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Islamic Reformation

Reza Aslan


... scholar of comparative religions and writer. Author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, Reza Aslan has studied religions at Santa Clara and Harvard Universities and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Born in Iran and a thorough-going Californian, in addition to earning an MFA in fiction from the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, he was visiting assistant professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies there. USA Today, U.S. News & World Report and The Chronicle of Higher Education have all published profiles of him.

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Who has the authority to define faith? A religion's institutions? Or its individuals? Answering that core question is the focus of today's Islamic Reformation, or reawakening or renaissance. Call it what you will, this revolutionary challenge to centuries of clerical control is widely understood to be an important part of the current Muslim world, a natural, predictable stage in the evolution of all religions, says Reza Aslan, a scholar of comparative religions. It's eerily similar to the Christian Reformation Luther led, he says, noting that the Judaic reformer most clearly remembered is Jesus Christ, whose ultimate message was that authority rests in the hands of the individual, not in the grip of institutions.

Islam's Reformation -- millions of individuals challenging the authority of clerical institutions -- has been going on for a good century or so, Mr. Aslan reports. Colonialism, an era that only ended about 50 years ago, plays a major role. Ninety per cent of the world's Muslims lived under colonial rule and were profoundly influenced by centuries of domination. Anything that smacks of the colonialist endeavor -- whether cultural, economic or military colonialism -- strikes a raw nerve. Colonialism also left devastating geopolitical rifts in its wake, including who has the authority to define what "Islam" means for the modern world.

Geopolitical fragmentation also plays its part. It's only been 50 years or so that Muslims have had to stop thinking of themselves as members of a world-wide community of faith. Instead, they've been forced to think of themselves as citizens of arbitrarily fabricated nation-states. Congratulations, you're now Iraq.

Other changes coincided. The Koran has been translated into more languages in the past half-century than in all the 14 centuries that went before. Literacy has skyrocketed -- Iran is 90% literate. People now read and understand the Koran for themselves and come up with their own interpretations. Women are being educated. Authoritative women scholars, excluded from clerical institutions for 1400 years, now can show that Islam is not misogynistic. Muslim men are and the Internet gives the Muslim world greater access to novel theories and opinions.

Our prophets -- Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha -- are all reformers, Mr. Aslan says, with prophetic voices calling the faithful to the inexpressible, not to the institutional fundamentals resistant to change. Case in point, Mr. Aslan believes it is puritanical Arab fundamentalists who want to foment a civil war between the Shiåah and Sunni in Iraq and everywhere. Why? Because in spite of the Koran's repeated preaching against Muslim on Muslim violence, he sees reactionary fundamentalists intent on the massacre of Shiåism -- Shiåah they consider sinners -- and of mystical Sufism.

How do we interpret the global movement of Islamic terrorism? What tends to get lost in this discussion, Mr. Aslan says, is that these groups have deliberately set themselves up in opposition to the clerical institutions, calling bin Laden a bizarre kind of Martin Luther. Among the millions re-forming Islam, unfortunately only the loudest voices gets heard, this one slamming airplanes into skyscrapers. Mr. Aslan says Bin Laden's true innovation, says, is in telling Muslims, "You don't have to listen to your clerics any more, they no longer speak for God,"seizing these powers to himself, then disseminating it to his individual followers, declaring a radical individualism which is, ironically, very Western.

What of the future? In spite of 50-plus years of US alliances with authoritarian dictators in the region, Mr. Aslan celebrates the religious and ethnic pluralism which is both very much a part of Islamic history modern and a requirement for a democratic state. And Israel? Nothing's changed, he says, it's still the Number One Issue in the region, a crutch to autocrats and theocrats. We must take care of the dramatically oppressive situation under which the Palestinians are living, he says, certain that the road to peace in the Middle East still runs through Jerusalem.

[This Program was recorded February 24, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Islamic history deals with the exact same conflicts and issues of faith and reason as Christianity and Judaism do, Reza Aslan tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, providing examples.


Conversation 2

Ms. Aslan gives Christian, Judaic and Islamic examples of evolutionary changes that occur in all great religious traditions, including "reformation" and fundamental conflicts over who has authority to define the faith -- institutions or individuals? He revisits colonialism devastating affect on the worldπs Muslims, 90 percent of whom lived under colonial rule until 50 years ago. Prophets donπt invent religions, he says, they are above all reformers, pointing out differences between "religion" and "faith".


