Reza Aslan

According to Reza Aslan, author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, there are two primary factions, or denominations, within Islam: Sunni, or orthodox, and Shi’ite. Similar to to Christianity’s Catholic and Orthodox churches, excluding the Protestants, both believe they are the true succeeding leaders of Islam after the order of the Prophet Muhammad. Due to a split in agreement over the successors of the Prophet, these two factions warred over the religious and political authority governing the region, including wherever the faith spread. A rife severely fractured many within the community who believed Ali, the cousin of the Prophet, was the rightful successor.

The third successor, Uthman ibn Affan (after Abu Bakr and Umar ibn al-Khattab)—a member of the Quraysh family, who had ruled as “Keeper of the Keys” for the ka’ba in Mecca and violently opposed the peaceful egalitarian message of the Prophet Muhammad, oppressed the Prophet’s family while raising an army to proselytize the surrounding tribes and nations—who headed the collection and canonization of the Quran and hadith, was assassinated by rebelling forces. Mu’awiyah, the leader of the rebelling forces, declared himself Caliph after Uthman by authority, ordination, and command of Allah, ultimately regrouping the center of Islamic power and prestige in Damascus, Syria. Eventually the descendants of Muhammad, Husayn and Hassan, attempted to join forces with those at Kufa but were intercepted by the Caliph’s military at Karbala and mercilessly butchered. Soon after the massacre, a self-acclaimed group entitled “The Penitents”, mourned, lamented the Prophet’s family, self-atoning for their sins by praising the martyrdom of Husayn.

“Every year, during the first ten days of the month of Muharram and culminating on the tenth day, or Ashura, the Shi’ah commemorate Husayn’s martyrdom through lamentation assemblies…in which participants either beat their breasts in a rhythmic, almost mantric act of contrition, or flog their backs with whips made of chains, all the while shouting out the names of Hassan and Husayn, until the streets are stained with their blood. Despite appearances, the Shi’ite self-flagellation ceremonies have little in common with similar practices one finds in certain Christian monastic orders. This is not flagellation as a solitary act of pious self-mortification…It is not pain, but the voluntary shedding of blood and tears for Husayn that brings salvation” (183).

This religious group, more seemingly devout and stalwart than the Pentecostal-like Kharijites, became the founders of Shi’itism, named after the Shi’ah Ali. These people, like the pseudo-Christian gnostics during the formation of the early church, believed themselves to have esoteric, ethereal knowledge about the Quran’s “implicit” message. The leadership soon became muddled and another faction, known as the Zaydis, split from the primary Shi’ite family.

Eventually, in order to capture a transcendental Brahman-like oneness with Allah, the Sufis, another Muslim sect, attempted to revive the meditative practices of the Prophet during the time of the revelation.  These practices extended far and wide.  The Sufis, the “monks” (if you will) of the Muslim world, reached for ecstasy and joy within themselves, believing Allah would reveal himself through inner turmoil and peace.

“Some Sufis use the art of calligraphy as a form of dhikr (“the remembrance of God”), while in the Caucasus, where Sufism inherited many of the shamanistic practices of the ancient Indo-Europeans, dhirk tends to focus not so much on recitation or meditation, but rather on physical pain as a means to shock the disciple into a state of ecstasy. The Rifa’i Order in Macedonia, for example, is famous for its public acts of self-mutilation, in which disciples pierce themselves with spikes while in a trancelike state. In certain parts of Morocco, there are Sufis who practice dhikr through great feats of strength and stamina meant to separate them from the false reality of the material world” (Aslan, 222).

If I understand correctly, with regard to Reza Aslan’s account of the rise of radicalism, the Taliban is rooted in the more recent extremist sect of Sufism.  Aslan writes of the persecuted Sufi minority saying,

“…Wali Allah strove in his books and lectures to strip Sufism of its ‘foreign’ influences (e.g. Neoplatonism, Persian mysticism, Hindu Vedantism) in order to restore it to what he considered to be an older, unadulterated form of Islamic mysticism, one inextricably bound to Sufi orthodoxy” (223).

