It suits politicians, even the ones who speak earnestly of the need for bi-partisanship, to sometimes exaggerate how different they are from The Other Party or The Other Person in order to distinguish themselves in the minds of voters with short memories. It suits religions to often do the same to distinguish themselves in the eyes of their adherents. God forbid that people from opposing parties or differing faiths should find common ground. The result in politics is a shortfall in statesmanship and good government. In what should be the private domain of faith, this kind of self-serving differentiation simply provokes confrontation, needless bloodshed and a breakdown of civil society.
That’s why Reza Aslan’s No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam should be required reading for every politician and pundit trying to rally patriotism by fanning the flames of religious fervor fueled by ignorance.
Ignorance is what the cosmopolitan author of this wonderfully readable and helpful book addresses perhaps more than anything else. Born in Iran, Aslan was educated at Santa Clara University, Harvard and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was also a Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction at the University of Iowa and teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.
He writes about religion from having studied it and been steeped in its historical context– which is more than can be said about pastors who want to hold Quran-burning ceremonies, or people who wax hysterical at the idea of a mosque near Ground Zero. Or those who manipulate this hysteria for political ends. Aslan’s nuanced discussion makes Samuel Huntington’s 1993 The Clash of Civilizations prediction look even more simplistic than others have already shown it to be. Huntington had advanced his theory that “the conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating civilizations” as if civilizations were monolithic, fenced in entities waging war on behalf of violently opposed belief systems. Aslan shows the kind of seepage that occurs when people of different faiths live side by side and cultures get enmeshed in each other. He examines the origins of the Islamic faith, tracing both its economic underpinning as well as its prophetic vision.
No god but God offers the pleasure of unexpected discovery repeatedly. The pleasure of discovering familiar ground in what one might have thought would be completely alien territory. The pleasure of discovering that in matters of faith as much as in matters of politics, our beliefs and expectations are more intertwined and alike than our education or the media or our own failure to reach beyond cultural cliches lets us grasp. Some excerpts that might encourage a fuller reading:
“Religion, it must be understood, is not faith. Religion is the story of faith.” (xxv)
“To ask whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea, or whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus from the dead, or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad, is to ask totally irrelevant questions. The only question that matters with regard to a religion and its mythology is “what do these stories mean?” (xxvi)
“In the strongest terms, Muhammad decried the mistreatment and exploitation of the weak and unprotected. He called for an end to false contracts and the practice of usury that had made slaves of the poor. He spoke of the rights of the underprivileged and the oppressed, and made the astonishing claim that it was the duty of the rich and the powerful to take care of them. ‘Do not oppress the orphan,’ the Quran commands, ‘and do not drive away the beggar’ (93:9-10).” (40)
“Piety, the Quran reminds believers, lies “not in turning your face East or West in prayer . . . but in distributing your wealth out of love for God to your needy kin; to the orphans, to the vagrants, and to the medicants; it lies in freeing the slaves, in observing your devotions, and in giving alms to the poor” (2:177).” (60)
The similarities with the Gospels’ central social justice message –the preferential option for the poor–is striking.
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Perhaps the Presbyterian Senator Jon Kyl who, in interviews this weekend, could not see his way to extending unemployment benefits for those who need it most even as he called for extending Bush-era tax cuts to the wealthy might revisit the central teaching of the church to which he belongs. The website of the Presbyterian Church affirms “that God comes to us with grace and love in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose for us so that we might have eternal and abundant life in him. As Christ’s disciples, called to ministry in his name, we seek to continue his mission of teaching the truth, feeding the hungry, healing the broken, and welcoming strangers.”
Is it too much to hope that Senator Jon Kyl and his colleagues like Senator Mitch McConnell who have done nothing to stop the mischief-making about President Obama’s faith might find it in themselves to attest to their own faith in practical ways? They can do that through constructive government that teaches the truth, feeds the hungry, heals the broken and welcomes strangers. After all, we are reminded in Proverbs that “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”
Go on, Senator Kyl. Tell us the story of your faith.