In this CNN piece, Reza Aslan purports to explain why he is a Muslim, and only ends up demonstrating that he is not a Muslim (although he is an Islamic apologist). Now, I can hear the chorus of outrage now through my office window: Muslim explains why he is a Muslim, bigoted “Islamophobe” says he isn’t — who is this non-Muslim to say who is a Muslim and who isn’t?
Of course. Reza Aslan is a Muslim because he says he is, and that’s that. At the same time, most Muslim authorities would say that some of the statements Aslan makes in this CNN piece place him outside of Islam, and one does not have to be an imam, or a Muslim at all, to see that. If Reza claimed to be a Christian but said he worshipped only Mithras or Vishnu, one would not need to be a scholar of Christianity, or a Christian oneself, to note that if he was a Christian at all, he wasn’t any kind of Christian that the world had hitherto seen. Or if he were a professing Hindu who said Jesus Christ was the Son of the one and only God — there again, even one outside the tradition can recognize that this bears no resemblance to Hinduism as it has ever been expressed.
And so when Reza Aslan says: “I am Muslim not because I think Islam is ‘truer’ than other religions (it isn’t), but because Islam provides me with the ‘language’ I feel most comfortable with in expressing my faith,” he is placing himself outside of Islam as it has been understood throughout history and today by most of its adherents. “And whoever desires other than Islam as religion, never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.” (Qur’an 3:85) Nor are most Islamic authorities likely, given Islam’s abhorrence for the cross (cf. Qur’an 4:157 and Muhammad’s prophecy about Jesus returning to earth to, among other things, “break the cross”), to look kindly upon the photo below of Aslan with what certainly could be something else but appears to be a cross marked on his forehead, as is given in the Roman Catholics’ Ash Wednesday observance.
Anyway, in saying that Islam isn’t truer than other religions, an idea that any Muslim could be expected to believe, Aslan is essentially saying that religion itself is all just a game, a charade. Truth is not an issue; just pick the one that makes you feel good, that you decide best expresses your nebulous “faith.” This is not only a silly trivialization of what has anchored human experience from the beginning of human history, but it is also a cavalier dismissal of the obvious fact that religions do indeed make truth claims. It also dismisses without examination one fact that is so very important in world affairs today: that Islam’s truth claims impinge upon the lives and well-being of all too many non-Muslims.
Aslan’s Leftist CNN readers will go away from Aslan’s piece thinking that he represents the enlightened, broadminded, tolerant tradition of Islam that they have heard so much about, when all he is really doing is fostering ignorance of and complacency about the fact that Islam’s truth claim is taken very, very seriously by many Muslims, and since that truth claim is inextricably bound up with violent, supremacist, authoritarian imperatives, people are getting killed because of it.
“Reza Aslan: Why I am a Muslim,” by Reza Aslan, CNN, February 27, 2017:
(CNN)As a writer and scholar of religions, I am often asked how, knowing all that I know about the religions of the world, I can still call myself a believer, let alone a Muslim.
It’s a reasonable question. Considering the role that religion so often plays in fueling conflicts abroad and inspiring bigotry at home, it is not always so easy to defend the value of religion in society. And, in a world in which reason and religion seem to be moving further apart, it is certainly understandable why so many people view religious faith as the hallmark of an irrational mind.
Of course, as someone who has spent the better part of the last two decades studying the world’s religions — and having recently crisscrossed the globe for my new spiritual adventure series “Believer,” where I immerse myself in religious traditions both familiar and downright bizarre — I know better than to take the truth claims of any religion (including my own) too seriously.
But I also know this: Religion and faith are not the same thing.
‘A signpost to God’
Faith is mysterious and ineffable. It is an emotional, not necessarily a rational, experience.
Religion is a fairly recent human invention. But faith, as I have elsewhere argued, is embedded in our very evolution as human beings.
And yet, in the end, faith is nothing more or less than a choice. You either believe there is something beyond the physical world (as I do), or you don’t. You either believe you are more than the sum of your material parts (as I do), or you don’t. You either believe in the existence of a soul (as I do), or you don’t.
No one can prove or disprove these things, not any more than anyone can prove or disprove love or fear or any other human emotion.
Religion, on the other hand, is the language we use to express faith. It is a language made up of symbols and metaphors that allows people to express to each other (and to themselves) what is, almost by definition, inexpressible.
After all, if there is a God, then that God is utterly beyond human comprehension.
How would one talk about — or even think about — something so completely foreign? We would need some kind of language to help us make sense of it, a set of symbols and metaphors we can all agree upon to help us define what is fundamentally indefinable.
That’s where religion comes in. Beyond the doctrines and dogma, the do’s and the don’t’s, religion is simply a framework for thinking about the existential questions we all struggle with as human beings.
It is, as the Sufi mystics say, a “signpost to God.”
Can you have faith without religion? Of course! But as the Buddha said, if you want to strike water, you don’t dig six 1-foot wells; you dig one 6-foot well. In other words, if you want to have a deep and meaningful faith experience, it helps — though it is by no means necessary — to have a language with which to do so.
So then, pick a well.
Different words, same thing
My well is Islam, and in particular, the Sufi tradition. Let me be clear, I am Muslim not because I think Islam is “truer” than other religions (it isn’t), but because Islam provides me with the “language” I feel most comfortable with in expressing my faith. It provides me with certain symbols and metaphors for thinking about God that I find useful in making sense of the universe and my place in it….