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Column: A test of secularism for the West

August 25, 2013

On a hot evening just a few weeks ago, a video went viral. Reza Aslan, the well-known writer on Muslim culture and politics, had been interviewed by Fox TV about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Many writers have written biographies of Jesus; I remember, in the ’70’s, a proliferation of the kind of book that revisited his life and times and came up with new interpretations that often seemed more fanciful than the legends they purported to deconstruct. What, then, had Aslan done in his book that was so very different in intent? Ah, his interviewer seemed to say, he was a Muslim, and had an agenda. The ever-articulate Aslan wasn’t remotely disconcerted. In mock-pompous tones, he voiced his credentials as a scholar and an expert, and a celebrity at that. He knew Biblical Greek, and had once even briefly been an evangelical Christian. But his agenda, he said, was a historian’s. His faith had nothing to do with his book. Young Muslims all over the English-speaking world, many of whom were resolutely secular and wouldn’t normally be interested in an investigation of Christianity’s origins, were most aroused by the exchange. Here was a renowned scholar being questioned about his credentials, just because he’d stepped out of his box, and that, too, in America the mighty, reportedly a bastion of Islamophobia. Many years after the publication of Edward Said’s seminal works on Orientalism, here was a strange replay of the crudest forms of cultural stereotyping. (That the interviewer happened to be an African-American woman didn’t often feature in the protests about his treatment at her hands.) But above all, I noticed a kind of euphoria in his supporters about the way Aslan then, and later, punctured his interrogator’s obviously biased posture with confidence and aplomb. In a way — and Aslan laughingly admitted this — the garbled interview immediately boosted the book’s sales. His British publishers, who are also mine, brought forward the date of the book’s launch here in England. Then came a more serious and quasi-academic enquiry into his credentials by a handful of reviewers in America, who purported to ‘know’ the material he was working with, pointing out absences and fallacies. He wasn’t a theologian, some said, nor a historian. He had degrees in Sociology, and (heaven help us!) Creative Writing. How did those equip him to write a book about Jesus? Anyone who has researched a book should know that years of living within the academic machine can give a scholar the tools to do the work a book of this sort requires. Recent tomes about the Prophet of Islam (PBUH), for example, have been written by authors who didn’t know a word of Arabic. And those works range from graceful retellings of the traditional Muslim narrative to accusations of radical plagiarism from Judaism and Christianity. At the outer edge are hysterical denunciations by semi-literate American evangelists of the origins of Islam and the Quran, the latter subgenre telling us that we were worshippers of the moon or, even more ridiculously, of the star Sirius. (How those vastly contrasting interpretations of Islam can coexist in the Western imagination is something that remains a mystery to me; but I’m no scholar of religion.) I couldn’t help wondering what those Bible-thumpers would make of Aslan’s book. But Zealot, for all its questioning of the universal legends that have attached themselves to the life of Christianity’s founder, is in no sense the work of a sensationalist or a troublemaker; it earnestly attempts to place Jesus in the historical context of a land colonised by the Romans and ruled in their name by despots, as a brave, inspired man of the people who struggled to inspire his followers with the weapons of a purified and invigorated faith, to regain their religious and national identity. If they ever do get round to reading beyond the first few pages that portray Jesus the man, rather than Christ the image and the statue of popular imagination, Aslan’s account of the recasting of the nascent religion by its founding fathers (to suit the predilections of new and cosmopolitan converts beyond the frontiers of Palestine) would probably go right above their heads. In his book, Aslan has evidently employed the very techniques of ‘higher criticism’ he must have acquired at his American universities; these were at first applied to Bible studies and then, increasingly, used to validate the rather marginal careers of Western scholars of Arabic and of self-appointed experts in the field of Islamic studies. (Half a century ago, the controversial autodidact Maryam Jameelah complied several book-length lists of these detractors of Islam and paraphrases of their work.) What’s more, several generations of readers and writers in the Muslim world were acquainted with the more scholarly texts among these biographies and histories; they often overlooked the prejudices of their authors to gain what they considered a nuanced view of the historical origins of their faith. In Pakistan, in the middle of the last century, scholars Fazlur Rahman and Ghulam Ahmed Parvez, both well-acquainted with Arab as well as Western theories, wrote scholarly works that courageously attempted to interpret Islam in the light of modern times. In our own day, feminist scholar Riffat Hassan contributed a feminist rereading of the sacred texts. To be Muslim, liberal or otherwise, and to write about Islam can frequently be tantamount to being branded an apologist, even in retrospect. From the ’70s onwards, there came loud claims from academics in Britain, France and Germany that there was no real historical basis for the early chronicles of the beginnings and the rise of Islam. I don’t want to go into the stories told by Patricia Crone and her ilk in the late ’70s when I was a student at SOAS; scholars like the German Tilman Nagel, who certainly can’t be termed an apologist for Islam, have largely