No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam

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A fascinating, accessible introduction to Islam from the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Zealot

Though it is the fastest-growing religion in the world, Islam remains shrouded in ignorance and fear for much of the West. In No god but God, Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed scholar of religions, explains this faith in all its beauty and complexity. Beginning with a vivid account of the social and religious milieu in which the Prophet Muhammad forged his message, ...

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Overview

A fascinating, accessible introduction to Islam from the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Zealot

Though it is the fastest-growing religion in the world, Islam remains shrouded in ignorance and fear for much of the West. In No god but God, Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed scholar of religions, explains this faith in all its beauty and complexity. Beginning with a vivid account of the social and religious milieu in which the Prophet Muhammad forged his message, Aslan paints a portrait of the first Muslim community as a radical experiment in religious pluralism and social egalitarianism. He demonstrates how, after the Prophet’s death, his successors attempted to interpret his message for future generations–an overwhelming task that fractured the Muslim community into competing sects. Finally, Aslan examines how, in the shadow of European colonialism, Muslims developed conflicting strategies to reconcile traditional Islamic values with the realities of the modern world, thus launching what Aslan terms the Islamic Reformation. Timely and persuasive, No god but God is an elegantly written account of a magnificent yet misunderstood faith.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Grippingly narrated and thoughtfully examined . . . a literate, accessible introduction to Islam.”
–The New York Times

“Aslan offers an invaluable introduction to the forces that have shaped Islam . . . an eloquent, erudite paean to Islam in all of its complicated glory.”
–Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Wise and passionate . . . An incisive, scholarly primer in Muslim history and an engaging personal exploration.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“Precise . . . acutely perceptive . . . For many troubled Muslims, this book will feel like a revelation, an opening up of knowledge too long buried.”
–The Independent (London)

“Thoroughly engaging and excellently written . . . While [Aslan] might claim to be a mere scholar of the Islamic Reformation, he is also one of its most articulate advocates.”
–The Oregonian

William Grimes
Mr. Aslan, an Iranian by birth and a doctoral student in history and religion at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has written a literate, accessible introduction to Islam (or, more accurately Islams), carefully placing its message and rituals in historical context. Complete with a glossary and an annotated bibliography, it could easily serve as a college textbook.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Aslan, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Iowa and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, argues in this informative but uneven study that a reformation of Islam is already underway. He astutely recognizes that the struggle between arch-conservative Wahhabi Islam and the innovative, reform-oriented Islam of the Prophet Muhammad are at war, dragging the United States and the West along. Aslan's brief but accurate analyses of polygyny (or polygamy), the veil, jihad and the devastating effect that European, particularly British, colonialism had on the Islamic world convey deep insight. Unfortunately, charging through more than 1,400 years of Islamic history in 300 pages means that some nuances are lost. Moreover, Aslan quietly challenges various "myths" dear to the average Muslim. He states that Muhammad could not have been illiterate, making the Qur'anic revelation less miraculous; that the egalitarian Medina Constitution-the symbol of Muhammad's great statesmanship-was actually revised in hindsight to hold such values; and the death of the Prophet's grandson Husayn at the Karbala massacre was, post-death, recast as a gesture of martyrdom by Shi'ite Muslims and not a conscious, self-sacrificial decision by Husayn himself. These lapses will bother even progressive Muslims, but non-Muslim readers will find this a sufficiently quick introduction to a complex topic. 5-city author tour. (Mar. 22) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
According to Iranian-born scholar Aslan (Islamic & Middle Eastern studies, Univ. of Iowa), Islam is currently in the throes of a worldwide Reformation, not in a civilization clash against the West. A combination of scholarship and narration, this is a refreshing retelling of the origins and evolution of Islam and of hope for a future based on the Medinan principles of social egalitarianism, unity, and religious tolerance. Aslan convincingly states that the bigotry, fanaticism, and fundamentalism now infecting Islam are the last gasps of small, doomed religious factions, not the beginning of a horrific future. His understanding of al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia, and the insurgencies in Iraq; the differences between Islamic and American democracy; and the Sufi belief in love as the most important ethic of any religion are all reasons to put great stock in this excellent primer of Islam. This book belongs on the shelf with Karen Armstrong's fine Muhammad and Natana J. Delong-Bas's revealing Wahhabi Islam. Highly recommended.-Gary P. Gillum, Brigham Young Univ., Provo, UT Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively and accessible introduction to Islam. If it accomplished nothing else, Aslan's first book would be worthwhile for its clear expositions of the basics of Islamic history and Muslim thought. Aslan, a professor (Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies/Univ. of Iowa) and New York Times Middle East consultant, walks through the life of the Prophet, the redaction of the Qur'an, and the Five Pillars that are fundamental to Muslim life and practice. But these helpful expositions are just the starting point for making two arguments. First, Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations-the theory most pundits have gravitated toward since 9/11-is an inadequate description of the current world scene. What we really have, Aslan says, is a clash of monotheisms, competing particularistic, and often exclusive, claims about the nature of God, revelation, and prophecy. Second, there is real possibility for democracy in the Middle East. Aslan paints the Prophet's teachings in a compelling light: not unlike Jesus (Aslan does make explicit comparisons between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), Aslan's Muhammad was fiercely concerned with the rights of the oppressed and marginalized; but many Muslim scholars who came after Muhammad were just as fiercely concerned to evade the egalitarian implications of the Prophet's teaching. (Muhammad emerges here almost as a proto-feminist. It's the centuries of men who came after him who seem bent on backlash.) Aslan argues that Islam can-indeed must-"be used to establish a genuinely liberal democracy in the Middle East." But the democracy he envisions is not a colonial democracy, imported from Europe or America. It is an indigenous democracy, with a distinctly Islamicflavor. Readers will gravitate toward No God But God not only because of its stimulating arguments, but also because it's so well put together as a literary work. Aslan isn't just a mere scholar and reporter; he also attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and it shows. An introduction to Islam as evocative as it is provocative. Author tour. Agent: Elyse Cheney/Sanford J. Greenburger Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812971897
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/10/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 7.92 (w) x 10.88 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Reza Aslan

