'Beauty of Islam, it can mean what you want it to be'
Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan on the different interpretations of Islam depending on geography, individuals and intent.Updated: Jan 18, 2014 18:31 IST
Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American writer and a religious scholar. He is the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, which has been translated into 13 languages, and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. He hogged media limelight last year when he calmly took on a Fox TV interviewer who kept repeatedly asking him why he, a Muslim, came to write a book about the founder of Christianity. In this interview, he speaks about Islam, his books and diversity in Islam.
You call the Islamic Reformation the future of Islam in your book, No god but God. Are you still waiting for this future? Is it coming at all?
It has been happening for the past 200 years. It is wrong to assume that it is something definitively positive or negative. Reformation is change and that has been happening. What we are seeing is a cacophony of voices deciding for themselves what Islam means. This is a completely new idea. For most part of the past 1400 years, the interpretation of this religion has been strictly monopolised by the clerical schools. It has been only recently that individuals have been seizing for themselves the power to interpret Islam. Some of these interpretations may be individualistic interpretations promoting peace, democracy and tolerance. Some of these promote bigotry, violence and hatred. Both of these interpretations are a direct result of the reformation principle.
Osama bin Laden. He was not a cleric. He was not an imam; he did have the training in Islamic sciences, yet he was issuing fatwas all the time. It was like a junior catholic issuing a papal bull. It is a challenge to the Islamic clerics about who can define Islam or not. Another perfect example of this would be me. When I write a book and calling for a particular interpretation of it… I am also not a mullah, I am not a cleric… now I had a decade or more of instruction in Islam, which is something bin Laden did not have. But the point is we are both doing so as individuals, not as members of a school of law. I can't express to you how brand new this idea is.
Who can claim to be a reformist? Who can be exacting on such matters?
I think anybody who seizes the power to interpret Islam for himself or herself and then spreads that teaching to others is a reformer. Reform doesn't mean good. It means change and change can be both good and bad. Arab Spring is a perfect example of this. It had nothing to do with Al Azhar (the world renowned Islamic university); it had to do with individuals.
Your book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth made it to bestseller list. When did you conceive of writing that book?
I had wanted to write that book for 20 years. I had been working on it for a very long time. But it didn't take off because I wanted my material to be impeccable. I didn't want anything to simply dismiss the book saying I didn't know what I was speaking about.
The book is about Jesus as a revolutionary. It begins with the famous quote from Mathew: "I have come not to bring peace but the sword." A statement like this would immediately put Jesus on a non-fly list in the US. How did the zealots in the US react to your take on Jesus?
It is a polarising book. It was also a phenomenal success. The book has split the country. There are those who think it provides an honest interpretation of who Jesus is and those who think it was written by an anti-Christ to destroy Christianity. That I think is the sign of a good book… I did not write this book as a Muslim but as a scholar. In fact, it overturns a lot about what Islam has to say about Jesus… it is not informed by Islamic traditions. It is a historical biography of Jesus. The only similarity is that Islam believes Jesus was a man, so does the book. That is it.
What does Islam mean to you? The Islam of Jesus and Muhammad?
It is hard for me to think of religion in any other way except as the language to express faith. Islam provides me the language to understand god. It is important to understand that religion is a means to an end. It is not the destination but a path. Islam is that path. In other words, I can say I don't believe in Islam, I believe in god.
Is this the path of mystics?
If I were to label my search, I would surely say it is influenced by Sufism. But such labels are not helpful. When you call yourself a Sufi, a Shia, Sunni or Ismaili, you immediately put up yourself as the Other.
Islam has a long and rich tradition in South Asia. What you think of this rich and diverse history?
The Islam in South Asia is the promise of what Islam could be. The Arab interpretation of Islam often leads to the insidious interpretation which makes the Saudis and Wahabis to impose a view of Islam they claim in the only correct one. That is absurd, ridiculous. Frankly, it is blasphemous. The real beauty of Islam is that it can mean anything a community wants it to be. Islam in the US is nothing like the Islam in Egypt which is nothing like the Islam in Turkey. There are a thousand different expressions of Islam and that is why Islam is such a beautiful religion. The South Asian Islam has soaked up other traditions and is a wonderful, beautiful expression of what Islam can be.
You write about the Middle East. Iran has been a focus of several important developments in that region, for example, its perceived interference in Syria, signing of the nuclear deal with the US, Arab powers fretting its ascent. How will all that affect Palestinian resistance?
There is no question Iran wants to expand its regional influence. But that is true of all nations. Iran also wants to pursue its national ambitions. Let us be perfectly honest here. Iranian regime couldn't care less about Palestinians. They care about Palestinians only as long as it bolsters their credibility in the region. There is no difference in the way Iranians conduct their business and the way other nations conduct their relations. Iran is interested in its national interest and nothing else.