The first thing
that struck me about this book is how well-written it is. I am a writer
with about 5,000 articles in print or online. I'm also an editor, and I
am noted for my harsh evaluations of the writing of others--most people
simply do not write well.
Reza Aslan writes well. Extremely well.
By the time I was into the second page of this
book, I felt that if Aslan had written a book about navel lint, I would
still want to read it.
Couple the excellent writing with quality content,
and you have a captivating book. When the subject is an authoritative
explanation of Islam, the book becomes a must read for two groups
of people: Those who are Muslims, and those who are not.
Aslan takes us on a journey through time. We see
Muhammad before he becomes the "messenger of God," and we see his
struggles along the way. From this, you can understand how Islam got its
start. And then we see the various forces that act upon Islam as a
blacksmith's hammer acts upon hot metal, and we watch this religion take
shape over centuries.
Today, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in
the world. But, it's also a sharply fragmented religion. Aslan explain
the origins of the various factions shaping Islam today. There's a
strong parallel to what happened in Christianity. And, Aslan draws on
this parallel to explain a core concept of the book--that Islam is far
from monolithic. You have to remember that Christianity got a 500 year
head start on Islam. Read your history of the West, and you can see
Islam along the same trajectory.
Americans, in the aftershock of September 11,
generally felt much of the Islamic world had declared war on the West.
In actuality, the war is between Islamic factions--just as there were
wars between Christian factions five hundred years ago (and still are,
today). The West is, to many of the warring factions, a symbol of power.
An attack on the West is a way to demonstrate power to the other
factions. Of course, there's also a hatred of the West--but that hatred
isn't the core driver it's made out to be.
Yet, that hatred is a powerful force in itself.
Contrary to what many liberals have been spewing, this hatred did not
arise from recent actions of any American political leader. Aslan
destroys that bit of proganda by addressing the history of
colonization--the enslavement, displacement, and impoverishment of
millions of Islamic people.
What about this interfaction rivalry? Islam is
beset by three major philosophies. One philosophy seeks to keep the
original vision of Islam pure--that is, to not deviate from the
teachings of Muhammad. A second philosophy is that Muhammad was not pure
enough, and so Islam must become more radical (think of the Taliban,
here). The third philosophy is that Islam must change to adapt to the
modern world--it must throw off the chains of ignorance and poverty.
Aslan explains the thinking behind each of these philosophies, without
preaching to the reader.
Aslan's views come into play at the end of the
book, where he ties everything together. But, you don't get the feeling
this is the author trying to convince you of his own views. By this
point, the reader already trusts Aslan and sees him as an expert. Now,
the reader gets the expert's viewpoint on where Islam should head and
The book carries the reader through many
spiritually dark places, but emerges into the sunshine of hope. The end
is inspiring and encouraging, and it carries a message for people of all
religions. It is a message well worth taking to heart.