REZA ASLAN has studied religions at Santa Clara University, Harvard University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He holds an MFA in fiction from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he was also visiting assistant professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. His work has appeared in USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, and The Chronicle of Higher Education as well as a number of academic journals. Born in Iran, he lives in Santa Barbara and New Orleans.

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Read an Excerpt

1. The Sanctuary in the Desert

PRE-ISLAMIC ARABIA

Arabia. The Sixth Century C.E.

IN THE ARID, desolate basin of Mecca, surrounded on all sides by the bare mountains of the Arabian desert, stands a small, nondescript sanctuary that the ancient Arabs refer to as the Kaaba: the Cube. The Kaaba is a squat, roofless edifice made of unmortared stones and sunk into a valley of sand. Its four walls—so low it is said a young goat can leap over them—are swathed in strips of heavy cloth. At its base, two small doors are chiseled into the gray stone, allowing entry into the inner sanctum. It is here, inside the cramped interior of the sanctuary, that the gods of pre-Islamic Arabia reside: Hubal, the Syrian god of the moon; al-Uzza, the powerful goddess the Egyptians knew as Isis and the Greeks called Aphrodite; al-Kutba, the Nabataean god of writing and divination; Jesus, the incarnate god of the Christians, and his holy mother, Mary.

In all, there are said to be three hundred sixty idols housed in and around the Kaaba, representing every god recognized in the Arabian Peninsula. During the holy months, when the desert fairs and the great markets envelop the city of Mecca, pilgrims from all over the Peninsula make their way to this barren land to visit their tribal deities. They sing songs of worship and dance in front of the gods; they make sacrifices and pray for health. Then, in a remarkable ritual—the origins of which are a mystery—the pilgrims gather as a group and rotate around the Kaaba seven times, some pausing to kiss each corner of the sanctuary before being captured and swept away again by the current of bodies.

The pagan Arabs gathered around the Kaaba believe their sanctuary to have been founded by Adam, the first man. They believe that Adam's original edifice was destroyed by the Great Flood, then rebuilt by Noah. They believe that after Noah, the Kaaba was forgotten for centuries until Abraham rediscovered it while visiting his firstborn son, Ismail, and his concubine, Hagar, both of whom had been banished to this wilderness at the behest of Abraham's wife, Sarah. And they believe it was at this very spot that Abraham nearly sacrificed Ismail before being stopped by the promise that, like his younger brother, Isaac, Ismail would also sire a great nation, the descendants of whom now spin over the sandy Meccan valley like a desert whirlwind.

Of course, these are just stories intended to convey what the Kaaba means, not where it came from. The truth is that no one knows who built the Kaaba, or how long it has been here. It is likely that the sanctuary was not even the original reason for the sanctity of this place. Near the Kaaba is a well called Zamzam, fed by a bountiful underground spring, which tradition claims had been placed there to nourish Hagar and Ismail. It requires no stretch of the imagination to recognize how a spring situated in the middle of the desert could become a sacred place for the wandering Bedouin tribes of Arabia. The Kaaba itself may have been erected many years later, not as some sort of Arab pantheon, but as a secure place to store the consecrated objects used in the rituals that had evolved around Zamzam. Indeed, the earliest traditions concerning the Kaaba claim that inside its walls was a pit, dug into the sand, which contained "treasures" magically guarded by a snake.

