I first heard about Reza Aslan from his international bestseller book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth became a hot topic of discussion across the Internet. Naturally, when a professed Muslim wrote a book about Jesus the christian prophet/god, people will take notice. Then I heard he spoke in an interview with our local BFM Radio about the controversy of the usage of the name of Allah in the local christian publication, Herald. From then on I was compelled to read his works so I started with his first bestseller - No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam which has been translated into 13 languages.
I must confess, my knowledge of Islam had been limited to what I've been taught at school from the tender age of 7 until I graduate from college. Naturally, my views on Islam only covers the perspective of sunni Muslims who were responsible for introducing Islam in this region. Before reading the book I vaguely knew about other Islamic denomination such as shia and sufism. The book has certainly opened my worldview on Islam, in a positive way in spite of some of the more startling revelation uncovered in the book.
No god but God explains the origin and evolution of Islam from the moment prior to prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) birth until the present day. He started with the history of Mecca and the community around it, the origin of the Kaabah, Muhammad's life as a typical pre-Islam Meccan orphan up until his death in Medina. According to Aslan, a young pagan Muhammad like his peers had actively took part in pagan rituals like worshipping the idols around Kaabah and offering sacrifices to them. It is a common view by traditionalist muslims that our beloved prophet, before being called by God had never took part in such pagan rituals.
Aslan also touched on the origin of the name Allah. The Bedouin tribe in pre-Islamic Arabia had always practised a rich and diverse religious tradition. Like their contemporaries, they had worshipped many deities and their nomadic lifestyle requires a religion to address immediate concerns like which god can lead them to water or which god can heal their illnesses. Paganism among the societies of Arabia had developed from its earlier and simpler structure into a complex form of neo-animism, providing a host of divine and semi-divine intermediaries who stood between creator god and his creation. This 'creator god' was called 'Allah', which is not a proper name but a contraction of the word al-illah, simply meaning "the god". Like his Greek counterpart, Zeus, Allah was originally an ancient rain/sky deity who had been elevated into the role of the supreme god of the pre-islamic Arabs. Their Allah had a prominent status in the Arab pantheon and a powerful deity to swear by. However like most High Gods, this Allah went beyond the reach of ordinary people. Only in times of great peril would anyone bother consulting him. Otherwise it was much faster to turn to the lesser, more accessible gods who acted as Allah's intermediaries. After the introduction of Islam, Muhammad and his followers naturally continued to use the name Allah although this time it refers to the one and only God. Hence historically the name Allah doesn't exclusively belong to muslims because they had been used by pagan pre-Islamic Arab people since a long-long time ago.
Another interesting point that Aslan highlighted in this book was the prophet's marriage to multiple wives and particularly one to a then nine year old Aisha. The west has been relentless in their attack against Muhammad for this. Like the great Jewish patriarchs Abraham and Jacob; like the prophets Moses and Hosea; like the Israelite kings Saul, David, and Solomon; and like nearly all of the Christian/Byzantine and Zoroastrian/ Sasanian monarchs, all Shaykhs in Arabia — Muhammad included, had either multiple wives, multiple concubines, or both. In seventh century Arabia, a Shaykh’s power and authority was determined by the size of his harem. And while Muhammad’s union with a nine-year-old girl may be shocking to our modern sensibilities, his marriage to Aisha was not purely sexual in nature. Aisha did not consummate her marriage to Muhammad until after reaching puberty, which is when practically every girl in Arabia eligible for marriage.
After having been married with Khadija for more than twenty-five years, Muhammad, in the course of ten years in Yathrib, married nine different women. However, with very few exceptions, these marriages were not sexual unions but political ones. But as the leader of the Ummah, it was Muhammad’s responsibility to forge links within and beyond his community through the only means at his disposal: marriage. Thus, his unions with Aisha and Hafsah linked him to the two most important and influential leaders of the early Muslim community — to Abu Bakr and Umar, respectively. His marriage to Umm Salamah a year later forged an important relationship with one of Mecca’s most powerful clans, the Makhzum. His union with Sawdah by all accounts an unattractive widow long past the age of marriage — served as an example to the Ummah to marry those women in need of financial support. His marriage to Rayhana, a Jew, linked him with the Banu Qurayza, while a significant political alliance with the ruler of Egypt.
