By Jeffrey Tayler
“I’m not a Muslim because I think Islam is more right” (than other religions), the media personality and scholar of religions Reza Aslan told Oprah on a recent episode of Super Soul Sunday, her television channel’s weekly spiritual chat show. “It’s not. I don’t think Islam is more true. It’s not.”
Why, then, does he call himself a Muslim?
[F]or me, it’s about recognizing that the language of Islam, the language that it uses, the symbols and metaphors that it uses to define the relationship between human beings and God — that language appeals to me in a way that other languages do not.
By “languages” Aslan meant religions, he pointed out. He also fessed up to not praying five times a day. A “profession of faith” such as Aslan’s — that Islam is just one “language” of many, neither necessarily more nor less valid than any other — has nothing in common with the message of the Shahada, the unmistakably clear, concise declaration of monotheism that is the first of five “pillars” (acts incumbent upon believers) of Islam: “I testify that there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” (Ritualistic prayer five times a day is the second pillar). Yet Aslan went on to redefine the Shahada for Oprah, telling her that it is:
[N]ot a statement of monotheism, although most people think it is. It’s a statement about the definition of God, it’s that God is in and of Himself one-ness. That means God cannot be divided.
“So, God is all things,” answered Oprah, waving her arms slowly and expansively.
“God is,” said Aslan.
“God is, period,” intoned Oprah gravely. “Capital I, capital S.”
The above exchange presents us with a hodgepodge of nebulous fatuities and outright falsehoods that might, to some, seem harmless. After all, does anyone really tune in to Oprah for penetrating discourse on religion?
Yet such blather, composed almost entirely of gauzy, misleading tropes, does damage to the dialogue about religion, and specifically Islam, we so urgently need to have if we hope to safeguard ourselves from terrorist violence and protect our freedom of speech from theocrats, their apologists, and their (often unwitting) enablers. If gullible viewers accept what Aslan says as holding for a majority of Muslims, they will come away puzzled as to how anyone could commit violence in Islam’s name. In fact, they might just be tempted to think (as President Obama has stated) that “extremists” really are practicing a perversion of Islam in, say, ISIS land, and that ISIS, therefore, “is not Islamic.”
The line Aslan is selling us — that Islam consists not of propositions (conveyed through the Quran) regarding the origins and future of the universe and our species, accompanied by instructions to all of us about how to behave, but of ethereal, infinitely malleable abstractions — “symbols” and “metaphors” and such — may pass as credible on a talk show. Yet among those for whom the faith retains its genuine, primordial characteristics as a divinely inspired blueprint for control and exploitation, backed by a harsh apparatus of enforcement — it would sound blasphemous, and would surely earn its telegenic peddler a caning — or worse. Aslan is free to espouse whatever sort of Islam he chooses, obviously, but we should not confuse his fanciful version of it with reality.
Aslan, when not teaching creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, authoring books about religion, or producing television shows, has for years served as a media go-to person for Islam. He can be relied upon to exculpate his faith when called on to opine about the latest Islamist atrocity, deflect attention from its violence-inducing doctrines of jihad and martyrdom, and propound a postmodernist interpretation of the religion according to which all blame attaches to miscreant individuals and what potentially perverse propensities they bring to their “scriptures,” plus various other societal factors, and none to the content of those scriptures.
There is a market for this. Many, especially in the media, wish to avoid confronting the dilemmas we face in dealing forthrightly with Islam and Islamist terrorism. A good number have fallen for the semantic trap noun “Islamophobia,” which equates criticism of Islam with bigotry against Muslims as people and which plays off the nonwhite skin color of a majority of its adherents. Moreover, we all know that danger menaces those who speak out against Islam, leave the faith, or even draw cartoons about it. For on-air interviews, then, best to avoid inviting guests who might talk too frankly about Islam and suggest that possibly, just possibly, the problem stems from the texts revered by 1.6 billion Muslims the world over. A general reluctance to criticize religion of all sorts doesn’t aid dialogue either.
Aslan’s media appearances have been many, and he has been convincingly rebutted. His latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, has drawn fire as a work of pop culture, not scholarship — no surprise given that he “does not hold either a doctorate or a teaching position in the academic study of religion.” (It hardly helps that there’s little reason to think Jesus even existed).
Yet his interview on Oprah’s show cries out for critique, if only because his words on Islam help further the prevalent misconception that it is harmless, and maybe even laudable, to accept the veracity of, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, propositions about reality and definitions of proper human behavior laid out in ancient and medieval texts. Or, put another way, to profess one of the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
Back to Super Soul Sunday. When Aslan then informs Oprah that “symbols and metaphors . . . define the relationship between human beings and God” he is begging the question, assuming that we already accept the existence of a supernatural being (as he can expect the famously pious Oprah to do), but which has been a matter at least thought worthy of argument, even among theologians of yore. Lest we forget, the validity of the entire Abrahamic enterprise rests on God’s factual existence, if for no other reason than He had to exist to issue the “revelations” providing the sole basis for regarding the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Quran as anything more than oversize compendia of lurid, often cruel fairy tales, and not the inerrant, irrevocable Word of God. Absent divine authorship, these tomes would merit no more respect than The Epic of Gilgamesh (from which the Flood legend surely derives) and certainly less esteem than, say, Homer’s magnificent, far more imaginative oeuvre.
Note: if there can be no relationship between humans and an imaginary celestial despot, there can, however, exist delusion. One who believes without evidence may well believe anything, even ludicrous absurdities — say, human parthenogenesis, flying horses, blabbering donkeys, and demonic pigs — that, were they not sheltering under the ennobling rubric of religion, would otherwise incite peals of laughter and howls of derision from sane inhabitants of the modern world.
This is a problem. The right to practice (and speak freely about) the faith of one’s preference is, of course, a fundamental achievement of the Enlightenment. But in the United States, well-funded Evangelicals vote as a bloc and have influenced education and legislation concerning abortion, same-sex marriage, and the right to die with dignity. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia found nothing untoward in musing about possessed pigs to New York Magazine, which should have set us wondering about just how clear-headed his legal reasoning was as he adjudicated so many landmark cases.
Europe is affected, too, of course. In the United Kingdom, for instance, Sharia courts now imperil the rights of Muslim women and children residents. None of this would be possible were secularists not according religion a deference it manifestly does not deserve.
And what of Islam in particular? What of those who cite divine sanction for slicing off their daughters’ clitorises? (Even in the United States, more than a half-million women and girls are now at risk of genital mutilation). For beating their wives? For stoning or hurling gays from rooftops? Untoward respect for Islam de facto abets mutilators, abusive misogynists, and the murderers of LGBT people. Faith is often much more than a mere matter of conscience: it has victims. Aslan and Oprah may practice their religions without harming others, but the same cannot be said for all, as any glance at the headlines these days will attest.
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