It is also possible that the original sanctuary held some cosmological significance for the ancient Arabs. Not only were many of the idols in the Kaaba associated with the planets and stars, but the legend that they totaled three hundred sixty in number suggests astral connotations. The seven circumambulations of the Kaaba—called tawaf in Arabic and still the primary ritual of the annual Hajj pilgrimage—may have been intended to mimic the motion of the heavenly bodies. It was, after all, a common belief among ancient peoples that their temples and sanctuaries were terrestrial replicas of the cosmic mountain from which creation sprang. The Kaaba, like the Pyramids in Egypt or the Temple in Jerusalem, may have been constructed as an axis mundi, sometimes called a "navel spot": a sacred space around which the universe revolves, the link between the earth and the solid dome of heaven. That would explain why there was once a nail driven into the floor of the Kaaba that the ancient Arabs referred to as "the navel of the world." As G. R. Hawting has shown, the ancient pilgrims would sometimes enter the sanctuary, tear off their clothes, and place their own navels over the nail, thereby merging with the cosmos.

Alas, as with so many things about the Kaaba, its origins are mere speculation. The only thing scholars can say with any certainty is that by the sixth century C.E., this small sanctuary made of mud and stone had become the center of religious life in pre-Islamic Arabia: that intriguing yet ill-defined era of paganism that Muslims refer to as the Jahiliyyah—"the Time of Ignorance."

TRADITIONALLY, THE JAHILIYYAH has been defined by Muslims as an era of moral depravity and religious discord: a time when the sons of Ismail had obscured belief in the one true God and plunged the Arabian Peninsula into the darkness of idolatry. But then, like the rising of the dawn, the Prophet Muhammad emerged in Mecca at the beginning of the seventh century, preaching a message of absolute monotheism and uncompromising morality. Through the miraculous revelations he received from God, Muhammad put an end to the paganism of the Arabs and replaced the "Time of Ignorance" with the universal religion of Islam.

In actuality, the religious experience of the pre-Islamic Arabs was far more complex than this tradition suggests. It is true that before the rise of Islam the Arabian Peninsula was dominated by paganism. But, like "Hinduism," "paganism" is a meaningless and somewhat derogatory catchall term created by those outside the tradition to categorize what is in reality an almost unlimited variety of beliefs and practices. The word paganus means "a rustic villager" or "a boor," and was originally used by Christians as a term of abuse to describe those who followed any religion but theirs. In some ways, this is an appropriate designation. Unlike Christianity, paganism is not so much a unified system of beliefs and practices as it is a religious perspective, one that is receptive to a multitude of influences and interpretations. Often, though not always, polytheistic, paganism strives for neither universalism nor moral absolutism. There is no such thing as a pagan creed or a pagan canon. Nothing exists that could properly be termed "pagan orthodoxy" or "pagan heterodoxy."

What is more, when referring to the paganism of the pre-Islamic Arabs, it is important to make a distinction between the nomadic Bedouin religious experience and the experience of those sedentary tribes that had settled in major population centers like Mecca. Bedouin paganism in sixth-century Arabia may have encompassed a range of beliefs and practices—from fetishism to totemism to manism (ancestor cults)—but it was not as concerned with the more metaphysical questions that were cultivated in the larger sedentary societies of Arabia, particularly with regard to issues like the afterlife. This is not to say that the Bedouin practiced nothing more than a primitive idolatry. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the Bedouin of pre-Islamic Arabia enjoyed a rich and diverse religious tradition. However, the nomadic lifestyle is one that requires a religion to address immediate concerns: Which god can lead us to water? Which god can heal our illnesses?

In contrast, paganism among the sedentary societies of Arabia had developed from its earlier and simpler manifestations into a complex form of neo-animism, providing a host of divine and semi-divine intermediaries who stood between the creator god and his creation. This creator god was called Allah, which is not a proper name but a contraction of the word al-ilah, meaning simply "the god." Like his Greek counterpart, Zeus, Allah was originally an ancient rain/sky deity who had been elevated into the role of the supreme god of the pre-Islamic Arabs. Though a powerful deity to swear by, Allah's eminent status in the Arab pantheon rendered him, like most High Gods, beyond the supplications of ordinary people. Only in times of great peril would anyone bother consulting him. Otherwise, it was far more expedient to turn to the lesser, more accessible gods who acted as Allah's intercessors, the most powerful of whom were his three daughters, Allat ("the goddess"), al-Uzza ("the mighty"), and Manat (the goddess of fate, whose name is probably derived from the Hebrew word mana, meaning "portion" or "share"). These divine mediators were not only represented in the Kaaba, they had their own individual shrines throughout the Arabian Peninsula: Allat in the city of Ta'if;

al-Uzza in Nakhlah; and Manat in Qudayd. It was to them that the Arabs prayed when they needed rain, when their children were ill, when they entered into battle or embarked on a journey deep into the treacherous desert abodes of the Jinn—those intelligent, imperceptible, and salvable beings made of smokeless flame who are called "genies" in the West and who function as the nymphs and fairies of Arabian mythology.