Moreover, (Wali) Allah’s “puritan” movements eventually led to an awakening in the Middle East and India, giving way for the Pan-Islamism/Pan-Arabism, anti-colonial rebels ravaging Mesopotamian culture and heritage by segregating peoples rather than allowing alliance and prosperity (238).  However the Pan-Islamism, “the supernationalist theory of Muslim unity under a single Caliph” (244), which contributed to the creation of the Ottoman Empire, movement collapsed under the weight of the West.  Nevertheless a resurgence of ideas stemming from this movement gained traction under the leadership of Sayyid Qutb, “the father of Islamic radicalism” (243), and the banner of Islamism (244).  Qutb’s goal was to oust all secular forms of governance and restore the Middle East (and eventually the world) under the authority of God, reverting to (in his eyes) Muhammad’s original blueprint for a peaceful society in Medina.


In the eighteenth century, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, desiring to implement Wali Allah’s radical Sufism, ravaged the Hijaz with the protection of the fearful Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Saud (246).  Fearing the Wahhabis, as they are known, and their radical theology, Ibn Saud agreed to “‘perform jihad against the unbelievers [non-Wahhabi Muslims],” thus securing the reign of al-Wahhab (248).  Tearing across the Arabian peninsula, al-Wahhab eventually made his way to the heart of Arabia toppling artifacts and the tombs and memories of the Prophet and his companions, attempting to rid the peninsula of materialism.  Securing the locus of power in the region, with al-Wahhab granting Ibn Saud political power, the newly formed polity signed the Anglo-Treaty in 1915.  Continuing the works of his father, heir Abd al-Aziz accepted military supplies and reinforcements from the British to fight the Ottomans.  After World War I, with al-Aziz seated at the pinnacle of power, the Hijaz was renamed “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” (249).

Fast forward to 1979, Saudi Arabia, now inundated with wealth from the discovery of oil, a more materialistic/Westernized kingdom, in collaboration with the United States, in an attempt to rid the land of “holy warriors” plaguing the country for decades, sent the mujahadin to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets (252).  The United States propagating the equating so-called liberty-loving rebels, as President Reagan put it, with “America’s founding fathers,” suffers alongside Saudi Arabia from the solidarity and wherewithal of the rebels’ unification into “a new kind go transnational militant movement in the Islamic world called Jihadism (252).  This Jihadism rooted itself in the dogma of the aforementioned Kharijites labeling themselves as “the People of Heaven” with everyone else as “the People of hell” (253).  Fighting against the alleged corruption of the Saudi government inviting the American military into Middle Eastern conflict (i.e. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait), two men—Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri—forged an alliance to create al-Qaeda.

Osama bin Laden (© AP file)

Western imperialism drastically altered the course of history for many of the once-sovereign nation states.  For example, the Brits and Russians thwarted democratic upheaval in Iran during 1905-1911 and, likewise, in 1953, the United States covertly put an end to Iran’s democratic revolution (260).  However, in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini eventually subverted the Shah of Iran, putting an end to his despotic control to establish a free and independent Islamic republic (258).  However, though the constitution drafted and passed established a parliamentary government, it afforded the Ayatollah with supreme authority.  This new régime was anything but democratic.  He had the sole authority to “appoint the head of the judiciary, to be commander in chief of the army, to dismiss the president, and to veto all laws created by the parliament” (258).  Eventually, after the Ayatollah’s death in the late 1980s, a new revolution arose to restore the original purpose and intent of the first two reformations.  Now, the Tehran Spring of the 1990s seemed to gain traction; however the efforts of the people was quelled by the Revolutionary Guard and power restored to the heads of state (259).  Moreover, with the profuse corruption within Iranian government, overt the efforts of the people have, seemingly, died.  Yet, like the two revolutions before, it is unlikely the people will go gently into that good night (Thomas, 1951).

