Reza Aslan: A Changing Religion, A Constant Faith

Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed scholar of religions, paid a visit to Dunn Middle School on Monday afternoon, February 6, 2006. Reza believes that Islam is undergoing great changes and that the real conflict today is not between Islam and the West, but rather between modernists and traditionalists within Islam. Excerpts of the interview follow:

Reza: You already know a lot of things about Islam. Now the question is how do we make sense out of it, how do we put together these words we hear all the time to understand what Islam really is. There is a tendency in the United States to somehow think of Islam in a different way from other religions. We forget that the second largest religion in the world – and in the United States — is Islam, so the largest religious minority in this country are Muslim Americans. Islam is very much a part of the strong Biblical tradition that many of you are familiar with. In fact, the Qur’an thinks of itself as a continuation of the previous scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. So you know how the Bible is separated into the Old Testament and the New Testament? Well you can kind of think of the Qur’an as the new New Testament, or the newest testament, because they see it as the continuation of the story and that Muhammad was the end of that story. So that shows that there is this real connection, one giant faith separated into three different versions: the Jewish version, the Christian version, and the Muslim version. And when it comes down to the beliefs and ideas of the religion, they’re all pretty much the same. I mean there ARE differences, there’s no question, but they are very much a part of the same Biblical, prophetic tradition that a lot of us are already familiar with.

Student: How do you think Islam has changed through the years?

Reza: That’s an excellent question. Islam is no different from any other religion in that it is constantly changing. Most of us know, for instance, that Christianity today is a lot different than the way it was a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago. Religions change as people change, and the same thing is happening with Islam. At first it was a desert religion of mostly Arabs in the Middle East. Now, Arabs make up just a small group of the world’s Muslim population. Does anyone know how many Muslims there are in the world? It comes to about 1.2 billion Muslims. That’s a lot. And of course they all believe differently, they all behave differently, they have their own traditions, and they have their own ideas about what Islam means.

Student: Do you base your life on the Five Pillars?

Reza: I try to live by the Five Pillars. Most people try their best to follow their religion as well as they can. And we’re all going to fail. I could definitely be better. I could definitely give more money away. I don’t. I could definitely pray more. I don’t. And sometimes during Ramadan, I just get hungry. You know? And there are people who are better at it than I am and people who are worse at it than I am. It’s like anything else.

Student: Do you think Jews, Muslims, and Christians in particular are focusing too much on their holy scriptures and not on becoming a good person?

Reza: I think you’re absolutely right, and that really becomes the problem. You know what? It goes back to this question of what is religion. Have you ever thought about it? What is it? Are religion and faith the same thing? Can you have faith without having religion? Maybe you can’t have religion without faith but you can certainly have faith without religion, so faith must be bigger than religion. In a way, religion is a way to talk about faith. Right? You start with faith.

So I have faith in God. What does that mean? How do I describe it? How do I talk about it to other people? With religion! Religion becomes the tool that we use to talk about God, or like a language that we use. People may be talking about the same God; they may be talking about the same faith, but they’re talking about it in different ways.

But what happens if you forget that that religion is supposed to actually point you to faith? What happens when you think that that religion is everything, that there’s nothing beyond that religion, that religion is faith? What happens when you forget that religion is a tool in order to get something, not an end in itself? It’s like having a hammer. The purpose of a hammer is to hammer something in — right? But if you don’t hammer something in, what good is a hammer? Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything. You’re walking around with a useless hammer.

So I do think in that way what you’re saying is true. A lot of people really forget that religion is supposed to be the language that you use to express your faith, and the important thing is not religion, but faith. When people forget that, they think religion is all that matters. And if you think that religion is all that matters, then it’s very easy to start fighting with one another. My religion is right. Your religion is wrong. My religion is going to destroy your religion. You forget that these are both talking about the same exact thing.

Student: Were you raised as a child under the Muslim religion?

Reza: I was raised in it the way a lot of people are raised in a tradition. Maybe your parents go to church on Easter and Christmas, and so do you, and so you call yourself a Christian. I’m the same way. My parents went to mosque on Ramadan and on the Prophet’s birthday and we called ourselves Muslims. That’s all that mattered. It was only as an adult that I made a conscious decision to actually go back to my faith. My parents don’t really care; they’re not very religious. If you’re going to follow a religion, I think it’s important for you to make that decision for yourself. It can’t be your mom’s decision; it can’t be your dad’s decision. It has to be your decision; otherwise it doesn’t mean anything.

Student: What do you think about the drawings that came out in the paper in Denmark and the response of Muslims?

Reza: Some of you know there are these cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that came out in this newspaper in Denmark and it has sparked all of this rioting and anger among Muslims. Part of it is because in Islam there is a tradition that you’re not allowed to make any kind of picture or portrait of the Prophet. But that’s actually NOT why there is so much anger. If you look at these particular drawings, they were really, really offensive. Like in one of them Muhammad has a bomb for a turban, so he’s a terrorist. I think it’s important to understand that it’s not just that these drawings came out; it’s that they were so deliberately offensive. Even with freedom of the press, there must be some attempt made to not intentionally provoke people, to not try to fuel tensions that people are already struggling to contain. It also feeds right into the hands of extreme groups. So it makes me angry because I feel as though the purpose was to deliberately provoke Muslims. I’m angry about the motive; these were meant in no other way but to offend.

Student: Do you think terrorists automatically become non-Muslim by their actions?

Reza: Did Timothy McVeigh’s actions make him a non-Christian? He’s the guy responsible for the bombing in Oklahoma City that killed a lot of innocent people. He was a Christian, or he thought of himself as a Christian. You can rationalize anything, whatever your religion or what you call yourself…

Sadly, our tape ran out, but in other talks Reza has referred to religion as a language that is subject to interpretation, pointing out that extremism is the loudest voice and the interpretation that gets our attention but it is not necessarily the most representative perspective. His views on this subject are reflected in his widely acclaimed book, No God but God in which he refers to those “who have replaced Muhammad’s original version of tolerance and unity with their own ideals of hatred and discord.” He has suggested that even the rise of fundamentalism may be a reaction to the greater rise of reform, rationalism, modernism, and progress. Reza believes that an Islamic Reformation has already begun, one in which peace, pluralism, and inclusion will overcome bigotry and hatred. “The tide of reform,” he says, “cannot be stopped.”

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