There were no priests and no pagan scriptures in pre-Islamic Arabia, but that does not mean the gods remained silent. They regularly revealed themselves through the ecstatic utterances of a group of cultic officials known as the Kahins. The Kahins were poets who functioned primarily as soothsayers and who, for a fee, would fall into a trance in which they would reveal divine messages through rhyming couplets. Poets already had an important role in pre-Islamic society as bards, tribal historians, social commentators, dispensers of moral philosophy, and, on occasion, administrators of justice. But the Kahins represented a more spiritual function of the poet. Emerging from every social and economic stratum, and including a number of women, the Kahins interpreted dreams, cleared up crimes, found lost animals, settled disputes, and expounded upon ethics. As with their Pythian counterparts at Delphi, however, the Kahins' oracles were vague and deliberately imprecise; it was the supplicant's responsibility to figure out what the gods actually meant.

Although considered the link between humanity and the divine, the Kahins did not communicate directly with the gods but rather accessed them through the Jinn and other spirits who were such an integral part of the Jahiliyyah religious experience. Even so, neither the Kahins, nor anyone else for that matter, had access to Allah. In fact, the god who had created the heavens and the earth, who had fashioned human beings in his own image, was the only god in the whole of the Hijaz not represented by an idol in the Kaaba. Although called "the King of the Gods" and "the Lord of the House," Allah was not the central deity in the Kaaba. That honor belonged to Hubal, the Syrian god who had been brought to Mecca centuries before the rise of Islam.

Despite Allah's minimal role in the religious cult of pre-Islamic Arabia, his eminent position in the Arab pantheon is a clear indication of just how far paganism in the Arabian Peninsula had evolved from its simple animistic roots. Perhaps the most striking example of this development can be seen in the processional chant that tradition claims the pilgrims sang as they approached the Kaaba:

Here I am, O Allah, here I am.

You have no partner,

Except such a partner as you have.

You possess him and all that is his.

This remarkable proclamation, with its obvious resemblance to the Muslim profession of faith—"There is no god but God"—may reveal the earliest traces in pre-Islamic Arabia of what the German philologist Max Muller termed henotheism: the belief in a single High God, without necessarily rejecting the existence of other, subordinate gods. The earliest evidence of henotheism in Arabia can be traced back to a tribe called the Amir, who lived near modern-day Yemen in the second century B.C.E., and who worshipped a High God they called dhu-Samawi, "The Lord of the Heavens." While the details of the Amirs' religion have been lost to history, most scholars are convinced that by the sixth century C.E., henotheism had become the standard belief of the vast majority of sedentary Arabs, who not only accepted Allah as their High God, but insisted that he was the same god as Yahweh, the god of the Jews.

The Jewish presence in the Arabian Peninsula can, in theory, be traced to the Babylonian Exile a thousand years earlier, though subsequent migrations may have taken place in 70 C.E., after Rome's sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem, and again in 132 C.E., after the messianic uprising of Simon Bar Kochba. For the most part, the Jews were a thriving and highly influential diaspora whose culture and traditions had been thoroughly integrated into the social and religious milieu of pre-Islamic Arabia. Whether Arab converts or immigrants from Palestine, the Jews participated in every level of Arab society. According to Gordon Newby, throughout the Peninsula there were Jewish merchants, Jewish Bedouin, Jewish farmers, Jewish poets, and Jewish warriors. Jewish men took Arab names and Jewish women wore Arab headdresses. And while some of these Jews may have spoken Aramaic (or at least a corrupted version of it), their primary language was Arabic.

Although in contact with major Jewish centers throughout the Near East, Judaism in Arabia had developed its own variations on traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. The Jews shared many of the same religious ideals as their pagan Arab counterparts, especially with regard to what is sometimes referred to as "popular religion": belief in magic, the use of talismans and divination, and the like. For example, while there is evidence of a small yet formal rabbinical presence in some regions of the Arabian Peninsula, there also existed a group of Jewish soothsayers called the Kohens who, while maintaining a far more priestly function in their communities, nevertheless resembled the pagan Kahins in that they too dealt in divinely inspired oracles.

The relationship between the Jews and pagan Arabs was symbiotic in that not only were the Jews heavily Arabized, but the Arabs were also significantly influenced by Jewish beliefs and practices. One need look no further for evidence of this influence than to the Kaaba itself, whose origin myths indicate that it was a Semitic sanctuary (haram in Arabic) with its roots dug deeply in Jewish tradition. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Aaron were all in one way or another associated with the Kaaba long before the rise of Islam, and the mysterious Black Stone that to this day is fixed to the southeast corner of the sanctuary seems to have been originally associated with the same stone upon which Jacob rested his head during his famous dream of the ladder.

