The beginner’s guide to Islam

No god but God, Reza Aslan. (Random House, 2011)

There was a lot to like in this book. It served me well as a good introduction to the Muslim faith, its origins and its evolution to what we see today. I have a new appreciation for the diversity of belief that Islam encompasses, and I finally (mostly) understand the differences between the Shi’a, Sunni, and Sufi branches of Islam.

The biggest takeaway, of course, is reinforcement of the knowledge that a very small percentage of the world’s Muslims hold the kind of fundamentalist viewpoint that has led to terrorist attacks on the West. Aslan’s explanation of how the words of the Quran have been interpreted in ways that seem completely contrary to the actions and words of its prophet, Mohammed, are akin to describing a centuries-long game of telephone played to advance political viewpoints. Things get lost in translation and interpretation, accidentally and deliberately, but once lost they are difficult to retrieve.

It’s also less than heartening to read that much of the growth in fundamentalist Islam came about as a direct result of Western colonial activity in the Middle East, India, and Africa. It’s difficult to read about brutal suppression and the deliberate pitting of one faith’s true believers against another’s in order to ensure native populations would be too fractured to mount a successful revolution, especially with the hindsight of what those actions wrought over the long term and into our current political landscape. In that sense, this book only reaffirmed my belief that we have no place, militarily, in the Middle East today. What is happening in Iraq is tragic, to be sure, and partly our fault, but nothing we do now is likely to make it better. We would have been far better off never to have started the war in the first place. Perhaps it’s no use crying over those past decisions but we need to keep reminding people that time has proven them to be total failures lest we stumble into the same minefield all over again, as has happened time and again.

Given all of that, Aslan seems unduly optimistic that the current brand of fundamentalist Islam that has led to so many terrorist attacks will wane as the overwhelmingly young Muslim population moves away from that message and toward a version of populist democracy. He cites the people’s uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to support his view, although a reader can’t help but notice that the book was written before the “Arab Spring” failed to truly catch hold and in some places was brutally suppressed or slid backwards into tyranny once again.

Aslan also is optimistic that Islam and democracy can (and will) co-exist, though he rightly points out that we in the West must stop thinking our brand of democracy is the only right way to do it. Certainly Americans have an innate distrust of government that overtly espouses a religious viewpoint, but Aslan argues that just as Muhammed ruled the city of Medina without persecuting the Jewish and Christian minorities who lived and traded there, the same governance model could work today.

As you might expect from a book that encompasses more than 900 years of history in just 300 pages, the best that can be said about No god but God is that it is a decent introduction to Islam for those like me who knew little. Further reading would be necessary to truly understand many of the complex subjects that Aslan only lightly touches on, but he provides a strong starting point for the curious.