Furthermore, Aslan also touched the history of the wearing of the veil. Although long seen as the most distinctive emblem of Islam, the veil is, surprisingly, not imposed upon Muslim women anywhere in the Quran. The tradition of veiling and seclusion (known together as hijab ) was introduced into Arabia long before Muhammad, primarily through Arab contacts with Syria and Iran, where the hijab was a sign of social status. After all, only a woman who need not work in the secluded and veiled. In the Ummah, there was no tradition of veiling until around 627 C.E., when the so-called “verse of hijab” suddenly descended upon the community. That verse, however, was addressed not to women in general, but exclusively to Muhammad’s wives: “Believers, do not enter the Prophet’s house unless asked. And if you are invited do not linger. And when you ask something from the Prophet’s wives, do so from behind a hijab. This will assure the purity of your hearts as well as theirs” (33:53).
This restriction makes perfect sense when one recalls that Muhammad’s house was also the community’s mosque: the center of religious and social life in the Ummah. People were constantly coming in and out of this compound at all speak with Muhammad, they would set up their tents for days at a time inside the open courtyard, just a few feet away from the apartments in which Muhammad’s wives slept. And new emigrants who arrived in Yathrib would often stay within the mosque’s walls until they could find suitable homes. When Muhammad was little more than a tribal Shaykh, this constant commotion could be tolerated. But by the year 627, when he had become the supremely powerful leader of an increasingly expanding community, some kind of segregation had to be enforced to maintain the sanctity of his wives. Thus the tradition, borrowed from the upper classes of Iranian and Syrian society from the peering eyes of everyone else. That the veil applied solely to Muhammad’s wives is further demonstrated by the fact that the term for donning the veil, darabat al-hijab, was used synonymously and interchangeably with “becoming Muhammad’s wife.” For this reason, during the Prophet’s lifetime, no other women in the Ummah observed the hijab.
Of course, modesty was encouraged on all believers, and women in particular were instructed to “draw their clothes around them a little to be recognized as believers and so that no harm will come to them” (33:60). More specifically, women should “guard their private parts and drape a cover ( khamr ) over their breasts” when in the presence of strange men (24:31–32). But, as Leila Ahmed, a prominent Egyptian American writer on Islam and Islamic feminism observes, nowhere in the whole of the Quran is the term hijab applied to any woman other than the wives of Muhammad. It is difficult to say with certainty when the veil was adopted by the rest of the Ummah, though it was most likely long after Muhammad’s death. Muslim women probably began wearing the veil as a way to emulate the Prophet’s wives, who were revered as “the Mothers of the Ummah.” But the veil was neither compulsory nor, for that matter, widely adopted until generations after Muhammad’s death, when a large body of male scriptural and legal scholars began using their religious and political authority to regain the dominance they had lost in society as a result of the Prophet’s egalitarian reforms.
Next Aslan related the history of the stoning punishment which began during the rule of Umar Al-Khattab. The stoning to death of adulterers, is a punishment which has absolutely no foundation whatsoever in the Quran but was justified by Umar 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 It was enough that he spoke with the authority of the Prophet.
Personally, I liked the earlier, historic part of the book - from pre-Islamic Mecca to round about the administration of the Rashidun Caliphate to the foundation of shia and sufism sects. I have learn a lot more about Islam in my one week of reading the book then say the last 3 years of my Islamic studies. After that period of the book, it started to get pretty boring and uninteresting since it only covers the history and development of Islam in Iran and much of Pakistan and India only. I have to admit that the shia and sufism denomination are pretty radical and not far-fetched to say, deviated from the original teachings of Islam. Of course I might be rather biased on this because I have only known the sunni manifestation of Islam for as long as I can remember. The shia part is still mostly credible to me but the sufism movement sounds more like the hippie equivalent of modern pop culture.
To call this book is the complete guide to the entire history and development of Islam would be a fallacy. A more apt title would be the history and development of pre-Islamic Arabia to it's expansion to the middle east, Mediterranean and south Asia. Reading this book offers me a fresh and critical perspective of Islam in a positive way. Will I start asking my wife and daughters to start not wearing the hijab after reading this book? Will my faith in Islam diminish or shaken after learning the origin of the name Allah? Most absolutely not. In fact my conviction and belief in Islam has not faltered a bit but grew even stronger after reading this book. To quote the 18th century poet Alexander Pope, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". If muslims around the world had better knowledge of the history of Islam, they'd be less susceptible to the manipulation by clerics and rulers with their own personal agendas.
I would highly recommend No god but God to all and every muslim and also non-muslims who wishes to better learn about Islam and how they come into being today.