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Table of Contents

Prologue : the clash of monotheisms
1 The sanctuary in the desert : pre-Islamic Arabia 3
2 The keeper of the keys : Muhammad in Mecca 23
3 The city of the prophet : the first Muslims 50
4 Fight in the way of God : the meaning of Jihad 75
5 The rightly guided ones : the successors to Muhammad 107
6 This religion is a science : the development of Islamic theology and law 140
7 In the footsteps of martyrs : from Shi'Ism to Khomeinism 171
8 Stain your prayer rug with wine : the sufi way 194
9 An awakening in the east : the response to colonialism 220
10 Slouching toward Medina : the Islamic reformation 249
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First Chapter

No god but God


By Reza Aslan

Random House

Reza Aslan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400062136


Chapter One

1. The Sanctuary in the Desert

PRE-ISLAMIC ARABIA



Arabia. The Sixth Century C.E.

IN THE ARID, desolate basin of Mecca, surrounded on all sides by the bare mountains of the Arabian desert, stands a small, nondescript sanctuary that the ancient Arabs refer to as the Kaaba: the Cube. The Kaaba is a squat, roofless edifice made of unmortared stones and sunk into a valley of sand. Its four walls-so low it is said a young goat can leap over them-are swathed in strips of heavy cloth. At its base, two small doors are chiseled into the gray stone, allowing entry into the inner sanctum. It is here, inside the cramped interior of the sanctuary, that the gods of pre-Islamic Arabia reside: Hubal, the Syrian god of the moon; al-Uzza, the powerful goddess the Egyptians knew as Isis and the Greeks called Aphrodite; al-Kutba, the Nabataean god of writing and divination; Jesus, the incarnate god of the Christians, and his holy mother, Mary.

In all, there are said to be three hundred sixty idols housed in and around the Kaaba, representing every god recognized in the Arabian Peninsula. During the holy months, when the desert fairs and the great markets envelop the city of Mecca, pilgrims from all over the Peninsula make their way to this barren land to visit their tribal deities. They sing songs of worship and dance in front of the gods; they make sacrifices and pray for health. Then, in a remarkable ritual-the origins of which are a mystery-the pilgrims gather as a group and rotate around the Kaaba seven times, some pausing to kiss each corner of the sanctuary before being captured and swept away again by the current of bodies.

The pagan Arabs gathered around the Kaaba believe their sanctuary to have been founded by Adam, the first man. They believe that Adam's original edifice was destroyed by the Great Flood, then rebuilt by Noah. They believe that after Noah, the Kaaba was forgotten for centuries until Abraham rediscovered it while visiting his firstborn son, Ismail, and his concubine, Hagar, both of whom had been banished to this wilderness at the behest of Abraham's wife, Sarah. And they believe it was at this very spot that Abraham nearly sacrificed Ismail before being stopped by the promise that, like his younger brother, Isaac, Ismail would also sire a great nation, the descendants of whom now spin over the sandy Meccan valley like a desert whirlwind.

Of course, these are just stories intended to convey what the Kaaba means, not where it came from. The truth is that no one knows who built the Kaaba, or how long it has been here. It is likely that the sanctuary was not even the original reason for the sanctity of this place. Near the Kaaba is a well called Zamzam, fed by a bountiful underground spring, which tradition claims had been placed there to nourish Hagar and Ismail. It requires no stretch of the imagination to recognize how a spring situated in the middle of the desert could become a sacred place for the wandering Bedouin tribes of Arabia. The Kaaba itself may have been erected many years later, not as some sort of Arab pantheon, but as a secure place to store the consecrated objects used in the rituals that had evolved around Zamzam. Indeed, the earliest traditions concerning the Kaaba claim that inside its walls was a pit, dug into the sand, which contained "treasures" magically guarded by a snake.

It is also possible that the original sanctuary held some cosmological significance for the ancient Arabs. Not only were many of the idols in the Kaaba associated with the planets and stars, but the legend that they totaled three hundred sixty in number suggests astral connotations. The seven circumambulations of the Kaaba-called tawaf in Arabic and still the primary ritual of the annual Hajj pilgrimage-may have been intended to mimic the motion of the heavenly bodies. It was, after all, a common belief among ancient peoples that their temples and sanctuaries were terrestrial replicas of the cosmic mountain from which creation sprang. The Kaaba, like the Pyramids in Egypt or the Temple in Jerusalem, may have been constructed as an axis mundi, sometimes called a "navel spot": a sacred space around which the universe revolves, the link between the earth and the solid dome of heaven. That would explain why there was once a nail driven into the floor of the Kaaba that the ancient Arabs referred to as "the navel of the world." As G. R. Hawting has shown, the ancient pilgrims would sometimes enter the sanctuary, tear off their clothes, and place their own navels over the nail, thereby merging with the cosmos.

