Question: What forces have shaped religion most?
Reza Aslan: The most powerful force that defines religion is society. It’s very important to understand that religion is an ever-malleable thing. There is no such thing as Christianity. It doesn’t exist. There are Christianities and the way that one defines the gospel. The way that one understands Jesus as either the Son of God, or the Messiah, or as, you know, a great teacher to emulate. The way that one places sort of the Christology, or even the creedal formula of Catholicism, has everything to do with where one lives. If you are a Catholic living in suburban Denver with your two and a half kids, and your car, and your house, your Jesus is probably a white, blond haired, blue-eyed, peacenik who turns the other cheek. If you’re a Catholic living in the hills of Guatemala, your Jesus, besides being Mexican, is a fighter. A liberator. One who stands up to the oppressor and indeed who takes up arms against oppression. It’s the same Jesus.
It’s the same Catholicism, but the understanding is radically different depending upon where you live. The same of course is true of Islam. If you’re a Muslim living in Detroit, then your idea of Islam is a religion of peace and submission and pluralism. If you’re a Muslim living in a garbage heap on Gaza, then you’re version of Islam is as a religion of social justice. So everywhere that you go you will see different expressions. Different manifestations of what can be called the same religion, the same faith. And I think that we need to understand that; because in a way, too often, we look at the differences between religious communities as being defined as differences in religion. And frankly its more often differences of community than it is of religion.
Religion is an ever-evolving process. If a religion stops evolving it dies. And there are thousands and thousands of examples of dead religions in the world that we can talk about that simply went away because they were not able to adapt to the constant changes of human civilization and human societies. The reason we talk about the great religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism – these five massive world religions that have been around for thousands of years and that have billions of worldwide followers . . . what makes them great is because they are constantly adapting. They are constantly evolving. That’s why they continue to exist. The moment you stop adapting, the moment you stop evolving to whatever social, political, economic or cultural landscape that the religion finds itself in, that’s the moment in which it goes away.
Question: What forces have shaped Islam?
Reza Aslan: Well talking about Islam, particularly as it’s experienced in the Middle East, I think you can’t talk about the rise of the Islam state, or the rise of Jihadism, or any of the various political, or economical, or religious conflicts that are taking place in that region without first starting with colonialism – the colonialistic experience – which, you know, came to an end only about half a century ago . . . we tend to forget that . . . was a profound experience for the world Muslims. You’re talking about an era in which 90% of the world’s Muslim population lived under direct colonial control. It had an enormous influence on the development of the modern Muslim consciousness, and the way that it sort of allowed Muslims to define themselves as opposed to an other. In this case, a rabidly, westernizing, an aggressively, Christianizing and total dominating force.
A force that dominated the social, economic, political and religious landscape of the Middle East had, I think, an enormous influence on the way the Muslims began to see themselves, vis-a-vis, the rest of the world. And with the end of the colonialistic experience, with the decolonization period that began around the Second World War and accelerated immediately after that and this geopolitical fragmentation that was left behind in which Muslim populations who had hitherto thought of themselves as members of a worldwide community of faith were now suddenly forced to think of themselves as citizens of nation states. Nation states, that in most cases, were created through arbitrary borders and totally fabricated nationalities with the sole purpose of making these parcels of land more easily divisible, and passed along amongst the colonialist whether they be French, or Dutch, or English, or Portuguese, or Spanish.
The idea that now you had to sort of define yourself in this incredibly unfamiliar way I think really rattled a lot of Muslim civilizations. Some of them were able to do so without much trouble; but many Muslims states, particularly in the Arab world, I think really . . . or to this day are having a very difficult time trying to define what exactly it even means to be a Muslim state. Does it mean that you have to have Muslim governance? Does it mean that you have to be ruled by Islamic law? Does it just simply mean that you are a majority Muslim state?
What is it . . . what is it . . . how does one define oneself? And I think that particularly in the language we use, when we talk about the countries in the region as Muslim states, it doesn’t help; because frankly I can’t image what Morocco has in common with Saudi Arabia. Or what Saudi Arabia has in common with Turkey. Or what Turkey has in common with Indonesia. Absolutely nothing. Not language, not culture, not ethnicity, not customs, not religion. And yet we refer to all of them as Islamic states. So I think it’s not just Muslims themselves that are having a hard time defining post-colonial, Middle East and what that means. I think the rest of the world is having just as difficult a time figuring it out.
July 23, 2007