Dr. Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, is a columnist at the Daily Beast. Reza Aslan has degrees in Religions from Santa Clara University, Harvard University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, and the Pacific Council on International Policy. He serves on the board of directors for both the Ploughshares Fund, which gives grants for peace and security issues, Abraham's Vision, an interfaith peace organization, and PEN USA.
Aslan's first book is the New York Times Bestseller, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which has been translated into thirteen languages, short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award in the UK, and nominated for a PEN USA award for research Non-Fiction. His most recent book is How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, followed by an edited anthology, Words Without Borders: Writings from the Middle East, which we will be published by Norton in 2010. Aslan is Cofounder and Chief Creative Officer of BoomGen Studios, a hub for creative content from and about the Middle East, as well as Editorial Executive of Mecca.com. Born in Iran, he now lives in Los Angeles where he is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.
Reza Aslan: I want to sort of put myself in a position in which I could provide something like a bridge that links the so-called Muslim world with the western world. Those are meaningless terms, but nonetheless I think we all understand what I’m referring to. And what I want to do is essentially explain one to the other. I feel like I’ve got one foot very comfortably in both worlds and feel at home in both places. I want to explain I think to both that the mischaracterizations, and the mistrust, and the apprehensions that go both ways, particularly in the modern age, don’t necessarily have to be there. That there is something that we share, not just as human beings, but as people of faith, as civilizations, that we are inextricably bound to one another. But in a larger sense, it’s not so much trying to explain to someone your neighbor’s religion. That’s important. But to me it’s far more important to explain what religion is, what religion is not. Not just what Islam is, but what religion is. And I think that’s what I was referring to earlier when I said that, for so many modern people of faith, religion is not a means to an end, it’s the end. And that I think is a bastardization of what religion was supposed to be. Religion is not faith. These are two completely separate things. Religion is the language that we use in order to express faith . . . in order to express faith with each other and most importantly, in order to express faith to ourselves because we are talking about, almost by definition, something that is inexpressible. And so we need a language. We need a unified set of symbols and metaphors that help us to commune with one another these shared feelings of the divine presence, and that’s what religion does. Is it necessary in order to do that? No. I think that people of faith and intelligence can very easily formulate a language of their own in order to commune with God, to commune with the divine presence; but I do believe that it’s easier to use the languages that are available to us. It’s easier to use the metaphor of God as a suffering servant within Christianity; or it may be easier to view God as a divine and indivisible unity as Islam does. Those things, you know, are just means of helping us express to ourselves, and to our friends and neighbors what is ultimately inexpressible.I think that, you know, you could look at this issue and what role does religion play in the world in many ways. The way that I look at it is that religion is part of the world. That in fact from the very first moment in which human beings were able to formulate such thoughts, and to express those thoughts to each other, that religion came to being. Religion is certainly something that is made. There’s no question about that; but it is also indelibly a part of human civilization. There has never been a moment of the evolution of humanity that wasn’t in one way or another tinged with something that can be properly defined as religiosity. Perhaps not necessarily in the institutionalized form of religion that we so often think about when we talk about these issues; but nevertheless the phenomenon of religion; the phenomenon of immaterialism. By which I mean the belief that there is – that there exists – something beyond the material realm, that beyond my impurical experience of reality, there exists another level of reality that I can experience, that I can commune with in some way or another. I think that is essentially the fundamental thrust of human beings, and even those who fall into the category of the new atheists who want to essentially replace religion with science. Nevertheless, when you hear them talk about science, they sound very much like, well they sound like ________. You know, they speak of science, and they speak of this unifying principle of the universe in the same way that the great mystics of all religions talk about the divine unity, and the fact that all beings are interconnected, whether it be through atoms and molecules or whether it be through their experience of the divine in one way. So to me the language you use, whether it’s an expressly religious language or whether it’s a scientific language is nevertheless answering the same kinds of questions. They are separate modes of knowing in other words. And to me they’re equally valid modes of knowing. Certainly religion is not interested in taking the role of science, nor should science be interested in taking over the role of religion. I think that’s a real mistake. So in many ways I think that the connection that we share, you know, on that level, on that material level, is something that goes beyond ethnicities, it goes beyond national boundaries, it goes any kind of kinship. And it is the thing that I think could unite people. But again, only if we have a better understanding of the difference between religion and faith. And as long as we focus on faith as a binding characteristic, we’d be in a better position than trying to make religion that binding characteristic.
Recorded On: 7/5/07