Reza Aslan: Authority on Islam and the Middle East?


rezaAn author who came to widespread attention during the past couple of months over the release of his book Zealot (July 2013) on the life Jesus, Reza Aslan has been known primarily as an authority on Islam and the Middle East. He has been hailed by an array of commentators, most notably the celebrity comedian Jon Stewart, who described him as “the fantastic Reza Aslan.” But where did this reputation come from? More importantly, does it hold up to critical scrutiny?

To understand the rise of Aslan, one must turn to his 2005 book No God but God. Aslan was alarmed by what he saw as a supposed “clash of monotheisms” through polarizing rhetoric in both the West and Middle East. Denouncing “rising anti-Muslim vehemence that has become so much a part of the [Western] mainstream media’s discourse about the Middle East,” Aslan purported to demonstrate continuity between Islam and its predecessors, Christianity and Judaism. In other words, to demonstrate that there is no need for a “clash of monotheisms.”

Fundamental to Aslan’s argument is that the message of Islam, as intended by its founder, is a “revolutionary message of moral accountability and social egalitarianism.” Aslan is open about his apologetic intentions, making it clear that “there is no higher calling than to defend one’s faith, especially from ignorance and hate.” Indeed, as one reviewer noted, “this book is designed for the west.”

The result is not scholarship, but apologetics. It leads Aslan to make usual and predictable howlers. To focus on a single crucial issue, he asserts that “the most important innovation in the doctrine of jihad was its outright prohibition of all but strictly defensive wars,” while Qur’anic verses such as 9:29, with the injunction to fight non-Muslims until they pay a poll-tax in a state of subjugation, are explained away as “directed specifically at the Quraysh (the pagan tribe in Mecca opposed to Muhammad) and their clandestine partisans in Yathrib (Medina, with the Jews opposed to Muhammad).”

Aslan is of course entitled to his personal interpretation of the texts, but presenting it as the “true” view for a non-Muslim audience amounts to disinformation. This is evident especially when he portrays what he terms the “classical doctrine of jihad” as something formulated during the “height of the Crusades” and “partly in response to them.”  In fact, the doctrine of jihad demands that the “House of Islam” (Dar al-Islam) must subdue the “House of War” (Dar al-Harb, the non-Islamic world), although Aslan uses the softened (and misleading) phrase “in pursuit of “the “House of Islam.”

Insum, Aslan presents offensive jihad as a response to Western aggression. This is blatantly unhistorical: offensive jihad as a doctrine—beginning with elaboration from the first biographers of Mohammed such as Ibn Ishaq in the ninth century—was developed precisely to unify and justify the rapidly growing Arab empire from Islam’s early years.
Though Aslan also purports to be a voice for reform, his apologetic approach in No God but God leads to little insight in the wider realm of modern Middle East analysis. Instead, he regurgitates worn-out talking points.

Thus, given his portrayal of jihad as merely defensive, Aslan refuses to consider whether al-Qaeda’s worldview might have any ideological appeal with roots in Islamic theology. Rather, the only way to diminish al-Qaeda’s influence is to address the “very grievances that the movement uses to rally young Muslims to its cause: the suffering of the Palestinians, American support for Arab dictators . . . the fact that we in the west tend to treat that entire region [the Middle East] as a giant gas station.” In fact, this is typical of the propaganda that al-Qaeda employs in messages to Westerners.

Other recycled talking points from Aslan include the familiar idea that the U.S. should work with non-violent and supposedly moderate Islamists such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose nefarious role in the country he hailed as a “good thing,” along with cheering the election of Mohammed Morsi. For Aslan, these groups offer a healthy antidote to the real problem of violent Islamists.

What then if the lines are blurred, as when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood [MB]-led government indicated it would have no problem with its citizens going to fight jihad in Syria, or when its claims of Coptic conspiracies behind the anti-MB coup in Egypt resulted in an upsurge of attacks on churches? How about Tunisia, where the Islamist-led government under Ennahda has tolerated Salafist mobs provided they pose no direct threat to its rule?

As a matter of fact, Islamism, according to Aslan, is nothing more than “religious nationalism of the Islamic variety,” to be distinguished from jihadism, which is defined as a transnational project. Amusing, to say the least. For by Aslan’s twisted logic, Iran must be a jihadist state, for it is foremost committed to spreading its Islamist ideology of vilayat al-faqih (“guardianship of the jurists,” whereby supreme political authority should rest in the hands of Islamic clergy) beyond its own borders, both among established Shi’a communities and through proselytism (including far afield areas such as West Africa via its surrogate Hezbollah, which Aslan denies is a proxy of Iran and hails for supposedly focusing “solely on nationalist politics” with an agenda of “domestic reform” and “civic duty”).

