuries ago. This is ridiculous and offensive. Just as God reared Muhammad's community, constantly changing the Revelation as God saw fit to adapt to it needs, so God rears us now through out own rational, God-given ability to apply reason and understanding to the interpretation of our ancient scriptures.


Bethesda, Md.: It seems to me that the three related religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--even at their most "reformed"--treat women as second-class believers. I fear that Islam gets more than its share of the blame on this, but nonetheless this religious tradition has elements that are hostile to women. Is there any hope of change?

Reza Aslan: The problem is that, thoughout history, religion has often been interpreted exclusively by men. This is particulalry true in Islam. However, that is changing. Throughout the Muslim world, women are going back to the Quran and the Islamic Law to decide for themselves what it means to be a Muslim. They are leading their own communities, their own services, their own Quran studies. This is incredibly exciting work. Not only is there hope for change. Change is happening!


Quebec,Canada: How do you feel about Hamas and Hezbollah? Are they terrorists?

Reza Aslan: Any group or organization that sanctions the murder of innocent civilians for any reason whatsoever, particularly in the name of religion, must be opposed by all means necessary. But we should not immeidately reject the grievances of these groups just because we reject their tactics. Indeed, their tactics are in large part a response to their deligitimization by their governments. We must bring these groups into the fold of the burgeoning democracies in the Musllim world. Their murderous tactics aside, what separates Hamas and Hizbullah from American evangelical organizations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Right is not their aspirations--both wish to inject their moral values into society--but in the access they have to the public realm. In the US these groups are given the freedom to voice their values and we are given the freedom to either accept or reject them. In the Arab world, these groups are labled fundamentalists and terrorists and are outlawed. As a result they often become radicalized. Of course, there are those who do not want anything but an oppressive theocracy. They must be opposed. However, bringing moderate religious groups into the fold will only further moderate them and only further shun those radicals who wish to disrupt the system.


Washington, D.C.: I had heard that Muslims were fairly rigid in adherence to religuous doctrine among fellow Muslims but historically were tolerant towards other faiths even if the majority of people in the area were Muslim. Was that true and is it true today? Are there Christians and Jews in Saudi Arabia or Iran?

Reza Aslan: Indeed, the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel is in Iran. Jews and Christians have always been considered protected peoples (dhimmi) in Islam and were forbidden from having to convert to the faith (as oposed to "pagans" and "polytheists"). That's bc Muhammad (PBUH) believed them to be a part of his community. Over and over again the Prophet preached that his message was not new, but merely a continuation of the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition. Of course, he lashed out against those Jews and Christians that he believed had lapsed in their faith and in their committment to God. But isn't that what a Prophet is supposed to do? Did not Isaiah, John the Baptist, and even Jesus, lambast his believers for their lack of faith?


Washington, D.C.: It seems in the literature I've read that it is a given that most Muslims in the world consider themselves Muslims first and citizens of whatever country in which they reside second.

With the well-documented wave of Muslim immigrants, especially into Western Europe, is there a risk that the Western world as we know it could simply fade away?

Could a new caliphate be on the horizon (even if its decades away) without a single dirty bomb or biological weapon ever being detonated?

Reza Aslan: It is true that as a Muslim you belong equally to two communities: the worldwide Ummah-- or community of Muslims-- and one's own nation or state. But this in no way implies divided loyalties. Muslims, like Jews and Christians, vote their values and react against policies that go against their beliefs.


Baltimore, Md.: There's a good review of your book on It sounds like a fantastic book!

One question for you... if Islam is facing this interior struggle for the relgion, between the fundamentalists and the more moderate factions, what is the proper reaction of the Western countries that are often targets in this battle?

Doesn't responding with violence bolster the fundamentalist argument? Doesn't dropping bombs give the terrorists credibility for blaming anything on the modernized West?

But at the same time, the Western countries can't just sit idly by and let these two factions of a great religion battle it out and use our countries as their battlefield. So you can't blame the Western countries for responding.

But how would you suggest the West behave while this struggle for the direction of Islam is occurring?

