Zealot by Reza Aslan

This review is a repost from my Bible Blog: CarpeScriptura.com

Read: 3 November, 2013

I posted my review of No god but God a few days ago [the review posted to my Bible Blog is different (in small-ish ways) from the one I posted here] because I feel it’s important to contextualize my discussion of ZealotNo god by God seems to be fairly unanimously considered awesome, with many reviewers saying that they use it as a reference. In fact, I read it after John Green said in a video that it was his recommended primer on Islam.

Yet I found many instances where Aslan was fudging. Either he slipped some piece of information in casually that really needed a more detailed treatment, or he’d use linguistic tricks to shift perception. I don’t want to repeat my whole review (you can go read it for yourself), but my point is that many of the complaints I’ve seen of Zealot are not at all unique to that book.

The Infamous Interview

A few months ago, Aslan did an interview with Lauren Green on Fox News. The interview is awful. Not to be too “Leftist,” but it pretty much encapsulates every complaint made of Fox News. It’s almost so extreme as to be a thing of beauty. Really, watch it, if you haven’t already:

Green’s awkwardness is very distracting, but a little fact checking reveals that Aslan doesn’t come out of this interview so well either.

As Matthew J. Franck points out, Aslan misrepresented his qualifications:

Aslan does have four degrees, as Joe Carter has noted: a 1995 B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his senior thesis on “The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark”; a 1999 Master of Theological Studies from Harvard; a 2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and a 2009 Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan’s repeated claims that he has “a Ph.D. in the history of religions” and that he is “a historian” are false.  Nor is “professor of religions” what he does “for a living.”

More importantly, Larry Hurtado points out that Aslan is a:

PhD in Sociology of Religion, and with his own marketing firm, and with a university connection in creative writing, but no training or demonstrated expertise in ancient Judaism, early Christianity, Roman history, or any of the subjects relevant to the book in question.

Green’s question of his qualifications to write this book was absolutely warranted, she just focused on a completely trivial and irrelevant reason. (Not that, of course, Aslan wouldn’t have the right to write this book or even be taken seriously, but the fact that he misrepresented his qualifications to lend himself additional authority is very concerning.)

This issue is in the book, as well. Within just a couple pages, we get:

…two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity… (p. xix-xx)

…two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history… (p. xx)

And then Aslan’s Acknowledgements page begins:

This book is the result of two decades of research into the New Testament and the origins of the Christian movement…

Pro tip: If your Acknowledgements begin by mentioning all of your own hard work, you’re doing it wrong.

I can’t remember ever seeing a purportedly scholarly book dwelling so much on all of the author’s hard work in putting together the research. It’s a distraction, completely irrelevant to the quality of the research, so why even mention it?

As an amateur Bible-enthusiast, I don’t have a lot of tools at my disposal to distinguish between good sources and bad sources. This kind of pontificating on one’s qualifications is a huge red flag.

The Book

Aslan is a fantastic writer. His use of language is extremely effective and he can, as they say, bring his subjects “to life.”

But his writing ability isn’t necessarily a good thing for his readers. As I pointed out in my review of No god but God, he uses subtle linguistic tricks to predispose his readers for/against certain ideas, and he does it so well that I find myself needing to read his books on constant high alert – reading slowly and making sure to note every single word.

It’s exhausting.

While I lack the expertise to judge most of Aslan’s assertions, my suspicions were raised early on when he states that “crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition” (p.xxviii). Given that a large part of his argument rests on this fact, I felt that it warrants far more than just a throw-away line. And, as it turns out, the use was not nearly so clear-cut.

I found the construction of Aslan’s notes to be worrisome. Facts are stated outright throughout the book, often without attribution. The notes, rather than being proper end notes, just summarize the research Aslan did for each chapter, provide a little more discussion, and recommend further reading. That is not enough. I need to fact check his statements, and the format of the book does not, in most cases, facilitate that.

Even in cases where he uses a contemporary document to bolster his claims, he frequently fails to name the document (which might be Google-able). Instead, the notes simply refer me to journal articles hidden behind paywalls – something that most of his audience will obviously not have access to.

I was also concerned by how easily he shifts back and forth between dismissing the gospel accounts and reading into them to find a nuance that supports his claims, or using them to feed the biographical narrative. Often, there is no attempt to explain why some passages are apparently reliable and others aren’t. Even when there is an attempt at an explanation, it’s only say that obviously the gospel authors changed that bit because they were writing from a post-destruction vantage – circular reasoning at its finest.

But, like I said, I really do lack the expertise to give the content of the book any kind of real rebuttal. Instead, here are some reviews that I think make compelling counter-arguments and, at the very least, offer up food for thought:

Conclusion

Overall, it’s a fun read and I found the depictions of first century Palestine very informative. But without the pre-existing bank of knowledge to sort the wheat from the chaff, I’m very hesitant to absorb any of the information Aslan presents.

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No god but God by Reza Aslan

This is quite a long review. If you want just the final verdict, it is this: An interesting book with some good qualities overshadowed by a persistent lack of authorial honesty.

Read: 31 July, 2009

I don’t want this review to be about whether or not I agree with Aslan. For one thing, I simply do not know enough about the subject to do this well. Secondly, whether a book is good or not does not depend on whether the reader agrees with its conclusions; my own feelings on the matter are therefore irrelevant. Having resolved myself in this way, I will be restricting this review to an internal critique only.