To the east, the countries of India and Pakistan are rivaling and wrestling over Britain’s recent abdication of the subcontinent.  Like empires before it, the UK had strategically pitted the people against each other to create constant turmoil in order to save face and give good reason for its presence—maintaining economic and military stability in the region (Aslan, 262-263).  However, with the Second World War leaving Britain in ruins, surrendering its centuries old Asian powerhouse would prove trying but nevertheless wise (262).  Now, with the “Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, etc.” fighting over control and dominion, a subcontinental schism ensued (262).  Pakistani leadership encouraged Muslims across the region to migrate and work to create a unifying Islamic state, thus leaving the Hindus to bicker amongst themselves.

“Despite drafting a constitution that envisioned a parliament elected to write the laws and a judiciary appointed to decide whether those laws were in accord with Islamic principles, Pakistan quickly gave way to military dictatorship at the hands of the army’s commander in chief, Ayub Khan” (264).

This process continued over the course of sixty years—dictatorship, democracy, dictatorship, democracy, and so on (264).

Interestingly, Aslan concludes the ultimate glue/cohesive to create a successful democracy is not secularism but, rather, pluralism.  Democracies can be founded upon specific moral frameworks (e.g. America’s Judeo-Christian origins, the UK’s Anglican foundation, India’s former theological bent towards Hindutva theology, Israel’s orthodox rabbinical courts) all the while refraining from theocracy (269-271).  Duly noted, societies that have attempted to formulate a fluid church-and-state paradigm have failed epically (e.g. Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iran) (268).  However, as aforementioned, this does not negate the religious undertones, or connotations, inflected throughout society in holidays, national observances, or communal “mores” dictated or tolerated by explicitly religious or quasi-secular governments (268).  Aslan continues by saying, “Pluralism implies religious tolerance, not unchecked religious freedom,” and quoting the Quran, “‘There can be no compulsion in religion’ (2:256)” (271).  In other words, democracies are possible within Islamic societies despite oppositional Western rhetoric; however, this does not delineate such countries (e.g. “Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Senegal, etc.”) as entirely (that is, 100%) free in every respect (271).


Aslan slowly draws an end to his book by carefully detailing the origins and, as the title states, “future of Islam.”  He likens the radical ideologies plaguing the social egalitarian religion to the “archaic, rigid, and inequitable strictures of tribal society” across the Arabian peninsula (292).  This new reformation—a surge of informal, independent, and untrained dilettantes—pervading the airwaves and into the homes via Internet and satellite television is, in some ways, liberating but also troubling.  After years of the Ulama—similar to the Papacy—dictating the interpretations of scripture and forming society’s perception of God with the self-ascribed authority to exegete, the people revolted.  They revolted literally (that is, violently) as well as socially, creating new forums and branching out into new regions of the world to explore Islam’s roots for themselves and discover true religion.  This reformation has inspired charismatic preachers and radical jihadists alike (284-292).  However, Islam is not alone in its centuries-old quest to create unity between authenticity and individualism.  Hearkening to the Christian Reformation, Aslan alludes to Martin Luther’s cry for separation from the Catholic church due to egregious misinterpretations of Scripture and ubiquitous corruption.  After Luther nailed the 95 theses, stood before council at Wittenberg, and translated the Bible from Latin to German, peasants and commoners rose against the papacy (and fellow reformers alike) to oust all sorts of religious mutiny—while committing a type of mutiny. Eventually, after a long war, the violence quelled and the people assumed their roles in society once again.  This cycle continues in all forms of religion.  Though unfortunate, it serves as a reminder to cherish and behold all that is dear.  While pluralism acts as a societal cohesive, it, ironically, inspires individualism by cultivating a sense of cultural preservation, thus creating civil dialogue in a world filled noise.


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