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.
Question: What is your worldview beyond religion?
Reza Aslan: 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 impirical 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.
Question: Do religion and faith inform your worldview?
Reza Aslan: I am a deeply spiritual person. I have a very rational, intellectual faith in the divine and what can be called God. And so the things that I do – whether it’s as an individual, or as a public intellectual – are all in one way or another defined by my faith in the presence of an other.
And so I think regardless of the language that I use to talk about that. And most often the language that I use is the language of Islam. I do feel much more comfortable with the symbols and metaphors of the Muslim faith and the way that Islam speaks about God than I am with, you know, other religions and the way they speak about God, though I’m perfectly comfortable in doing so in that same way.
There’s a wonderful saying by a . . . one of the great theologians of world religion. The great . . . Jesus Christ. Oh my god. Why am I forgetting his name? I hope that can be cut out. There is a great saying that says if you want to reach water you don’t dig six, one-foot wells. You dig one, six foot well. Islam is my six foot well. But that doesn’t mean that I am unfamiliar or even uncomfortable with drinking from the wells that surround me.
I’m perfectly comfortable, and I recognize the same sentiments, and idea, and beliefs, and values in all the great religious traditions. And I recognize that my well is nothing more than the avenue through which I can draw water; but the water is exactly the same as everybody else’s water. And that sort of a fundamental conception of religion and religiosity is what defines me as a scholar. It defines me as a writer, and it defines me as a person.
July 23, 2007