Overall, Aslan didn’t fare too poorly. His tone is largely reasonable throughout and, if read without close attention to detail, I could see this being a fairly persuasive book.

However, the details are important and, as we shall see, they are where Aslan keeps his devils. I was dismayed to see the number of rhetorical fallacies used throughout the book. Giving the benefit of doubt, I choose to assume that many simply result in Aslan’s inability to reconcile his beliefs with some of the evidence he has found. He has likely tricked himself into blindness with regards to the evidence’s significance (something that those of us without a vested interest in the topic are not so much in danger of).

This manifests itself most when he attempts to justify the actions of Muhammad. Perhaps the most grievous illustration comes in Aslan’s discussion of Muhammad raiding caravans: “In pre-Islamic Arabia, caravan raiding was a legitimate means for small clans to benefit from the wealth of larger ones. It was in no way considered stealing…” This is followed, one paragraph later, with: Muhammad’s followers “effectively disrupted the trade flowing in and out of Mecca. It wasn’t long before caravans entering the sacred city began complaining to the Quraysh that they no longer felt safe travelling through the region” (p. 82-3).

A few pages later, we read that Islam teaches peace and that only defensive fighting is permissible. Aslan then goes on to say that: “It is true that some verses in the Quran instruct Muhammad and his followers to ‘slay the polytheists wherever you confront them’ (9:5); to ‘carry the struggle to the hypocrites who deny the faith’ (9:73); and, especially, to ‘fight those who do not believe in God and the Last Day’ (9:29). However, it must be understood that these verses were directed specifically at the Quraysh and their clandestine partisans in Yathrib” (p. 84). These “clandestine partisans” being the people that Muhammad suspected “at once” of treachery, though there were “many possibilities” (p. 89). In other words, Islam is a religion of peace, unless you suspect someone on circumstantial evidence of being in cohoots with guys its okay to attack because Muhammad just really doesn’t like them. That Aslan, a seemingly intelligent and thoughtful individual, should fail to see the obvious issues in his arguments is astounding.

Aslan expends much ink talking about how Islam never forces conversion or treats non-Muslims unfairly, and yet an equal amount of ink appears to contradict this. Whether he talks about all the groups who rebel and refuse to pay the religious tax as soon as Muhammad dies (p. 110), or the public conversion of Muhammad’s old enemy, Hind, who “remained proudly defiant, barely masking her disgust with Muhammad and his ‘provincial’ faith” (p. 106). He even mentions the “protection tax,” or jizyah, forced onto all non-Muslims living in Muslim-controlled areas as though this were a perfectly acceptable way to treat human beings (p. 94).

So far, I have listed only examples that could legitimately stem from the author’s lack of thoughtful consideration. I expect better, but at least it is a forgiveable offence. If this were the end of it, No god but God might still have received a positive review from me. Unfortunately, some of Aslan’s word choices seem to indicate a more deliberate intent.

Sometimes, it is a problem of omission: “[F]rom the earliest days of the Islamic expansion to the bloody wars and inquisition of the Crusades to the tragic consequences of colonialism…” (p. xvi). Things the Christian West has done are “bloody” and “tragic” while things the Muslim East has done receive no adjectives at all? As is common in discussions of the tension between the East and West, there is no mention of the Battle of Tours. I have yet to figure out if this is simply obscure history that no scholar of Christian/Muslim issues has ever heard about, or if there is something more sinister in it’s lack of mention.

Sometimes Aslan chooses positive words to describe acts that clearly couldn’t have been all that positive. For example, he writes that Jews were expelled “peacefully” from a Muslim community, and then that: “only slightly more than one percent of Medina’s Jewish population” were killed during this expulsion. Perhaps our definitions of “peaceful” differ.

And there there are his translations. Having no Arabic of my own, it is difficult for me to comment in any depth, but when I read a translation of a seventh century text that uses words like “atom” (p. 213), my anachronism flag is raised. If Aslan can so deliberately falsify his source text to add to its legitimacy, what other dishonesty might he have committed? His entire interpretation of the situation in Islam, both past and present, is called in question.

One of the grossest and most reprehensible examples appears in his (brief) discussion of the veil. As the only voice for the idea that the veil is a sexist tradition, Aslan refers to Alfred, Lord Cromer. Rather than dismissing his arguments (which is given so little page room that I can only assume they are inadequately presented), he writes: “Never mind that Cromer was the founder of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage in England” (p. 73). As though this one man and his personal character embodied the whole of the argument against the veil. As though discrediting a century old British lord was a legitimate way to respond to an argument that has so many promoters – many of whom are female, many Muslim, and many both. This is such a dishonest tactic that it even has its own name – the ad hominem fallacy.

I could go on. I filled many pages of notes during my reading, but this was never intended to be a page-by-page commentary.

This is an interesting book of apologetics from a more ‘moderate’ Muslim and it brings up qutie a few interesting ideas and arguments. The problem, however, is Aslan’s inability to rationally consider and counter any opinions that he does not share. Reading this, I got the distinct impression that anyone who disagrees with him is quickly labelled as a Sunni tyrant/terrorist or a Western neo-colonialist. Aslan shows himself in numerous examples to be dishonest and, to make the identification of his lies and half-truths all the more difficult for the reader, he hides them behind a perfectly reasonable writing style.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Islam, or to Muslims wanting to learn about different perspectives. However, reader beware: read with several grains of salt handy.

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