The Common Good
January 2006

The Islamic Reformation Has Begun

by Asra Q. Nomani | January 2006

Reza Aslan, a Tehran-born Muslim, joined his high school's Young Life group to become a Christian, then got kicked out. Now he's one of the top spokespersons for progressive Islam in ...

A decade ago , author Reza Aslan had a dinner conversation that helped set him on a path that makes him one of the hottest new voices on Islam. At the table, a man argued “Muslims are violent and irrational. They’re all terrorists.” His dinner companion? His father, an Iranian émigré who blamed not only the clerics of Iran’s Islamic revolution for turning his country upside down, but Islam itself.

Facing hatred against Islam from an early age set Aslan on a path that makes him one of the brightest lights for Islam today, separating fact from mythology in his groundbreaking, thinking person’s guide to Islam, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Reza Aslan is the “It Boy” of Islam. He is a rising star few could have predicted. Just 32 years old, he is still a student: a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But Aslan has a strong aura of confidence, clear thinking, and intellect that makes him look at ease everywhere from Comedy Central to the Sunday morning news shows. This makes him one of the greatest hopes for Muslims to take back the faith from puritanical and dogmatic interpretations that sanction ideological beliefs such as the killing of innocent people—the most egregious crime confronting the Muslim world today.

He is a staunch supporter of the progressive values of Islam, including women’s rights and tolerance. Amusingly, he receives entreaties just about every week from aunties in the Muslim world interested in matching their daughters up with him. This would be a charming but insignificant detail except that winning over the aunties and uncles, as elders are often affectionately called in many immigrant Muslim communities, is vital to winning the kind of transformation Aslan argues for in No god but God. He writes: “This book is, above all else, an argument for reform.”

Born in Tehran in 1972, Aslan spent his boyhood years in Iran during the last years of the Shah’s reign. His parents met as college students, fell in love, and parted sadly because his father had been betrothed since childhood to a distant cousin. When his father returned to his home to get married, he learned that his fiancée had fallen in love, like him, with another and had eloped. “He had to pretend to go into mourning,” Aslan said. But, relieved, he told his real love, and they were married. Aslan’s life story began before his birth when a woman liberated herself from the traditional expectation in many Muslim communities that she marry her family’s choice, not her own.

The lessons continued in the most intimate of ways. Aslan saw his mother, like most women “ruling the roost” at home but being forced to slink into subordinate roles to their husbands in public. At many a restaurant, he remembers his father reining in his mother’s assertiveness. Still a young boy, Aslan would scamper to the “women’s table” with his mother and other boys. “Women would talk about men as if they were children,” he recalled. Aslan was only 7 when Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the government of the Shah. He never made it to the “men’s table,” a fact that he recognizes as life-changing. Instead, he fled with his family to the United States, where feminist societal values, a working mother, and a high-school Christian youth group molded the scholar he was to become.

The family lived in a motel where his parents kept the presence of their two children a secret. Aslan and his older sister weren’t allowed to go out by day, a fact that Aslan was happy about because it meant he could watch TV without interruption. Aslan saw his family structure disintegrate as his mother soon began to earn more than his father in an administrative post she took at a software company. This didn’t sit well with his father who—despite his hatred of Islam—inherited many of the traditional expectations of gender roles associated with Islam. “It brought to light to me the difference between religion and tradition,” Aslan recalls. Eventually his father created his own business and prospered.

Those early years in Iran had sparked an early interest in “the power of religion.” When he approached his father with his curiosity about Islam, he says, “I got nothing but discouragement.” In high school in San Jose, California, Aslan joined Young Life, a Colorado Springs-based Christian youth group with local chapters around the country. Aslan was trying to run from his Muslim identity and toward his sense of what it meant to be American: “I wanted to be Christian.” In his Bible study group, he challenged group edicts such as its staunch position against homosexuality. “It’s so incredibly wrong,” he says. He overstayed his welcome. “I was asked to withdraw myself from the community.” But he learned an important lesson in how “doctrinal gymnastics” can influence faith.

After high school, Aslan set off for a degree in religion from Santa Clara University, a Jesuit-run school, where he spent Sunday evenings at church services. In class, he learned how to do textual analysis on theological writings to study religion. It was an area in which Christians had a modern-day head start on Muslims, and learning to master it was going to serve Aslan well. In No god but God, Aslan delicately challenges popular concepts widely accepted in Muslim communities. At home, Aslan’s mother started attending an Iranian Christian church and converted to Christianity when Aslan was 20 years old. Aslan saw the Iranian Christian community was not much different from the Iranian Muslim community.

