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A test of secularism for the West

In 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 enphoria 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 theorigins 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 Biblethumpers 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 histor-ical 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 theirfaith. 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 Pd 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.
By Aamir Hussain:

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan – review: 

Was Jesus reinvented by St Paul? Stuart Kelly likens the argument to a West End musical

Had Reza Aslan not been interviewed in a gauche and silly fashion on Fox News, I doubt this book would be being reviewed at all. Zealot, to be as kind as possible, trudges down some very well-worn paths; its contribution to studies of Christianity is marginal bordering on negligible; and its breathless style suggests hasty thought. To take just one example: the Romans are said to display "characteristic savagery" on page 13 and are "generally tolerant" on page 14. Aslan contends that an illiterate "day laborer" called Jesus was part of an insurrectionary tradition in Israel, and the story of this Che Guevara of the early Middle East was co-opted by the dastardly Saul of Tarsus, aka Saint Paul, who defanged the zealot and turned him into an apolitical metaphysician. Frankly, parts of it are closer to Jesus Christ Superstar than any serious undertaking.

If one were minded to follow this line, there are plenty of books that do a more scholarly job, and are written more eloquently. From Nazareth to Nicaea by Geza Vermes should be at the top of the list; AN Wilson's biographies of Jesus and Paul for the more narratively minded; Albert Schweitzer's Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung of 1906 to put this tradition in context; and Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino's The Theology of Liberation to show how the ideas might be activated without leaving behind the "cosmological Christ". In fiction, Naomi Alderman's The Liars' Gospel deals with many of the same ideas with both scepticism and sensitivity, while Richard Beard's Lazarus is Dead is far more imaginative in its analysis of the Jesus stories.
Aslan's argument is undermined by various facts, which even he admits. The earliest references to Jesus are from Paul, wherein he is not just one of many Messianic aspirants, but more even than that. That the gospels were written later creates his second problem. If, as Aslan contends, the gospels are both infected with Pauline theology and a source for the aboriginal Jesus cult, then how can he tell when they are wrong and when they are right?
That he frequently invokes the Q hypothesis – the idea that behind the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke lurks an incontrovertible true document – shows just how out of touch with theology he is. If Aslan's version were true, surely the wicked Paul would not have left behind references to show how he subverted a genuine radical movement. Aslan requires Paul to be cleverer and stupider at the same time.
But these are niggles compared with the major flaw in this work. Aslan simultaneously disparages and relies on the gospels. If a verse fits, he snatches it: if it contradicts his thesis he takes it as proof of the unreliability of the source. When he requires Celsus, the vehement antagonist of Christianity, to be true, he takes his work as such (without ever mentioning we only have Celsus in fragments preserved in Origen's rebuttal); when he wishes it otherwise, Celsus is "so clearly polemical he cannot be taken seriously". He does not actually read the texts. Rather, he sifts them, making the story less important than the detail.
The gospels are not history. The idea that they are a wholly new form of literature might, in itself, be reason enough for us to read them more subtly. Aslan refers to Mark's gospel as being written in a "coarse, elementary Greek" – which nevertheless is supposed to appeal to cultural, Hellenised Jews rather than illiterate Galileans. One might, on a similar basis, say that Irvine Welsh not writing like David Hume is proof that he was not Scottish. Mark may not write like Xenophon, but the idea that he had a different audience in mind does not mean he is lacking in literary skill. Rather, his skills are more oblique and nuanced. Mark lacks the infancy narratives of Luke and the resurrection stories of Matthew because they were already known – things are written down as they pass from memory. But Mark, like the other Synoptic gospels and the gospel of John, has what I would call the divine comedy that other writings of the period lack.
Where else do we have such empathetic misunderstanding? Jesus is not impatient, but he is wry as time and again the disciples fail to get the message. Socrates was tetchy by comparison. Even Mark's Gospel includes sly interventions: when Pilate asks the crowd if they want Barrabas or Jesus, the earliest readers would have found the pun.
"Barabbas" was a name taken by zealous anti-Roman terrorists, and means "Son of the Father" – so the Son of the Father and "my ain Dad's bairn" are exchanged, literally. It also means that Jesus is crucified instead of the kind of terrorist Aslan claims he was, and crucified under the very name the Pharisees had sought to use as justification for his death – there is a profound, sardonic humour in Pilate's "What I have written, I have written".
When it comes to the resurrection, there is a peculiar hiatus. One would think that any historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus would have to deal, at least briefly, with the apostles' conviction that Jesus had returned from the dead.
Aslan gives numerous examples of Jewish, anti-Roman, and violent individuals who are historically attested to in the period before and after the life of Jesus. His description of the wood manages to ignore the tree. Jesus is not just less violent than his peers; he is the least violent of them. Compared with the Maccabees or the Sicarii, Jesus is strikingly unwilling to shed blood, stopping, for example, Simon Peter from murdering the guards sent to arrest him. Even the cleansing of the Temple stops short of death. The problem with the comparative method Aslan uses is it overlooks important discrepancies in favour of broad-brush correlations.
There is an odd intemperance about the tone of this book, with vociferous assertion often replacing argument. It seems, in its overstatements and oversights, to yearn for the very kind of furore in which it is now embroiled.

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