Reza Aslan: You make a numberof excellent points.
First, the West must realize that they cannot dictate the progress or the parameters of the Islamic Reformation that is already underway in the Muslim world. This is an internal conflict between Muslims for the future of the faith; an rgument over competing ideologies of Islamic modernism. It has nothing to do with the West. However, we have a responsibility to encourage reform though our policies in the region. we must stop coddling our allies in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. To praise Saudi Arabia and condemn Iran, or praise Egypt and condemn Syria, is to show an egregious hypocrasy that comes across clearly in the Muslim world. We can foster reform by supoprting the voices of moderate Muslims in those countries in which we have influence. We cannot stand by a let Mubarak or the Saudis arrest and torture reformers while sanctioning Iran for the same actions.


New York, N.Y.: As long as so many Muslims continue to accept unquestioningly commandments to murder in the name of God (the fatwah against Salmon Rushdie, suicide bombers), Islam will always be regarded with suspicion among non-Muslims. The fact is, many Muslims either openly support terrorism or shrug and say "what can you do?" (what I call the "it's terrible but..." response). Moderate Mulsims need to take back their religion--stand up and be HEARD, let Westerners and (most importantly) other Muslims know murder and terrorism will not be supported. Too many Muslims adopt the role of victim ("everyone hates's a crusade...") instead of taking control of the mesage their co-religionists send out. I say this as a Christian who does the same within my religion--there are so-called Christians who spread a message of hatred (against gays and women) and I counter their message with one of love and acceptance towards everyone. You must take back your religion, and you can do this first by speaking out.

We are all brothers and sisters, people of the Book--all of us must reach out to each other.

Reza Aslan: Amen.


Washington, D.C.: Sir,

A personal question if I may: What made you study Islam?


Reza Aslan: I don't just study Islam. I study comparative religions. Islam is merely my specialty. I do so because as a person of faith I wish to understand the language I've been given (i.e. my religion) for expressing my faith. Understanding what religion is can only further my relationship with God and bring to a more intimate knowledge of God.


Washington, D.C.: Too many commentators have used the "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" cliche to equate, for example, the Palestinian cause with the American revolution.

In that vein, why can't the Palestinians or any other aggrieved group of Muslims do things the old fashioned way and raise an army and go to war?

Washington and Hamilton did it. Cromwell and Napoleon did it. If the Palestinians want autonomy, why can't they raise an army and fight with honor? Why all of the suicide bombings and targeting of women and children?

Reza Aslan: To raise an army requires a state. That is precisely why we see terrorism flourish in Palestine and among the state-less al-Qaeda. Do you want to see terrorism diminish in Israel? Build a viable, stable, fair, and economically sound Palestine.


Conway, Ark.: Do you think the reformation that you see taking place in the Islamic world will result in something looking like Western liberal democracies or something completely different but still acceptable and influential to the broader world? In other words, do reformists see an enviable template with the unfortunate history of having been used to oppress Muslims when they see Western institutions, or do they see something to be rejected outright, or is this the crux of the debate about the course fo reform?

Reza Aslan: Democracy will only take hold in the Muslim world if it is an indigenous democracy. That means it will NOT look anything like American democracy. That is a good thing, because only in America is American democracy possible. It cannot be separated from American values, traditions, or history. If we try to import American democracy into the Muslim world, it will be rejected in the same way that European "Enlightenment" ideologies were rejected (by some) during the colonial era: bc it was seen as part of an oppressive Western cultural hegemony. However, if we encourage democratic reform from within, the result may not be what we would like, but it will actually work. And not only work, but truly spread throughout the region.


Winthrop, Mass.: I think that many people are making the mistake of assuming that all Muslims are super religious when that is not the case. I have three engineering degrees, and have studied, worked and played with Muslims all my life, and have found that after living in America for a while, Muslims were no more likely to be extremely religious than Christian Americans. In fact the Muslims were far less likely to try and impose their views on others than were Christians.

Reza Aslan: I called this "Muslim exceptionalism." That is, the notion that Muslims are somehow not like peoples of other faiths. That is absurd. Muslims, like Jews, and Christians, and Buddhists, and Hindus, etc, are human beings. Thay come from different backgrounds and differing values. They struggle with their faith like all people of faith do. Some are liberal; some are conservative. Some are deeply religious; some are not. Islam is by no means a monolithic faith; to claim otherwise is to be utterly confused.