discredited these by their work on the text of the Quran which proves that its earliest written versions began to circulate in the Prophet’s lifetime, and the canonical text that was established in the era of the caliph Usman is an accurate compilation of those manuscripts. With fears and controversies about terrorism flourishing, this outdated revisionism persists and thrives. About two years ago, an English novelist friend of mine rang me to ask if I’d be willing to read the manuscript of a book by an acquaintance of hers about the hidden origins of Islam. Its author was worried that he might offend the sensibilities of the orthodox. I ran through the check list of points he might be making. Yes, my friend said, those were certainly the raw material of his argument, but he was also arguing that the Quran might have originated in Northern Arabia. “But we’ve read all that before,” I said. The manuscript never reached me. Last year, though, I received a printed copy of Tom Holland’s massive volume, In the Shadow of the Sword. In its new paperback edition it is billed as an exploration of the swirling currents of religious belief in the Near East in the 7th century, and the impact these had on concepts of the sacred and the divine. But at the time of its release, the book, accompanied by a TV documentary, was rumoured to be a radical new version of the Prophet’s life and times, and was confidently expected to create a sensation. I read it and vaguely wondered whether this might have been the book my friend had spoken of; I would have defined it in large part in similar terms to the blurb writers, but somewhere in its web was tangled a speculative story of the birth of Islam which, far from being new, was in fact a diluted version of Crone’s hypothesis, casting doubts on the traditional history of pre-Islamic Mecca and tentatively relocating Islam’s genesis in the lands that are now divided between Palestine and Israel. “He thinks it all happened in Petra,” another friend of mine who also writes about Islam remarked, in tones of the deepest boredom. “But we’ve been there before,” I replied, experiencing a sense of a sense of déjà vu and reminding myself that this was not an academic work; it was a popular history that spliced together secondary sources in the way that such works do. The author claimed no knowledge of Arabic, and his research in Islamic history was based on the texts available in the libraries of the West, not on any newly-discovered manuscripts or monuments. Creating minor new theories which are really syntheses of old ideas and bringing them to the common reader is the purpose of such books. And what better time than today, when Muslim insurgents are constantly in the news, to revisit the mysterious domain of early Islam and revive half-forgotten controversies? Critics on both sides were polite, reasoned and moderate, and even some supporters of Holland limited their antagonisms to those (mostly Western) scholars who took mild exception to Holland’s methods and credentials, accusing the commentators, in posts in the social media, of being mean-spirited left-wing apologists for Islam. The expected literary sensation never took place; there were no burnings or bannings, though I hear there was hate mail, and threats from the section of the population that protests without reading. Now some of the critics who would never have questioned the Orientalist techniques Jameelah decried have found fault with Aslan’s syncretic method. Unlike Holland, Aslan isn’t concerned with locating the protagonist of his narrative very far from where tradition claims he was. (Jesus was born, Aslan says, in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. “So what?” says a secular Catholic friend of mine. “Jesus remains my hero, wherever he was.” That’s one of the points Aslan makes. His research proves that the man Jesus was heroic and a trailblazer. The creation of the icon, he holds, is a matter not of history but of faith, and he firmly leaves faith in the hearts of those who believe.) Like Holland, Aslan also attempts to examine the development of religion in the spotlight of history, and he too looks at what he regards as the recasting of faith by those followers of a prophet who discover him after his death: here, Paul is credited with repackaging Christianity as a religion for non-Semites, and Christ as an icon for its new adherents, whereas Jesus, Aslan holds, was primarily concerned with bringing reform from within to his own community, just as Western scholars often hold internal reform to be the earliest concern of Islam. I’ve been told that in Jaipur this year, or last, Aslan and Holland shared a platform, but I haven’t been told what they talked about. I’d love to hear what each one has to say about the other’s book. But of the two, Aslan — although he might be walking down a well-trodden path — is possibly making the more radical intervention by taking the common reader to a place he thinks he knows too well, where the ‘greatest story ever told’ is told and retold at least twice a year with only the most minor of variations. In that hallowed place he tells a story of significance not only to those who might be struggling with their faith, but also perhaps to youth who may have no beliefs at all but might be taken with the self-sacrifice of a man of the people and a struggle against the might of Rome. How thin is the skin of scepticism that encloses our modernities? At least a few of Aslan’s readers will examine the depth of their own secularism when the sacred foundation of their culture is questioned. He may well be mildly amused to see the reversal of the spotlight — a self-professed modern Muslim examining Christian dogma, with that particular set of theoretical tools the West has sharpened to dissect the faith of others, produces uncomfortable reactions among many of his readers, which are very different from those we observe when Islam is in the spotlight’s glare.

Aamer Hussein is a fiction writer, critic and professor of literature