I don’t want this review to be about whether or not I agree with Aslan. For one thing, I simply do not know enough about the subject to do this well. Secondly, whether a book is good or not does not depend on whether the reader agrees with its conclusions; my own feelings on the matter are therefore irrelevant. Having resolved myself in this way, I will be restricting this review to an internal critique only.
Overall, I did rather enjoy the book and found that Aslan writes persuasively and is clearly very knowledgeable about his subject. However, I fear that he may have fallen prey to being unable to reconcile his beliefs with his evidence.
This manifests itself most when he attempts to justify the actions of Muhammad. Perhaps the most grievous illustration comes in Aslan’s discussion of Muhammad raiding caravans: “In pre-Islamic Arabia, caravan raiding was a legitimate means for small clans to benefit from the wealth of larger ones. It was in no way considered stealing…” This is followed, one paragraph later, with: Muhammad’s followers “effectively disrupted the trade flowing in and out of Mecca. It wasn’t long before caravans entering the sacred city began complaining to the Quraysh that they no longer felt safe travelling through the region” (p. 82-3).
In other words, everyone did it so it was okay (which, alone, is a disturbing argument and one that isn’t sitting well with me at all in my Bible readings either), but at the same time the early Muslims are clearly doing it to an extent that would have been abnormal.
A few pages later, we read that Islam teaches peace and that only defensive fighting is permissible (except when raiding caravans). Aslan then goes on to say that: “It is true that some verses in the Quran instruct Muhammad and his followers to ‘slay the polytheists wherever you confront them’ (9:5); to ‘carry the struggle to the hypocrites who deny the faith’ (9:73); and, especially, to ‘fight those who do not believe in God and the Last Day’ (9:29). However, it must be understood that these verses were directed specifically at the Quraysh and their clandestine partisans in Yathrib” (p. 84). These “clandestine partisans” being the people that Muhammad suspected “at once” of treachery, though there were “many possibilities” (p. 89). In other words, Islam is a religion of peace, unless you suspect someone on circumstantial evidence of being in cohoots with guys its okay to attack because Muhammad just really doesn’t like them. That Aslan, a seemingly intelligent and thoughtful individual, should fail to see the obvious issues in his arguments is frightening.
Aslan expends much ink talking about how Islam never forces conversion or treats non-Muslims unfairly, and yet an equal amount of ink appears to contradict this. Whether he talks about all the groups who rebel and refuse to pay the religious tax as soon as Muhammad dies (p. 110), or the public conversion of Muhammad’s old enemy, Hind, who “remained proudly defiant, barely masking her disgust with Muhammad and his ‘provincial’ faith” (p. 106). He even mentions the “protection tax,” or jizyah, forced onto all non-Muslims living in Muslim-controlled areas as though this were a perfectly acceptable way to treat human beings (p. 94).
Sometimes, it is a problem of omission: “[F]rom the earliest days of the Islamic expansion to the bloody wars and inquisition of the Crusades to the tragic consequences of colonialism…” (p. xvi). Things the Christian West has done are “bloody” and “tragic” while things the Muslim East has done receive no adjectives at all? (And, as is common in discussions of the tension between the East and West, there is no mention of the initial Muslim attempts to expand into Europe and the retaliatory flavour of the early Crusades – an omission that I’ve always found a little disturbing.)
Sometimes Aslan chooses positive words to describe acts that clearly couldn’t have been all that positive. For example, he writes that Jews were expelled “peacefully” from a Muslim community, and then that: “only slightly more than one percent of Medina’s Jewish population” were killed during this expulsion. Perhaps our definitions of “peaceful” differ.
And then there are his translations. Having no Arabic of my own, it is difficult for me to comment in any depth, but when I read a translation of a seventh century text that uses words like “atom” (p. 213), my anachronism flag is raised.
One of the grossest and most reprehensible examples appears in his (brief) discussion of the veil. As the only voice for the idea that the veil is a sexist tradition, Aslan refers to Alfred, Lord Cromer. Rather than dismissing his arguments (which is given so little page room that I can only assume they are inadequately presented), he writes: “Never mind that Cromer was the founder of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage in England” (p. 73). As though this one man and his personal character embodied the whole of the argument against the veil. As though discrediting a century old British lord was a legitimate way to respond to an argument that has so many promoters – many of whom are women, many Muslim, and many both. This is such a dishonest tactic that it even has its own name – the ad hominem fallacy.
This is an interesting book of apologetics from a more ‘moderate’ Muslim and it brings up quite a few interesting ideas and arguments. The problem, however, is all the little tricks – conscious or unconscious – that twist the evidence Aslan is presenting.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Islam, or to Muslims wanting to learn about different perspectives. However, this is definitely a “reader beware” book.
[I’ll be reviewing Aslan’s latest book, Zealot, in a few days.]