I read “No God But God” by Reza Aslan. My unusually fast reading of this book tells you how good it was! Thank you to the (several) people that recommended it. I actually haven’t read many books on the history of Islam, but this is one I would recommend to anyone, Muslims and non-Muslims; he does a very good balancing act between the two audiences, remaining ambiguous about his own views! I am curious now to read another book of his, “How To Win A Cosmic War”.
The first point that hit me in chapter 2 was an explanation for why an uncompromising monotheism was so important to Muhammad. The greedy materialism in Mecca was supported by the fact that the Ka’ba housed statues of all the gods, and so the Meccan Quraysh tribe were able to exploit the pilgrims who came from all over. He had to attack the polytheism in order to render the Ka’ba redundant.
“… the Hanif preachers may have attacked the polytheism and greed of their fellow Meccans, but they maintained a deep veneration for the Ka’ba and those in the community who acted as Keepers of the Keys. That would explain why the Hanifs appear to have been tolerated, for the most part, in Mecca, and why they never converted in great numbers to Muhammad’s movement. But as a businessman and a merchant himself, Muhammad understood what the Hanifs could not: the only way to bring about radical social and economic reform in Mecca was to overturn the religio-economic system on which the city was built; and the only way to do that was to attack the very source of the Quraysh’s wealth and prestige – the Ka’ba.” (Ch. 2)
It was a surprise to read because obviously at some point the Ka’ba became important to him again. But it makes a lot of sense.
Polytheism by nature is pluralistic and inheres religious freedom because there is always room for one more god. So I definitely think there was a downside to bringing an uncompromising monotheism. But attacking a greedy system, I can understand.
This leads to Muhammad’s persecution and eventual emigration to Yathrib (which became Medina). Then what? It never occurred to me before that the Meccans would just have let them be if they’d minded their own business and lived peacefully, but that’s exactly the picture that Aslan paints.
“By declaring Yathrib a sanctuary city, Muhammad was deliberately challenging Mecca’s religious and economic hegemony over the Peninsula. And just to make sure the Quraysh got the message, he sent his followers out into the desert to take part in the time-honored Arab tradition of caravan raiding.” (Ch. 4)
Makes it sounds positively harmless, doesn’t it? He goes on to say that it wasn’t considered stealing, and that through it, “Muhammad finally got the attention he was seeking.” This is different from Tariq Ramadan’s justification of it as retribution for the property that was stolen from them.
There was more disturbing stuff to come. By the time of Muhammad’s death, “In eastern Arabia, another man, Maslama (or Musaylama), had so successfully imitated Muhammad’s formula that he had already gathered thousands of followers in Yamama, which he had declared to be a sanctuary city.” (Ch. 5) Isn’t that fascinating? But of course, such movements had to be extinguished by the Muslims. “[Abu Bakr’s] principal achievement as Caliph was his miliatary campaigns against the “false prophets” and those tribes who had ceased paying the tithe tax…” (Ch. 5) Oh well.
Here is a really important point that I think all traditionalist Muslims should realise:
“There is a tendency to think of Islam as having been both completed and perfected at the end of Muhammad’s life. But … it would be a mistake to think of Islam in 632 C.E. as being in any way a unified systems of beliefs and practices; far from it.” (Ch. 5)
Any honest look – or even glance – at the hadith literature will tell you that nothing is clear-cut!
Authority within Islam was an interesting topic. He says:
“… the primary purpose of the Five Pillars is to assist the believer in articulating, through actions, his or her membership in the Muslim community. The ancient Kharijite ideal of the Ummah as a charismatic and divinely inspired community through which salvation is achieved has become the standard (orthodox) doctrine of the vast majority of Muslims in the world…” (Ch. 6)
That was interesting in itself, but he goes on to say this is because there is no central authority in the religion. I’m not sure I follow, because the same could be said of Protestantism, and yet salvation there is not through membership in a Protestant community. However. For Sunnis, the Caliph held political authority while the ulama – scholars – held religious authority. For Shi’as, the Imams are both of these and more, as far as I understood – kind of like Popes, but even closer to prophets than that. I didn’t know that.
I learnt a lot I didn’t know about Shi’ism.
“The Shi’ah… regard Husayn’s martyrdom as having completed the religion that Abraham initiated and Muhammad revealed to the Arabs.” (Ch. 7)
Almost like the way Jesus’s sacrifice completed the law of Moses. Atonement through sacrifice. Husayn died fighting and Jesus died not fighting, but both knew they faced death and didn’t run away from it. Hard acts to follow!
There were a lot more interesting things in the book but these were the standout things for me, things I wanted to record and/or see what your reactions are.