Alas, as with so many things about the Kaaba, its origins are mere speculation. The only thing scholars can say with any certainty is that by the sixth century C.E., this small sanctuary made of mud and stone had become the center of religious life in pre-Islamic Arabia: that intriguing yet ill-defined era of paganism that Muslims refer to as the Jahiliyyah-"the Time of Ignorance."

TRADITIONALLY, THE JAHILIYYAH has been defined by Muslims as an era of moral depravity and religious discord: a time when the sons of Ismail had obscured belief in the one true God and plunged the Arabian Peninsula into the darkness of idolatry. But then, like the rising of the dawn, the Prophet Muhammad emerged in Mecca at the beginning of the seventh century, preaching a message of absolute monotheism and uncompromising morality. Through the miraculous revelations he received from God, Muhammad put an end to the paganism of the Arabs and replaced the "Time of Ignorance" with the universal religion of Islam.

In actuality, the religious experience of the pre-Islamic Arabs was far more complex than this tradition suggests. It is true that before the rise of Islam the Arabian Peninsula was dominated by paganism. But, like "Hinduism," "paganism" is a meaningless and somewhat derogatory catchall term created by those outside the tradition to categorize what is in reality an almost unlimited variety of beliefs and practices. The word paganus means "a rustic villager" or "a boor," and was originally used by Christians as a term of abuse to describe those who followed any religion but theirs. In some ways, this is an appropriate designation. Unlike Christianity, paganism is not so much a unified system of beliefs and practices as it is a religious perspective, one that is receptive to a multitude of influences and interpretations. Often, though not always, polytheistic, paganism strives for neither universalism nor moral absolutism. There is no such thing as a pagan creed or a pagan canon. Nothing exists that could properly be termed "pagan orthodoxy" or "pagan heterodoxy."

What is more, when referring to the paganism of the pre-Islamic Arabs, it is important to make a distinction between the nomadic Bedouin religious experience and the experience of those sedentary tribes that had settled in major population centers like Mecca. Bedouin paganism in sixth-century Arabia may have encompassed a range of beliefs and practices-from fetishism to totemism to manism (ancestor cults)-but it was not as concerned with the more metaphysical questions that were cultivated in the larger sedentary societies of Arabia, particularly with regard to issues like the afterlife. This is not to say that the Bedouin practiced nothing more than a primitive idolatry. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the Bedouin of pre-Islamic Arabia enjoyed a rich and diverse religious tradition. However, the nomadic lifestyle is one that requires a religion to address immediate concerns: Which god can lead us to water? Which god can heal our illnesses?

In contrast, paganism among the sedentary societies of Arabia had developed from its earlier and simpler manifestations into a complex form of neo-animism, providing a host of divine and semi-divine intermediaries who stood between the creator god and his creation. This creator god was called Allah, which is not a proper name but a contraction of the word al-ilah, meaning simply "the god." Like his Greek counterpart, Zeus, Allah was originally an ancient rain/sky deity who had been elevated into the role of the supreme god of the pre-Islamic Arabs. Though a powerful deity to swear by, Allah's eminent status in the Arab pantheon rendered him, like most High Gods, beyond the supplications of ordinary people. Only in times of great peril would anyone bother consulting him. Otherwise, it was far more expedient to turn to the lesser, more accessible gods who acted as Allah's intercessors, the most powerful of whom were his three daughters, Allat ("the goddess"), al-Uzza ("the mighty"), and Manat (the goddess of fate, whose name is probably derived from the Hebrew word mana, meaning "portion" or "share"). These divine mediators were not only represented in the Kaaba, they had their own individual shrines throughout the Arabian Peninsula: Allat in the city of Ta'if;

al-Uzza in Nakhlah; and Manat in Qudayd. It was to them that the Arabs prayed when they needed rain, when their children were ill, when they entered into battle or embarked on a journey deep into the treacherous desert abodes of the Jinn-those intelligent, imperceptible, and salvable beings made of smokeless flame who are called "genies" in the West and who function as the nymphs and fairies of Arabian mythology.

