Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


No God But God by Reza Aslan


Rating: (Recommended)




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Readers looking for a primer on Islam will discover much to appreciate in Reza Aslan’s new book, No God But God. In addition to offering a brief history of Islam, Aslan ventures to describe contemporary Islam and its place in today’s world. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 3, “The City of the Prophet: The First Muslims,” pp. 66-74:


The era immediately following Muhammad’s death was, as will become evident, a tumultuous time for the Muslim community. The Ummah was growing and expanding in wealth and power at an astounding rate. A mere fifty years after his death, the tiny community that Muhammad had founded in Yathrib burst out of the Arabian Peninsula and swallowed whole the massive Sasanian Empire of Iran. Fifty years after that, it had secured most of northwest India, absorbed all of North Africa, and reduced the Christian Byzantine Empire to little more than a deteriorating regional power. Fifty years after that, Islam had pushed its way deep into Europe through Spain and south­ern France.

As Muhammad’s small community of Arab followers swelled into the largest empire in the world, it faced a growing number of legal and religious challenges that were not explicitly dealt with in the Quran. While Muhammad was still in their midst, these questions could sim­ply be brought to him. But without the Prophet, it became progres­sively more difficult to ascertain God’s will on issues that far exceeded the knowledge and experiences of a group of Hijazi tribesmen.

At first, the Ummah naturally turned to the early Companions for guidance and leadership. As the first generation of Muslims—the peo­ple who had walked and talked with the Prophet—the Companions had the authority to make legal and spiritual decisions by virtue of their direct knowledge of Muhammad’s life and teachings. They were the living repositories of the hadith: oral anecdotes recalling the words and deeds of Muhammad.

The hadith, insofar as they addressed issues not dealt with in the Quran, would become an indispensable tool in the formation of Islamic law. However, in their earliest stages, the hadith were mud­dled and totally unregulated, making their authentication almost impossible. Worse, as the first generation of Companions passed on, the community had to rely increasingly on the reports that the second generation of Muslims (known as the Tabiun) had received from the first; when the second generation died, the community was yet another step removed from the actual words and deeds of the Prophet.

Thus, with each successive generation, the “chain of transmis­sion,” or isnad, that was supposed to authenticate the hadith grew longer and more convoluted, so that in less than two centuries after Muhammad’s death, there were already some seven hundred thousand hadith being circulated throughout the Muslim lands, the great majority of which were unquestionably fabricated by individuals who sought to legitimize their own particular beliefs and practices by con­necting them with the Prophet. After a few generations, almost any­thing could be given the status of hadith if one simply claimed to trace its transmission back to Muhammad. In fact, the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher has documented numerous hadith the transmitters of which claimed were derived from Muhammad but which were in real­ity verses from the Torah and Gospels, bits of rabbinic sayings, ancient Persian maxims, passages of Greek philosophy, Indian proverbs, and even an almost word-for-word reproduction of the Lord’s Prayer. By the ninth century, when Islamic law was being fashioned, there were so many false hadith circulating through the community that Muslim legal scholars somewhat whimsically classified them into two cate­gories: lies told for material gain and lies told for ideological advantage.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, a concerted effort was made to sift through the massive accumulation of hadith in order to separate the reliable from the rest. Nevertheless, for hundreds of years, anyone who had the power and wealth necessary to influence public opinion on a particular issue—and who wanted to justify his own ideas about, say, the role of women in society—had only to refer to a hadith which he had heard from someone, who had heard it from someone else, who had heard it from a Companion, who had heard it from the Prophet.

It would be no exaggeration, therefore, to say that quite soon after Muhammad’s death, those men who took upon themselves the task of interpreting God’s will in the Quran and Muhammad’s will in the hadith—men who were, coincidentally, among the most powerful and wealthy members of the Ummah—were not nearly as concerned with the accuracy of their reports or the objectivity of their exegesis as they were with regaining the financial and social dominance that the Prophet’s reforms had taken from them. As Fatima Mernissi notes, one must always remember that behind every hadith lies the entrenched power struggles and conflicting interests that one would expect in a society “in which social mobility [and] geographical expansion [were] the order of the day.”

