The meditation begins --- as many do --- in a supermarket checkout line. It had been a busy day, so busy that I hadn't had a moment to stop and eat. Now my basket was full of the kinds of food one gravitates toward when stressed and hungry. Immediate gratification, not particularly healthy, and needing little time to prepare. On the supermarket stands a tabloid picture of yet another starving celebrity. This, in addition to my own rumbling gut, got me to thinking about hunger. Is there ever a legitimate reason to starve oneself? I wondered. It was getting harder to ignore the news of famine in Somalia. Looking at pictures of the celebrity's shockingly emaciated frame, wondering if what I was seeing was real, I thought about hunger strikes as a kind of civil disobedience. A way to enact social change on the only aspect of their lives that many people control: their actual bodies. Prisoners use this as a method of protest when all other freedoms have been stripped. And women used it as part of their protests for equal rights. It seemed unlikely that the celebrity in question was thinking of Somalia, but what if she declared her intention to starve in solidarity? Would it change the way we think about her weight?
Fasting has also been a tool used in religious observance. Realizing I had eaten nothing all day and that the sun was setting, I thought of the billions of observers all over the world who had experienced a day without food. It is Ramadan, a period of 30 days in which observant Muslims go without food and drink during daylight hours. I had once read a description of the heady feasts that followed sunset, the way that in some regions all activity comes to a halt around sunset, and the whole country waits with spoons poised for the muezzin’s call indicating the day's end.
But what did I really know about Islam? I asked. Despite a fundamentalist Christian upbringing and some familiarity with Jewish traditions, I still know almost nothing about the third prong of the Abrahamic faiths. And the Arab Spring uprisings this year, ongoing in many parts of the world, have made me realize that it's becoming increasingly important to understand Islam, its history and current practice. My query to find a simple overview brought me to No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan. Originally published to critical acclaim in 2005, this year the 300-page book was reduced by half and repackaged for teen readers. I've eyed it curiously for some time and finally decided it was time to commit. The first two-thirds of the book are about the life of Muhammad and the Arab world in the seventh century, with the last few chapters dedicated to some of the most controversial and misunderstood aspects of the contemporary faith, including the definition and origin of jihad, Muslim-Jewish relations, women in Islam, and the future of Islam.
No god but God is simple and surprising. Muhammad, an orphan, was raised by various relatives until he married the wealthy widow of a merchant and was able to set himself up as a merchant as well. Prosperous, he didn't receive his call until 40, when a terrifying experience on a solitary retreat gave him the first of his “recitations” that constitute the Qur’an today. Experiencing a crushing pressure on his chest, he received the commandment to recite the words he found stamped upon his heart. At first he was an unwilling prophet. There was a place in Arab society for poets called Kahin who would often give oracular utterances in rhyming couplets. Muhammad knew his message would be met with derision and that he would be compared to the Kahin. But he remained committed to his calling. Having experienced a narrow escape from the debt and slavery that faced many widows and orphans in Arabic society, he preached a new message, one of radical egalitarianism and religious pluralism at odds with the way many people understand Islam today.
What is most surprising about the book is how familiar the story seems --- not only with the kinds of stories, grammar, and phrases I'm familiar with through my own religious upbringing, but the kind of radical social message that accompanied it. Muhammad's vision offered an alternative to the tribal system that functioned throughout the Arab world. To belong to a tribe, you had to be born into it. To become a Muslim, all that is required is a statement of faith. It was a new way of belonging, offering an alternative structure of organization, particularly for the dispossessed. Many of the teachings of Islam have to do with how to treat those who are powerless. One of Muhammad's early innovations was to equalize the “blood worth” of every member of his community, so that every life was considered equally as valuable: an orphan or a widow would have the same value as a merchant. For women in his community, he gave the right to inherit their husband's property and to keep their dowries as their own personal property throughout marriage. If she was divorced, a woman had the right to return to her family with her dowry intact. Not only did he arrive at many of these ideas well ahead of their implementation in the West, he also established that no intermediaries were needed to access the divine about 1,000 years prior to the Protestant Reformation.
Much of the story of Islam centers on the inter-tribal politics between Mecca --- Muhammad's hometown --- and Medina, where he established his first Islamic community. It also centers on the kinds of power struggles to establish and codify the faith after the prophet died. Most of the Qur’an was not recorded in written form during Muhammad's lifetime. Like the early Christians, many of the teachings were memorized and spread with the people who carried the knowledge in their heads. This means that by the time Muhammad died, the message was already beginning to grow and change with the people who carried it. While most of the Qur’an as we know it was established around 650 CE, even now, as with other faiths, there are competing schools of thought and interpretation, as well as a wide array of scholarship.
Written with simplicity and clarity, No god but God is an Islam-positive interpretation of the faith written by an Iranian-American religious scholar. But it also acknowledge many of the conflicts experienced in the faith as it is expressed in the world today. The most valuable chapters in the book are the last few, which each deal with contemporary issues and interpretations of the faith, clearly expressing the different viewpoints and the Quranic verses upon which they are based. It parses jihad from Muhammad's origins of establishing rules of just vs. unjust warfare to its associations with suicide bombers today. It addresses the changing roles of women from Muhammad's wives in seventh-century Arabic culture to contemporary female practitioners and scholars. And it explores the kaleidoscopic views of the contemporary religion that is quickly growing. One in five people on the planet is Muslim. Growing prosperity, literacy, and media access is rapidly changing the way many Muslims understand and practice their faith.
No god but God is an excellent resource for classrooms, libraries, or the curious, offering a simple overview to complex issues and beliefs. It includes a helpful glossary of Arabic terms, a map of the Arabian peninsula, and a list of additional resources for interested readers.
For those wanting a more personal exploration of contemporary Islam, G. Willow Wilson's memoir, The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam, has just been released in paperback. Having already embraced Islam before moving to Egypt in 2003 to teach in Cairo, G. Willow Wilson falls in love with an Egyptian man and must bridge the gap between her secular upbringing and the contradictions of living as a newly converted Western Muslim in the Islamic East. Written with lyrical prose, this book addresses a lot of the questions people might have about the daily experiences of living in Egypt and the author’s conversion to Islam. Written primarily for adult readers, it is also appropriate for older teens who will be interested in a young American’s adventures abroad, as well as her experience of falling in love with a person, a culture, and a faith.
For younger readers, The Genius of Islam by Bryn Barnard is a lushly illustrated book about the cultural and scientific impact of Islamic culture, particularly during the medieval period. It covers Arabic contributions to aspects of daily life, whether it’s the numerals we use every day, the technology to build tall buildings, or the farming methods that make things like oranges and bananas a regular part of our lives. This book is historical and scientific in scope. Other than its title --- which conflates Islam with the countries and cultures that practice it --- it leaves religious issues aside, and is packed with lots of surprising bits of information.