There were no priests and no pagan scriptures in pre-Islamic Arabia, but that does not mean the gods remained silent. They regularly revealed themselves through the ecstatic utterances of a group of cultic officials known as the Kahins. The Kahins were poets who functioned primarily as soothsayers and who, for a fee, would fall into a trance in which they would reveal divine messages through rhyming couplets. Poets already had an important role in pre-Islamic society as bards, tribal historians, social commentators, dispensers of moral philosophy, and, on occasion, administrators of justice. But the Kahins represented a more spiritual function of the poet. Emerging from every social and economic stratum, and including a number of women, the Kahins interpreted dreams, cleared up crimes, found lost animals, settled disputes, and expounded upon ethics. As with their Pythian counterparts at Delphi, however, the Kahins' oracles were vague and deliberately imprecise; it was the supplicant's responsibility to figure out what the gods actually meant.

Although considered the link between humanity and the divine, the Kahins did not communicate directly with the gods but rather accessed them through the Jinn and other spirits who were such an integral part of the Jahiliyyah religious experience. Even so, neither the Kahins, nor anyone else for that matter, had access to Allah. In fact, the god who had created the heavens and the earth, who had fashioned human beings in his own image, was the only god in the whole of the Hijaz not represented by an idol in the Kaaba. Although called "the King of the Gods" and "the Lord of the House," Allah was not the central deity in the Kaaba. That honor belonged to Hubal, the Syrian god who had been brought to Mecca centuries before the rise of Islam.

Despite Allah's minimal role in the religious cult of pre-Islamic Arabia, his eminent position in the Arab pantheon is a clear indication of just how far paganism in the Arabian Peninsula had evolved from its simple animistic roots. Perhaps the most striking example of this development can be seen in the processional chant that tradition claims the pilgrims sang as they approached the Kaaba:

Here I am, O Allah, here I am.

You have no partner,

Except such a partner as you have.

You possess him and all that is his.

This remarkable proclamation, with its obvious resemblance to the Muslim profession of faith-"There is no god but God"-may reveal the earliest traces in pre-Islamic Arabia of what the German philologist Max Muller termed henotheism: the belief in a single High God, without necessarily rejecting the existence of other, subordinate gods. The earliest evidence of henotheism in Arabia can be traced back to a tribe called the Amir, who lived near modern-day Yemen in the second century B.C.E., and who worshipped a High God they called dhu-Samawi, "The Lord of the Heavens." While the details of the Amirs' religion have been lost to history, most scholars are convinced that by the sixth century C.E., henotheism had become the standard belief of the vast majority of sedentary Arabs, who not only accepted Allah as their High God, but insisted that he was the same god as Yahweh, the god of the Jews.

The Jewish presence in the Arabian Peninsula can, in theory, be traced to the Babylonian Exile a thousand years earlier, though subsequent migrations may have taken place in 70 C.E., after Rome's sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem, and again in 132 C.E., after the messianic uprising of Simon Bar Kochba. For the most part, the Jews were a thriving and highly influential diaspora whose culture and traditions had been thoroughly integrated into the social and religious milieu of pre-Islamic Arabia. Whether Arab converts or immigrants from Palestine, the Jews participated in every level of Arab society. According to Gordon Newby, throughout the Peninsula there were Jewish merchants, Jewish Bedouin, Jewish farmers, Jewish poets, and Jewish warriors. Jewish men took Arab names and Jewish women wore Arab headdresses. And while some of these Jews may have spoken Aramaic (or at least a corrupted version of it), their primary language was Arabic.

Although in contact with major Jewish centers throughout the Near East, Judaism in Arabia had developed its own variations on traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. The Jews shared many of the same religious ideals as their pagan Arab counterparts, especially with regard to what is sometimes referred to as "popular religion": belief in magic, the use of talismans and divination, and the like. For example, while there is evidence of a small yet formal rabbinical presence in some regions of the Arabian Peninsula, there also existed a group of Jewish soothsayers called the Kohens who, while maintaining a far more priestly function in their communities, nevertheless resembled the pagan Kahins in that they too dealt in divinely inspired oracles.

The relationship between the Jews and pagan Arabs was symbiotic in that not only were the Jews heavily Arabized, but the Arabs were also significantly influenced by Jewish beliefs and practices. One need look no further for evidence of this influence than to the Kaaba itself, whose origin myths indicate that it was a Semitic sanctuary (haram in Arabic) with its roots dug deeply in Jewish tradition.

Continues...


