Thoughts On No god but God by Reza Aslan

Another reaction paper from school. Part 1. Enjoy.

Aslan’s No god impresses upon one the immediacy of Makkah being a significant place of trade. Even in modern times, the word mecca is synonymous with an important place of gathering. Quraysh had carved themselves an important niche as the Keepers of the Keys to the Ka’bah. And yet Aslan also recognizes the questions of whether or not Makkah’s notoriety is legitimate. Most of the objections raised to this base their finds on the lack of non-Arab research. I have found it an interesting fact that many of the academics that Aslan sites, who have objections to certain facts about Islam, seem to be solely concerned with empirical, historical evidence. My question for them would be if there can be no significant evidence corroborated by non-Arab sources does this provide grounds for dismissing their proofs as false? I have found Patricia Crone’s work to be especially disturbing and myopic.

One aspect that Aslan only hints at (and maybe even accidentally) and which none of the other researchers look at is the fact that the Arabs were a “nobody” people. There is no doubt that there were other trading posts that were more significant or more prosperous but the fact that the Arabs had impressed very little on the broader global community to me was significant. This vacuum as it were, allowed for the development of Islam, before it spread to the broader communities. Perhaps in their quest for empirical evidence, the researchers overlooked some proverbial four-leaf clovers.

Aslan’s take on the “desert justice” was quite enlightening. I think many other would see the simple judicial system as “barbaric”. Instead, I can now see how such a system, which its “harsh penal code”, was set up to deter further grievances versus either exacerbating the situation or again, just a simple act of barbarity by crude people. Ironically, it would seem that the impetus behind this method of justice is similar to the present day one, implemented by the United States (though as to whether it works would constitute another paper).

Another point that I found informative was the way in which Aslan tried to convey the fear and awe the Prophet must have experienced upon receiving Revelation for the first time. Many Muslims, over the years, have sterilized the Prophet’s early experiences (as well as his whole life in some ways). Through Aslan’s words he brings back the sense of how absolutely frightened the Prophet must have been. And it was in this situation that Khadijah provides the Prophet with life-saving support. As Aslan points out, the Prophet was so disturbed by the onset of his prophethood that he considered killing himself (another fact that many Muslims would rather gloss over).

Khadijah would go on to play a far more important role in the Prophet’s life; more than just his first wife or even that of the first Muslim (though one can draw significance as she was a woman). Khadijah gave the Prophet his livelihood. As a wealthy merchant, she was able to deliver the Prophet a means of earning a decent living – as Aslan puts it, a middle class livelihood. But most importantly it was the support she gave the Prophet when he was obligated to take his message public. When the Prophet returned home after being accosted, it was Khadijah that comforted him. Her loss to the Prophet is severely underappreciated by Muslims. While many point to A’isha as the Prophet’s favorite wife, it was with Khadijah that the Prophet came be the Messenger of God; it was through her he became a man, a husband and a father. The Prophet also shared great losses with Khadijah as well (the losing of his young children shortly after their births).

But more than anything, Aslan drives home the sense that the Prophet had absolutely no choice in what he was doing. When God chooses one to be His Messenger, there is no backing out. No negotation. The phenomenon of Revelation was a top-down one. And in order to fulfill that obligation the Prophet had to take his message to the very elite of elites in his environment: the Quraysh.

In previous conditions in which I’ve studied the Qur’an, most teachers pointed out that the early revelations covered simple topics that would inform the reader/audience on how God wanted Man to worship Him. But one point they did not emphasize or even recognize the non-combative nature of the early revelation. Instead of immediately attacking the polytheists, instead the Qur’an address how man came to be, the introduction of man’s relationship not only to God but who man fits into the scheme of Creation. Early Makkan Revelation also informs one on God’s benevolence, the introduction of Divine Justice, social responsibility and egalitarianism.