Thus, when the Quran warned believers not to “pass on your wealth and property to the feeble-minded (sufaha),” the early Quranic commentators—all of them male—declared, despite the Quran’s warnings on the subject, that “the sufaha are women and children... and both of them must be excluded from inheritance” (emphasis added).

When a wealthy and notable merchant from Basra named Abu Bakra (not to be confused with Abu Bakr) claimed, twenty-five years after Muhammad’s death, that he once heard the Prophet say “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity,” his authority as a Companion was unquestioned.

When Ibn Maja reported in his collection of hadith that the Prophet, in answer to a question about the rights a wife has over her husband, replied rather incredibly that her only right was to be given food “when you [yourself] have taken your food,” and clothed “when you have clothed yourself,” his opinion, though thoroughly against the demands of the Quran, went uncontested.

When Abu Said al-Khudri swore he had heard the Prophet tell a group of women, “I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelli­gence and religion than you,” his memory was unchallenged, despite the fact that Muhammad’s biographers present him as repeatedly ask­ing for and following the advice of his wives, even in military matters.

And finally, when the celebrated Quranic commentator Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi (1149—1209) interpreted the verse “[God] created spouses for you of your own kind so that you may have peace of mind through them” (3:21) as “proof that women were created like animals and plants and other useful things [and not for] worship and carrying the Divine commands.. . because the woman is weak, silly, and in one sense like a child,” his commentary became (and still is) one of the most widely respected in the Muslim world.

This last point bears repeating. The fact is that for fifteen centuries, the science of Quranic commentary has been the exclusive domain of Muslim men. And because each one of these exegetes inevitably brings to the Quran his own ideology and his own preconceived notions, it should not be surprising to learn that certain verses have most often been read in their most misogynist interpretation. Consider, for example, how the following verse (4:34) regarding the obligations of men toward women has been rendered into English by two different but widely read contemporary translators of the Quran. The first is from the Princeton edition, translated by Ahmed Au; the second is from Majid Fakhry’s translation, published by New York University:


Men are the support of women [qawwamuna ‘ala an-nisa] as God gives some more means than others, and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them). . . . As for women you feel are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to bed with them (when they are willing).


Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made some of them excel the others, and because they spend some of their wealth.

And for those [women] that you fear might rebel, admonish them and abandon them in their beds and beat them [adribuhunna].


Because of the variability of the Arabic language, both of these translations are grammatically, syntactically, and definitionally cor­rect. The phrase qawwamuna ‘ala an-nisa can be understood as “watch over,” “protect,” “support,” “attend to,” “look after,” or “be in charge of” women. The final word in the verse, adribuhunna, which Fakhry has rendered as “beat them,” can equally mean “turn away from them,” “go along with them,” and, remarkably, even “have consensual intercourse with them.” If religion is indeed interpretation, then which meaning one chooses to accept and follow depends on what one is trying to extract from the text: if one views the Quran as empower­ing women, then Ali’s; if one looks to the Quran to justify violence against women, then Fakhry’s.

Throughout Islamic history, there have been a number of women who have struggled to maintain their authority as both preservers of the hadith and interpreters of the Quran. Karima bintAhmad (d. 1069) and Fatima bint Au (d. 1087), for example, are regarded as two of the most important transmitters of the Prophet’s traditions, while Zaynab bint al-Sha’ri (d. 1220) and Daqiqa bint Murshid (d. 1345), both tex­tual scholars, occupied an eminent place in early Islamic scholarship. And it is hard to ignore the fact that nearly one sixth of all “reliable” hadith can be traced back to Muhammad’s wife Aisha.