Excerpted from No god but God by Reza Aslan Excerpted by permission.
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 29 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2006

    Well written and full of lies

    There is no shortage of Islam apologists who use perfumed pleasantries to cover the ugly truth of the world's most intolerant religion, but they aren't as intelligent, affable and widely read as Aslan. On pages 64-65 he makes the wild and totally unsubstantiated claim that Muhammad was only betrothed to his child bride, Aisha, when she was nine, but consummated with her after she hit puberty. Unfortunately for Aslan, every Muslim source says clearly that they were married when she was six and consummated when she was nine. Either Aslan has not read Sahih Bukhari or Sahih Muslim, or he's baldly lying. Since he doesn't cite his sources, we must assume the latter. Likewise he soft peddles life in the dhimma on pages 94-95. He gives the definition of dhimmi as 'protected' but conveniently leaves out that it simultaneously means 'guilty,' then goes on to suggest that dhimmitude is not an example of Islamic subjugation of other faiths, but is in fact an example of Islam's high degree of tolerance! He excuses out of hand the wholesale slaughter and mass beheading of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe by saying it was not at all unusual for the time and offers as proof the fact that no other local Jewish tribes complained about it. This is a terrible book, with no citations for wild and fictional claims. But look at the reviews from the NY Times, LA Times, London Independent, and so on: 'wise, passionate, insightful' -- with vetting like that, readers would be forgiven for not knowing they are being lied to. Beware.

    4 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2006

    Informative, intriguing, and eminently readable!

    Up to now frustrated trying to understand Islam, Reza Aslan's work has solved my problem. He has respected me as a reader with an expository writing style that serves up the history, theology, philosophy, and sociology of the development, spread, and potential of this important faith by means of a complete and fascinating stringing together of myriad mini-epics and sub dramas spiced with awe, humor, honesty, and literary pinache. I feared undertaking the reading of this book but looked on it as the duty of an informed citizen of the planet. Unexpectedly, I was sucked into a master story teller's beguiling trap. Informative and well researched, I no longer viewed the book as an educational 'must do'. Rather, it is an amazing mystery / epic tale which I could not put down. I appreciated the author's clearly identified personal interpretations of the past and speculations on the probable trajectory of as yet unwritten chapters to come. He has a stake in that future now.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent

    An informative history of Islam. Starting in the beginning to modern times, it protrays both the good and dark periods of Islamic History. It is a much more honest assessment of religous history than most Christian books portray.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2007

    A reviewer

    People that pick up this book are making the first step toward having an open mind. It shows they actually want to understand why there is so much controversy surrounding one particular religion. Even still, people are ignorant enough to make wild accusations because of what someone else told them or what they believe should be correct. I am majoring in International Affairs with a minor in Arabic studies and I like the way Aslan broke every word down to the most minute detail. Its very well written, researched, and explained.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2006

    Great, understandable book

    After reading the newspapers about what's happening in the in Middle East, I wanted to be aware of what Islam really is, without the shroud of the terrorist organizations justifying the violence they've caused on their religion. This book makes the complexity of Islam very understandable, and really is a page-turner. Highly recommended.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2007

    Islam is a pagan religion

    Islam is a pagan religion-state system which reflects a pagan Arabic culture of Arabia of the seventh century. The author of the Book is not an Arab but an Iranian. His ancestor land was an ancient empire that was concord by the Islamic and Arabic tribes. The roots of Islam are from pagan Arabic religions mixed with some artificial barrowing from Jewish tradition and oracles. It¿s ¿interpretation¿ of Christianity is totally off mark. He did not got Jesus¿s name right (Isa which is a mocking Jewish name used by the Jewish tribes of this area) nor he understood the concept of the Christian trinity. Mohamed and Allah thought that the god of the Christians was ¿Father¿ marrying ¿Mary or Miram¿ and begot ¿Isa, the Son¿. The problem with Islam is not the religion such as in its rituals which was borrowed straight from Pagan worships in Mekka, but from its totalitarianism governmental ¿Shari¿ laws which forbids its people from questioning the founder of the faith. You might ask, if Mohamed was ¿more¿ than a prophet by being a political leader, does any one have the right to argue his style of governing?. The answer to that question is the key predictor of the future of Islam and humanity. If Muslims could not answer that question, then the world has to do that for them. And the world that rejected previous totalitarianism systems such as Communism and Nazism of the past should also reject that system of government too

    1 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2006

    One of the Best

    This book is one of the best that I have had the chance to read. As an outsider to the Muslim faith there was much that I did not know or understand. While simply written, this book should be a must read for any college student with an interest in history or current affairs.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2006

    Highly Recommended

    I highly highly recommend this book to everyone, especially those people who see no good in Islam at all. Mr. Aslan brings up some very valid and thought provoking ideas, and better still, makes sense of them consistently. As a Muslim, I appreciate his honest and unapologetic presentation of my faith and beliefs. As an American college student, I applaud his scholarly analysis, reflective approach, and attempt to be unbiased and fair. This is a great introductory piece for anyone who is curious, unsure, or misinformed about Islam. The book puts Islam into a historical, social, political, and cultural context wonderfully. Suprisingly, the language is easy to read as well, and not put-off ish at all. Pick it up!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2010

    Poise and fair

    a fair historical account of the religion's development.

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  • Posted December 6, 2009

    Very informative

    Very informative book. Its help to understand history of Islam.

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