Another aspect of the context in which the Qur’an was reveal and in which the Prophet’s message was delivered was the authority structure of Makkah. While not by any modern definitions democratic, the Arabs strongly rejected any notion of a monarchy. The shaykh, the one who led the tribe, made decisions along side counceling and advice from other people of importance. The shaykh was not a monarch, king or single-man ruler. And yet the system that the Prophet was to introduce was one in which he did not share (religious) power. The Prophet alone had complete control of interpretation of Revelation. No one else saw it, heard it or was involved in its process. The impact that this had to have had not only on the Makkans, who would have been alien to a single authority figure, but also on the Prophet himself has not been thoroughly explored, I believe. For example, imagine not only how perplexed the Quraysh must have felt when they heard versus that began with a single letter, such as al-Qalam, which began with a single letter in Arabic, “Qaf”. Not only did the Quraysh not now what “Qaf” was, neither did the Companions or even the Prophet himself! This move from authoritative council to a single individual greatly upset the Quraysh.

Along with the change in power came the change in ethics and social morality. The Quraysh were required as the Keepers of the Keys to provide water for the pilgrims but they also receive generous amounts of money in return for being the Custodians of the Ka’bah. Muhammad’s message said, in essence, that there had to be limits on the stratus of the wealthy compared to the have-nots. It was one thing to give because one had the power to and another because one man (who did not share Revelation, as it were) told you to do so as an act of obedience to God.

More to follow.

3 Replies to “Thoughts On No god but God by Reza Aslan”

  1. salaams brotha,

    i’m in the middle of reading it actually….yes he does paint Mekkah in a way that I haven’t imagined or read about. I do have few concerns about it though….or rather questions that I want one of the scholars (such as to address for me.

    Reza mentions that the Prophet, alayhi salaam, was not living in a vacuum in pre-Islamic society. He was ‘not’ perfect… a way (as I understood him to say). I’m not sure how I feel about that point. I once heard in a lecture that the Prophet didn’t engage in a morally questionable activities b4 prophethood…ie. once he was suppose to go to a night place equivalent to a club in modern terms……however he was overcome by sleep, ending up not going. He was being prepared for prophethood.

    Also, I was suprised that he mentioned that the Prophet, SAW, was overwhelmed with his appointment that he contemplated suicide……I actually did hear Dr. Jackson say it (didn’t have a chance to talk him about it yet).

    I’m curious to know what you think.


  2. Nomad.

    Salaams. The way that I understood it is that when Aslan was discussing the Prophet’s imperfections, he was doing so in two ways. One, that he did err as a human being (suwrah Abasa is an example). The second potentiality is from suwrah ad-Duha, when Allah says, “…and did We not find your in error and guide you…” [Q 93:7]. In all of that I never read where Aslan states that the Prophet didn’t have interpretive infallibility (which is key, in my opinion). In other words, the Prophet may have made some mistakes or may have even partook in activities he would not have done after receiving his call to prophethood, but upon receiving Revelation the Prophet never made mistakes in terms of understanding what it was that God wanted him to do, say, not do, etc. This also applies to the Prophet’s overall understanding of the Qur’an/Revelation itself.

    I believe the reason behind this suggestion that Aslan makes is in an attempt to debunk certain folkloricos, if you will, that Muslims have built up over the many years since the Prophet’s death, that many Muslims hold true. It is difficult for many Muslims to see the Prophet as “fully human” (ironically, a crime we accuse Christians of – that they fail to see Jesus as fully human). The Prophet’s asma’ in no way should be conflated with the notion that the Prophet never made a mistake. And as an addendum to this statement, it should be noted that what mistakes the Prophet did make, God did not allow him to perpetuate those mistakes either (i.e., they were rectified before his death).

    As for the Prophet’s thoughts on suicide, there are many references to this by many biographers of the Prophet, who delve into various sources to back up their claims. As a whole, I see Aslan’s book written to try and give the modern Muslim (and non-Muslim reader) a new and inventive way of approaching a very old and touchy subject.

  3. Assalamu Alaikum,
    Jazakallah 4 your thoughts… helps. Definately insha Allah I will talk to a scholar about this issue to further my knowledge. Yes, I did notice muslims disregard the human nature of the Prophet SAW.

    I agree that Aslan’s approach to the seerah is pretty refreshing.

    I’ll post most thoughts as I go on with my reading insha Allah!

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