However, these women, celebrated as they are, were no match for the indisputable authority of early Companions like Umar, the young, brash member of the Quraysh elite whose conversion to Islam had always been a particular source of pride to Muhammad. The Prophet had always admired Umar, not just for his physical prowess as a war­rior, but for his impeccable moral virtue and the zeal with which he approached his devotion to God. In many ways, Umar was a simple, dignified, and devout man. But he also had a fiery temper and was prone to anger and violence, especially toward women. So infamous was he for his misogynist attitude that when he asked for the hand of Aisha’s sister, he was flatly rebuffed because of his rough behavior toward women.

Umar’s misogynist tendencies were apparent from the moment he ascended to the leadership of the Muslim community. He tried (unsuccessfully) to confine women to their homes and wanted to pre­vent them from attending worship at the mosque. He instituted segre­gated prayers and, in direct violation of the Prophet’s example, forced women to be taught by male religious leaders. Incredibly, he forbade Muhammad’s widows to perform the pilgrimage rites and instituted a series of severe penal ordinances aimed primarily at women. Chief among these was the stoning to death of adulterers, a punishment which has absolutely no foundation whatsoever in the Quran but which Umar justified by claiming it had originally been part of the Revelation and had somehow been left out of the authorized text. Of course, Umar never explained how it was possible for a verse such as this “accidentally” to have been left out of the Divine Revelation of God, but then again, he didn’t have to. It was enough that he spoke with the authority of the Prophet.

There is no question that the Quran, like all holy scriptures, was deeply affected by the cultural norms of the society in which it was revealed—a society that, as we have seen, did not consider women to be equal members of the tribe. As a result, there are numerous verses in the Quran that, along with the Jewish and Christian scrip­tures, clearly reflect the subordinate position of women in the male-dominated societies of the ancient world. But that is precisely the point which the burgeoning Muslim feminist movement has been making over the last century. These women argue that the religious message of the Quran—a message of revolutionary social egalitari­anism—must be separated from the cultural prejudices of seventh­century Arabia. And for the first time in history, they are being given the international audience necessary to incorporate their views into the male-dominated world of Quranic exegesis.


On International Women’s Day in 1998, many in the Western world were stunned to hear Masoumeh Ebtekar, at the time Iran’s vice president of environmental affairs and the highest-ranking woman in the Iranian government, present an opening address in which she lashed out against Afghanistan’s Taliban régime and their horrific human rights violations against women. Although this was some years before the Taliban became a household name in the West, what most shocked the international audience was that Ms. Ebtekar delivered her vehement condemnation of the Tliiliban—a fundamen­talist régime that forced its women into veiling and seclusion—while she herself was fully clad in a traditional black chador that covered every inch of her body save for the flushed features of her impassioned face.

Around the same time that Ms. Ebtekar was censuring the reli­giously inspired misogyny of the Taliban, the Turkish parliament was in an uproar over the decision of a newly elected representative, Merve Kavakci, to take the oath of office while wearing a headscarf. Ms. Kavakci was angrily denounced by her fellow members, some of whom shouted obscenities at her from the floor of parliament. Although she had made no political or religious statements whatsoever, Turkey’s president at the time, Suleyman Demirel, accused her of being a for­eign spy and an agent provocateur. For the simple act of displaying her faith, Ms. Kavakci was not only dismissed from her position as a demo­cratically elected member of parliament, but, in an act of profound symbolism, she was stripped of her Turkish citizenship.

It may seem incongruous that a conservative Muslim country like Iran—in which some manner of veiling is mandatory for all adult women—boasts one of the most robust and politically active women’s movements in the Muslim world, while at the same time a secular democracy like Turkey—in which the veil is expressly outlawed in much of the public sector—routinely deprives veiled women of their rights to government employment and higher education. But to understand what is behind this seeming incongruity, one must con­sider the conflicting ways in which the veil has been defined through­out history by those who have never worn it.

