by Andrew E. Harrod
Mehlaqa Samdani, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Islamist, anti-Israel nonprofit Critical Connections, introduced controversial University of California, Riverside professor Resa Aslan in a June 13 webinar as “one of the leading scholars of religion of our time.” Yet his comments on the topic of “Losing Faith? Religion and Youth in the Contemporary World,” while intriguing, show Aslan to exemplify the issue – young Muslims’ alarming loss of faith – that he was asked to assess.
Aslan, who has misrepresented himself as an expert on Islam when he has a doctorate in sociology and teaches creative writing, contrasted with his earlier apologias for Islamism and attacks on “Islamophobia,” making him look not so much reformed as shallow. He has whitewashed jihadist doctrine and made apologetics for jihadist movements and regimes, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Islamic Republic. Towards critics, the smooth-talking Aslan cries “Islamophobia” and lashes out in profanity, which got him fired from CNN, but not before exhibiting a sensationalist streak by eating human brains on television.
The webinar arose because “recent surveys in Muslim majority countries have found that increasingly young people are transitioning away from religion,” Samdani said. To answer why, she turned to Aslan, who noted by way of a telling background that he was born in Iran into a family of “lukewarm Muslims” where religion was “just a matter of your identity.” His father was a “devout Communist” and a “proud atheist” with many “Prophet Muhammad jokes that he would pull out at inappropriate times.”
After Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Aslan’s father decided to take his less-than-devout-family to America. Ultimately, “my whole family really walked away from Islam,” although his mother sometimes still prayed, Aslan recalled. “But I was always deeply fascinated by religion,” and even converted to evangelical Christianity for a few years in high school and college.
Webinar moderator Mariam Shakeel surprisingly mirrored Aslan’s inquisitive outlook, even though she represented the webinar’s cohost, Pakistan’s National Model Organization of Islamic Cooperation (NMOIC). This is a student affiliate of the OIC, an international organization of fifty-seven Muslim-majority nations (including “Palestine”) long known for its efforts to censor criticism of Islam around the world. Yet she noted that younger generations in Muslim countries “tend to be more logic-driven and less likely to be motivated by blind faith.”
Aslan affirmed this observation. “Your generation has access to knowledge and ideas that were absolutely inaccessible to your parents’ generation” and has also experienced “dramatic increases in education and literacy,” he said. “Certainty is the enemy of faith,” he added, and noted his opposition to blasphemy laws, for “you are not the gatekeeper for what is blasphemy and what is not. It is blasphemy to even put yourself in that position.”
For Aslan, his native Iran proved that theocratic indoctrination only destroys faith. “Iran today is aggressively Islamized” under the Shiite Islamic Republic. In response, “it’s hard to find any kind of religion on the streets in Iran. Kids don’t want to have anything to do with it; they are absolutely disgusted by it.”
By contrast, “young people are moving towards Sufism and spirituality as opposed to the religion that is tradition-based,” stated Ashir Wilson, another moderator from the Pakistan-affiliated NMOIC. Aslan confirmed that “I am proudly a Sufi” who “recognizes that there are multiple ways of climbing this mountain of faith to get to the Divine.” Across religions, “I don’t care which path you pick, because I know you are going to get to the top, just like I am going to get to the top,” he stated.
Aslan’s family reflected this broad ecumenism. His wife is a “faithful Christian” in a “multifaith family,” he stated. To relate to God, their children know that “Papa uses the language of Islam, Momma uses the language of Christianity.” As Aslan further detailed his vision of contemporary Islam, ecumenism yielded to syncretism.
Islam’s prophet Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia appeared to Aslan as similarly multicultural, contrary to received Islamic orthodoxy. “We have this whole idea that before the Prophet Muhammad, the Arabian Peninsula was a land of darkness and ignorance … just jahiliyya,” he stated. “The Prophet showed up, out of the blue, and just kind of invented Islam. Well, that’s absurd.” Yet this “absurd” idea is rooted in the Quran. As articulated by later clerics, which describe pre-Islamic Arabia as jahiliyya, an age of ignorance.
Again rejecting Islamic tradition, Aslan claimed that the “Arabian Peninsula was an extraordinarily sophisticated culture, a multireligious culture” with Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Zoroastrians, and an “almost infinite variety” of paganisms. Additionally, a “very well-developed, very sophisticated monotheistic, a pre-Islamic monotheistic movement in the Arabian Peninsula called Hanifism” also “profoundly influenced” Muhammad. “Prophets don’t invent religions, prophets are reformers of their world,” Aslan stated, and argued that Muhammad did not effect a completely new Islamic revelation, but merely developed preexisting religious trends.
Aslan’s seeker-friendly Islam reflected the “guiding philosophy of my life” that he derived from the thirteenth century Muslim philosopher Ibn al-Arabi. To him Aslan attributed the belief that “he who knows himself, knows his lord,” thus “God’s not out there, God’s in here,” inside a person, Aslan said. He did not mention historically dominant Islamic doctrine that human beings can only submit (hence the word Islam) to God as a will inscrutable to humans.
Aslan’s philosophizing conflicted with his own analysis of Islam as an “orthopraxic religion.” In Islam, the religious “law, the preservation of the law, the interpretation of the law, the consensus around the law” is the “primary intellectual movement,” he stated. Therefore “in Islam there has always been this kind of looking down on” philosophers as the “ahl al-kalam, the people of the talking.”
Questionable as well was Aslan’s interpretation of Islam as a social justice warrior faith. “One of my favorite Bible verses of all time” is “faith without works is dead,” he stated with the famed words of the Epistle of James. As opposed to this Christian verse, Aslan did not mention what he thought of the ravages of Islamic warriors following devastating doctrines of jihad down through the centuries.
Aslan, who has raised Muslim ire as an advisory board member of the pro-LGBT Muslims for Progressive Values, clearly rejects more traditional interpretations of Islam. Religion “is constantly evolving” and “meeting the needs of the ever-emergent community,” he stated, and modern Muslims “are living right now in the time of the Islamic reformation.” The result will be a “highly more individualized version of Islam, an Islam that is no longer necessarily enthralled or in enslavement to institutions that are living fourteen centuries in the past.”
Aslan’s presentation reflected the discontent gripping many Muslim societies as they search for spiritually satisfying answers to contemporary life. He thereby echoed the arguments in his 2006 paperback edition of No God but God that Islam is undergoing a long, bloody, difficult reformation. Yet his modernist musings provide little guidance to his webinar’s audience – young Muslims – who, like their Christian peers, increasingly categorize themselves as “nones," those unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition. Although certainly preferable to fundamentalist violence, young Muslims taking Aslan’s advice may be as apt to slide into agnosticism as to embrace his sentimental relativism.