Toronto, Ontario: I know that there was a time when Islamic nations, such as Islamic Spain, were known to be much more tolerant than Christian nations. However, there seems to be a wing within Islam today that is intolerant. And it seems to be that all of those who have taken up terrorism are within that wing.

Would you say that the harshness with which American forces are treating ordinary Iraqis is polarizing the positions within Islam, and leading more people to the extreme where terrorism seems acceptable?

And if so, what do you think governments, and ordinary people, can do to defuse this polarization, and show tolerance and acceptance to those within Islam who don't embrace terrorism? Isn't it true that only a very tiny minority embrace terrorism?

Reza Aslan: Unfortunately, despite the amazing work that American troops are doing in Iraq trying to stabilize that country so democracy can have chance to take hold, there are those who are allowing their biases and prejudice and criminal behavior to feed al-Qaeda's propaganda push that the War on Terror is in fact a war against Islam. This is a delicate situation and it is up to the administration to do whatever it takes to diffuse what has become a polarizing issue throughout the Muslim world. It is not enough to simply talk about this not being a war against Islam. We have to prove it by holding people at the highest levels of government accountable for the attrocities at Abu Ghraib. We are not doing that. And it is evident in the Muslim world.


Monroe, N.Y.: I'm offended that as a non-Muslim I cannot visit Mecca, isn't Islam too exclusionary in this and other ways?

Reza Aslan: Mecca is not a tourist destination. It is a sacred santuary for a people of faith. If you want an Arabian/Islamic tourist destination go to Dubai.


Re: Raising an Army: I appreciate the answer but would argue that raising an army requires a state.

Washington and the Founding Fathers were mere British subjects. Spartacus was a mere Greek slave.

Aren't the real problems that the fundamentalist Muslim cause is morally bankrupt, and the Muslim people have failed to produce a true leader around whom they can rally?

Reza Aslan: The British, in nearly all of their correspondences during the revolutionary war, referred to Washington and his rag-tag militia, as terrorists. Only you and I consider them an army.


Austin, Tex.: What I struggle with as I try to understand and respect Islam is this:

Even though many of the same issues facing Islamic societies also face Christian/Western societies, things in the Islamic world seem to be much more "drastic." For example:

- In the West, women can't be Catholic priests. Their appropriate role in the military is much debated. In the Muslim world, many women can't vote, and may in certain places be stoned to death for adultery.

- In the West, homosexuals are often faced with hostility. Might lose their job under certain circumstances (but probably not). They may, true, sometimes face violence. That said, I would much rather be gay in Nebraska than in Saudi Arabia.

- In the West, if a person from a Christian family decides to convert to Islam, Mom and Dad probably won't be happy. The person may even be rejected by some family members. If a Pakistani Muslim decided to convert to Christianity, he/she might well be killed. Not impossible in the West, but not likely.

Could you address this issue?

Reza Aslan: Excellent point. Of course, let's not forget that Islam is a faith that is centered throughout much of the third world. The same issues that much of the Muslim world (particulalry in the Middle East) deal with--their opression of minorities, women, etc.--are issues dealt with by most of the third world. It is simply that these groups of Islamic militants have chosen the language of Islam to frame their political ideologies. The same thing happened in Latin America, in which the language of Christianity was used (often violently) to frame poltical revolutions against a corrupt state (Liberation Theology).


Tampa, Fla.: I find the extreme Arabization of Islam puzzling. Are converts required to take Arab names? More importantly, can one reject Arab tribal customs and still be a Muslim? I think many of the ostensible "Muslim" customs, such as veiling women, are actually Arab tribal customs which Muslims may reject. To what extent do you think the conflict within Islam today may be a conflict between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims?

Reza Aslan: So do most Muslims. Indeed, Arabs make the tiniest fraction of the world's Muslim population (some 18% or so). So it is a mistake to think of Islam as "an Arab" faith, despite its origins. However, the language of Arabic is important to Muslims bc it is the language in which the Quran was revealed. As a result, all Muslims must try to read the scripture in its original language, whether they understand it or. This is exactly the case in Judaism (particularly Orthodox Judaism). Jews must learn to read the Torah in Hebrew.


Reza Aslan: Thank you all for your incredibly enlightened questions. I am truly humbled by their intelligence and honesty. I wish I could continue to answer them all, but I must log off now. However, I would love the opportunity to do this again (hint, hint Washington Post!).


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