Conversation 3

All scriptures are powerful because they can be adapted to justify a host of ideologies, Mr. Aslan demonstrates. He describes the cultural context in which the Koran arose and outlines the revolutionary egalitarian ideas of the Prophet Mohammed, then addresses misogyny. Honoring powerful women scholars who are becoming authoritative, Mr. Aslan reports that the Koran has been translated into more languages in the last half-century than in all of the previous fourteen. Women, excluded from the clerical institutions for 14 centuries, read the Koran and find Muslim men, not Islam, misogynistic.


Conversation 4

Whether called reformation, re-awakening or renaissance, the fundamental shift of authority moving from traditional institutions to new institutions of individuals is widely recognized, Mr. Aslan says. Interpreting the global movement of Islamic terrorism, he describes what is genuinely innovative about bin Laden. Mr. Aslan notes the importance of reformations' technologies, then reiterates that it's only been 50-some years that Muslims have had to stop thinking of themselves as members of a world-wide community of faith, start thinking of themselves as citizens of arbitrarily fabricated nation state, like Iraq. Democracy is rooted in religious and ethnic pluralism (not "secularism"), says Mr. Aslan, who reports this pluralism very much part of Islamic history.


 Conversation 5

For 5 decades, U.S. allies in the Middle East have been dictatorships in every case except one, all but Saudi Arabia secular dictatorships, Mr. Aslan notes. He demonstrates how dictators cripple social, political and even religious development and feed Western paranoia. He considers Iran, where 3/4 of the population is under 30, thereπs 90% literacy, and flourishing, robust democratic and womenπs rights movements. He questions the US policy that for 26 years has only strengthened Iran's clerical regime.


Conversation 6

Iran and Iraq are in every way separate entities and the U.S. needs to treat them accordingly, Mr. Aslan summarizes. He describes those fomenting civil war between Shiåah and Sunni in Iraq and everywhere as puritanical Arab fundamentalists intent on the massacre of Shiåism and Sufism. Nothing has changed regarding Israel, he concludes, no fundamental political or religious reform is possible in the region until the dramatically oppressive Palestinian situation is rectified.



Every faith tradition springs from a "prophetic voice" calling to our better selves in the face of destructive hatreds. Those founding voices offer a powerful and cleansing antidote to today's poisonous fundamentalisms -- religious, political and economic. If democracy is to prevail, ordinary people who adhere to those traditions must hear the voice anew, heed its call to action. Re-Form. Reject fundamentalism's violence and injustices, whether life's sweetness is stolen by a suicidal Muslim extremist or the theft originates in Washington, DC.

We thank Reza Aslan for giving us access to our better selves -- distinguishing "faith" from "religion," the prophets' voices from those who view religion as the end not the means -- and for providing knowledge with which to challenge authoritarians, the fundamentalist and puritanical, the fear-mongers and self-righteous of every nation.

Additional Links:

No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam is published by Random House. Reza Alsan's website offers additional information.

Geneive Abdo is the author of a book also entitled No God, But God. Her subtitle is Egypt and the Triumph of Islam. She examines how democracy might work among peoples who overtly refuse to separate religion from government.

Bruce Feiler links Iran (along with other Middle Eastern societies) to the Hebrew Bible in Where God Was Born.

Mia Bloom has examined the origins and motivations of terrorism in Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror.

Richard Ben Cramer asserts, in How Israel Lost, that what most of us think we know about the Middle East is just plain wrong and that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands are corrupting Israel. Sandra Mackey says that one on the most challenging problems is the rise of fundamentalism among all of the participants ... Jews, Muslims, AND Christians.

As Mr. Cramer suggests, some of our problems in the Middle East are traceable to failures of our news media to adequately cover the region and the politics that affect it. Bonnie Anderson is a former CNN correspondent and author of Newsflash: Journalism, Infotainment, and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast News. Tom Johnson is the former president of CNN. In a 50 year career, Haynes Johnson has been a reporter, editor, columnist, television commentator and author. The late David Halberstam was a Pulitizer Prize winning journalist and author.  He was particularly concerned that America had become an "entertainment society" and lost interest in substance and authenticity with a conseqent loss in understanding of events in the real world.  Neal Gabler shares that view.

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