Back at the dinner table a decade ago, Aslan was stunned by the condemnation of Islam by his father—a man who was to him “the symbol of rationality.” He told his father: “Come on….” His father responded: “I mean it.” Aslan gently prodded: “Are you saying every Muslim in this world is a terrorist?” His father said, “Yes.”

His mother tried to downplay her husband’s harsh words. “He doesn’t mean that,” she said. His father responded: “No, I mean it.” Aslan shook his head in curiosity at his father’s rage against Islam. “It was his animosity that drove my curiosity.”

Aslan earned a master’s degree in theological studies at Harvard and then a master of fine arts in fiction at the University of Iowa—unusual credentials for a scholar of Islam, but valuable assets in today’s war of ideas in the Muslim world.

As a scholar of faith, he doesn’t pretend to be without faith. “Unlike most people in my discipline, my scholarly work confirms and affirms my faith.” When Aslan returned to Islam, his mother told her husband: “Reza is now a Muslim.” His father answered: “It’s making me sick.”

My own path first intersected with Aslan during an episode of Nightline, the ABC News program. Reporter Michel Martin had come to Morgantown, West Virginia, to interview my family and me for a segment called “Mecca to Morgantown,” about our struggle to win women’s rights in the Muslim world as a precursor for bringing tolerance to our communities. The producer had told me Aslan would be “the expert” to comment on the topic. I settled around our TV set in Morgantown with my parents and son, nervous. A new friend, an Iranian-American, was visiting, and I said to her, “I hope your homeboy doesn’t betray us.” ABC’s journalist George Stephanopoulos asked Aslan about my thesis: “How central is this battle over the role of women in Islam to the larger struggle that [Asra Nomani] talks about, the desire to take back Islam from the violent puritans like Osama bin Laden?” I held my breath.

“It’s at the very core of this…reformation,” he said. I couldn’t believe my ears. Aslan continued to argue that “we have to be careful not to confuse social traditions…with the religion itself.”

“I can’t believe he isn’t placating the conservatives,” I murmured, waiting for the other shoe to drop. He continued: “…this is not a reformation; it is more of a restoration. In this case, for instance, we are referring to something that is very much a part of Islamic practice. Fourteen centuries ago the community that the prophet Muhammad created was one in which women fought side by side with men, prayed side by side with men. And it’s one that we have to look back to, to shape our modern values. If it was good enough for the prophet’s community, then it must be good enough for ours.” With that, the segment closed. Aslan had not betrayed Islam to win political capital.

“Why not?” I asked him, when we talked later. “Truth is truth,” he told me. “It cannot be undermined by faith. It’s supposed to encourage faith. If there is a disconnect between truth and faith then faith has to be re-examined.”

Aslan is willing to tackle traditions when they betray religion. Did his father practice the traditions that others characterize as Islam? “He did,” Aslan said. “What I recognized very clearly is that there is an incredible fear around keeping the social fabric intact. That kind of faith is weak faith.” Aslan’s loyalty to truth in religion is universal. He stands up for the ordination of women as priests in the Catholic Church. “It’s a lie,” he says, that women are not allowed to be priests.

While he argues in No god but God that, in Islam, head-covering for women is a human-made tradition, in the spirit of tolerance he fully supports a younger American-born sister who returned from a visit to Iran covering her hair with the hijab.

Aslan is remarkable because he doesn’t pull any punches in acknowledging truths in the Muslim world, yet he makes his critique so deftly and compassionately it doesn’t seem offensive. He correctly notes that since Sept. 11, 2001, the Muslim world has been entrenched in a “Muslim civil war” over the way Islam is expressed in the world. He has definitely chosen sides. It’s time, Aslan argues, to “cleanse Islam of its new false idols—bigotry and fanaticism—worshipped by those who have replaced Muhammad’s original vision of tolerance and unity with their own ideas of hatred and discord.” It will take time, he acknowledges. “But the cleansing is inevitable, and the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are living in it.”

When the galleys for No god but God arrived, Aslan sent a copy to his father, expecting the worst. His father read the book with an English dictionary beside him and shocked his son with his response. As expected, he said: “The mullahs are still evil and they should all be killed.” But, for the first time, he said: “I understand where your faith comes from.” It was the best response Aslan could have gotten from any reader.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with her son Shibli.

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