For European colonialists like Alfred, Lord Cromer, the British consul general to Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century, the veil was a symbol of the “degradation of women” and definitive proof that “Islam as a social system has been a complete failure.” Never mind that Cromer was the founder of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage in England. As the quintessential colonialist, Cromer had no interest in the plight of Muslim women; the veil was, for him, an icon of the “backwardness of Islam,” and the most visible justification for Europe’s “civilizing mission” in the Middle East.

For liberal Muslim reformists such as the distinguished Iranian political philosopher Au Shariati (193 3—77), the veil was the symbol of female chastity, piety, and, most of all, empowered defiance against the Western image of womanhood. In his celebrated book Fatima Is Fatima, Shariati held up the Prophet Muhammad’s virtuous daughter as an example for Muslim women to “reach towards the glory and beauty of humanity and to put aside [the] old and new feelings of infe­riority, humility and baseness.” Yet, enlightened as his approach may have been, it was still tragically flawed by the fact that, like Cromer, Shariati was describing something of which he had no experience.

The fact is that the traditional colonial image of the veiled Mus­lim woman as the sheltered, docile sexual property of her husband is just as misleading and simpleminded as the postmodernist image of the veil as the emblem of female freedom and empowerment from Western cultural hegemony. The veil may be neither or both of these things, but that is up to Muslim women to decide for themselves. This they are finally doing by taking part in something that has been denied them for centuries: their own Quranic exegesis.

Today, throughout the Muslim world, a whole new generation of contemporary female textual scholars is reengaging the Quran from a perspective that has been sorely lacking in Islamic scholarship. Begin­ning with the notion that it is not the moral teachings of Islam but the social conditions of seventh-century Arabia and the rampant misogyny of male Quranic exegetes that has been responsible for their inferior status in Muslim society, these women are approaching the Quran free from the confines of traditional gender boundaries. Amina Wadud’s instructive book Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman c Perspective provides the template for this movement, though Wadud is by no means alone in her endeavor. Muslim feminists throughout the world have been laboring toward a more gender-neutral interpretation of the Quran and a more balanced application of Islamic law while at the same time struggling to inject their political and religious views into the male-dominated, conserva­tive societies in which they live. Muslim feminists do not perceive their cause as a mere social reform movement; they consider it a reli­gious obligation. As Shirin Ebadi proudly declared while accepting the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless work in defending the rights of women in Iran, “God created us all as equals. . . . By fighting for equal status, we are doing what God wants us to do.”

The so-called Muslim women’s movement is predicated on the idea that Muslim men, not Islam, have been responsible for the sup­pression of women’s rights. For this reason, Muslim feminists throughout the world are advocating a return to the society Muham­mad originally envisioned for his followers. Despite differences in cul­ture, nationalities, and beliefs, these women believe that the lesson to be learned from Muhammad in Medina is that Islam is above all an egalitarian religion. Their Medina is a society in which Muhammad designated women like Umm Waraqa as spiritual guides for the Ummah; in which the Prophet himself was sometimes publicly rebuked by his wives; in which women prayed and fought alongside the men; in which women like Aisha and Umm Salamah acted not only as religious but also as political—and on at least one occasion military—leaders; and in which the call to gather for prayer, bellowed from the rooftop of Muhammad’s house, brought men and women together to kneel side by side and be blessed as a single undivided community.

Indeed, so successful was this revolutionary experiment in social egalitarianism that from 622 to 624 G.E. the Ummah multiplied rap­idly, both from the addition of new Ansar and from the influx of new Emigrants eager to join in what was taking place in the City of the Prophet. Though, in truth, this was still only Yathrib. It could not properly be called Medina until after Muhammad turned his attention away from his egalitarian reforms and back toward the sacred city of Mecca and the powerful tribe that held the Hijaz in its grip.


Aslan’s fine writing keeps readers turning the pages of No God But God, while accumulating a richer sense of the evolution of Islam.


Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2005



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 in the October 2005 issue of Executive Times


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