You first converted to Christianity and then to Islam. Can you take us through your personal journey of faith?
Religions are all about symbols and metaphors. For me, the symbols and metaphors of Islam bring more truth and comfort than those of any other religion. I am perfectly comfortable with the symbolism of other religions too, but I think Islam provides a language to describe those symbols, to talk about God and his relationships between the Creator and creation.
My father is a devout atheist, and I grew up without any religious instruction although I was always very deeply interested in religion and spirituality. My family moved to the United States from Iran in 1979, after Ayatollah Khomeini decided to return to the country. It wasn’t particularly a very good time for Muslims to be in America either, so I spent most of my early 30s pretending to be Mexican.
It was at an evangelical youth camp where I first listened to the incredible story of Jesus Christ’s life and teachings in the Gospel — It moved me so much that I immediately gave my life to Jesus. I spent the next couple of years preaching the Gospel to everyone — whether they wanted to hear it or not.
But after going to university and studying the New Testament from an academic perspective, I realised that a lot that I had assumed about Jesus was incorrect. I observed there was a yawning chasm between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. I became more drawn to the Jesus of history; he seemed so much more real, approachable and accessible to me.
Although I later left Christianity, I continued to delve deeply with the historical Jesus — this set impetus to my latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. With this book I wanted to give to the readers a sense of who this man was and why he is so important.
As a professor of religions, do you feel that religions are misunderstood or misinterpreted in the modern world? Is it fair to state that religions are undergoing an identity crisis, which in turn, is turning religions towards more extremist and intolerant ideas?
I don’t think that’s true at all. Religion is more of a force today than it was more than 100 years ago. I think that religions are in a constant state of evolution. I also believe that religious diversity and religious pluralism are on the rise, but the problem is that people assume that religious radicalism is on the rise.
In part, this is because radicalism and fundamentalism are reactionary phenomena. They are a reaction to liberalism and pluralism. If you see certain spikes in religious radicalism, it’s not because religious radicalism is independent or free, or because radicalism is on the rise; it’s because its progressivism, liberalism and diversity is on the rise.
Whenever people — for one reason or another — feel left behind in a progressive society, they will rebel and react against it. I think that’s what’s happening right now.
If you look at the last century, which by far has been the bloodiest epoch in human existence, millions of people have been slaughtered in the name of secularism, in the name of atheism, Maoism, Fascism, even nationalism. It is a very narrow view of faith and belief if it is said that religion is a cause of violence.
Do you think there is disconnect between modernity and being traditionally religious? Do you think this dichotomy fuels intolerance and rigidity?
First of all there is nothing wrong with traditionalism and there is nothing wrong with rejecting modernity. That is not a problem we are facing as a society; the problem is with extremism not traditionalism. That’s what we need to constantly remind ourselves of.
The problem we are facing is of radicalism and violence. I think it’s a mistake to say radicalism and violence is a direct result of traditionalism or conservatism. As I have mentioned in my second book, the mistake we often make is in thinking that groups like Al-Qaeda are anti-modern; in fact, they are actually products of modernity. They don’t reject modernity, but in a quite sophisticated way, they present an alternative version of modernity.
But why does religion remain an overly convenient tool for extremism and violence?
Well, religion by no means has a monopoly on extremism. If you look at the last century, which by far has been the bloodiest epoch in human existence, millions of people have been slaughtered in the name of secularism, in the name of atheism, Maoism, Fascism, even nationalism. It is a very narrow view of faith and belief if it is said that religion is a cause of violence. If anything, it is nationalism that has a greater propensity to create violence, not religion.
But perhaps, it is to say that violence is in human nature. We will kill each other because of our identity. And we will use any form of identity in order to differentiate from each other or to enact violence against each other — sometimes in the name of religion, at other times in the name of socialism, race, tribe or something else.
There has a lot of criticism about your most recent book Zealot and you have said that the disapproval is due to the sheer misunderstanding of what the book is actually about. What do you think the detractors are missing out on?
First of all, I think Zealot’s critics just assume that the book is some kind of attack on Christianity, while not even having read the book. The truth is that the book has nothing to do with Christianity — except for the very brief epilogue — because Jesus was not a Christian, he was a Jew.
This is a book about first century Judaism, and it is an attempt to look at Jesus through the lens of history. Even the most devout Christians believe that Jesus was both man and God. This is a book about the consequences of believing that Jesus was also man.
And if this is true, then it means that he lived in a specific time and place. He had very specific people that he responded to and his teachings were addressed to very specific social limits. The argument that I am making is that if you want to know who Jesus is, then you should know the world in which he lived. Because whatever else Jesus was, he was the product of his day.
What is Zealot about, if you were to describe it?
Zealot is a historical biography of a historical person. I thought that people who would gravitate towards this book will be those who would get turned on by a book of this sort — a literary biography. The book tries, as much as possible, to peel back the layers of interpretation of legend, myth, dogma and doctrine that has been placed upon Jesus for the last two millennia. It tries, as much as possible, to get to the person underneath these layers.
How much time did you spend on researching for Zealot?
I have been researching this subject for about two decades now, but it took me not more than four years to finish writing the book. The research that you do that leads you to this kind of immersive experience is sure to change your mind. And it should. People often ask me, if you study more, would that change your mind about your book furthermore? I say of course, I mean what scholar wouldn’t say yes to that.
How would you compare your first bestseller, No God but God, with your most-recent, Zealot?
In a sense, what both books have something in common is the fact that I am deeply interested in the religious experience and particularly in the origins of religion. I am interested in spirituality but also the concept of religious history and religion as a lived experience.
I want to focus on the humanity of the prophets and then having motivations that can be understood and described. That’s how I treated Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), that’s how I treated Jesus Christ and that’s how I think.
How do you want to be remembered by your work in history?Yes I do think about longevity and prosperity. I would like to be remembered as someone who tried to build bridges of communication and understanding between people of different cultures and people of different religions and people of different thoughts. One of the things I do is write books. But I consider myself foremost a story teller. If anything, I would like to be remembered as a person who drew people together.
Given the nature of your work and the kind of reactions it inspires, have you received any threats?
When you write about religion, you know that you are writing about something people are very passionate about. So absolutely! I have been threatened by Jews, I have been threatened by Muslims, and I have been repeatedly threatened by Christians.
Some of those threats have even been against my family. And of course that bothers me but I am aware and do understand that this is also part of consequences of the kind of work that I do. It doesn’t keep me from doing that work by any means.