Despite being widely touted as an expert on Islam and the Middle East, in reality, Aslan’s ideas and arguments do not really extend beyond Islamist apologetics repeated ad nauseam. While he frequently touts his academic credentials (which he has misrepresented, including an absurd claim to “fluency” in Biblical Greek), Aslan’s response to criticism is generally to resort to profanity and childish ad hominems, deriding those who disagree with him as “morons” (as he addressed this author once), “ignorant twits,” and “f*****g liars.”

Hardly the tone of a scholar and frequently self-described “expert,” yet so long as Aslan’s spiteful behavior, disinformation, and nonsensical talking points go unexamined, he will continue to have fans in the mainstream and among celebrities.

Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Forum.

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  • N. Wasse

    Reza Aslan is a blatant liar. He is not a historian as he claimed. He should be ashamed of himself

    • J.

      He SHOULD but he isn’t. Islam is religion based on lies remember? From muhammad to so coincidental revelations that catered to his every perverted desire to Reza Alan’s credibility, oh how the lie resonate through out the centuries.

      • vulgar_imposter

        People actually read Reza Aslan and discuss his ideas. What about you? You just sit in my your mom’s basement, eat hundreds of dollars worth of junk food each day, and tap away on that greasy keyboard of yours. Whether you agree with him or not, Aslan has a better life than you. You’re a nobody; he’s a published author with a fat wad o’ cash. How’s that make you feel?

        • N. Wasse

          Hello: this is not about J is it about the liar Reza Aslan that tells us that he is a historian but like an ignorant Muslim what is better than blaming the messenger
          So is Reaz Aslan a historian as he claimed?

          Hint: He is not he is a blatant liar

          Now it is your chance to make a fool of yourself again. Go!

          • objectivefactsmatter

            I think this vulgar individual has hurt feelings but doesn’t have any outlet where he can feel comfortable finding help.

          • defcon 4

            He doesn’t like reading criticism of his boyfriend.

        • objectivefactsmatter

          People actually read Marx and discuss his ideas. People actually read Hitler and discuss his ideas.

          Aslan is not even at their level.

          “Whether you agree with him or not, Aslan has a better life than you.”

          Holy cow. Talk about projection.

          “You’re a nobody; he’s a published author with a fat wad o’ cash. How’s that make you feel?”

          What you’re really talking about is only your own feelings.

        • J.

          Oh wow, I’m impressed at such charlatan like Aslan, yeah trying to mount his credibility by his own word to simply discredit those who are credible, for example claiming that he’s fluent in Biblical greek. Really? While misquoting the Bible out of context. Fat wads of cash, fame, it doesn’t matter there many a scum like this in todays society…B. Obama is one of the many example….how do I feel, I feel sorry for you that you’re so gullible to even credit yet back up such a douche bag.

        • herb benty

          Unlike the disease of Islam, in Christianity and our God for that matter, everyone counts, there are no “nobody’s. Your use of ridicule proves your evil intent, and unless you repent, you will be rubbing shoulders with Mao and Hitler who also had loads of cash and authored books. Evil folks often do quite well financially, and hace their reward in the here and now….nothing after this world ends.

        • defcon 4

          Well if a “fat wad o’ cash” is the only determining factor then why doesn’t Reza get into drug dealing? He might even make larger wads of cash.

        • Softly Bob

          Oh, I feel really bad. Thanks for telling us. You’re right, he sits on a fat wad of cash and I don’t. I tell you what, I’m going to throw away all my principles and turn into a Muslim liar, that way I might become rich too.
          Do I feel better now? No, I don’t actually. I’d rather keep my principles, thank you.
          The fact that you even posted what you did suggests that you have no principles yourself and you think that anyone who keeps their principles but remains poor as a result of it, must be feeling very bad indeed.

          Now you’ve told us what you’re really about, you’ve no longer any need to keep posting your rubbish on here. We all understand you now, and we all know what an immoral, money-grabbing despicable little cockroach you really are!

  • cacslewisfan

    Aslan spews disinformation and lies with every sentence. He not only knows nothing about Christianity and Jesus, but apparently he knows nothing about Islam. Useful idiot? More like malevolent civilization jihadi. What really amazes me is that his idiocy is not only tolerated, but celebrated. He is about as academically rigorous as a Kalahari Bushman explaining rocket science. Just another indication of Western decay.

  • David Housholder

    My book review on Zealot. Doe it say more about Aslan than it does about Jesus? http://www.davidhousholder.com/zealot-by-reza-aslan-0234-life-liberty/

  • john spielman

    I have this to say to Reza Aslan: there is NO GOD BUT YHWH AND JESUS IS HIS SON!

  • GENUG

    It’s pseudo scholarship. For the ignorant, he impresses. For the knowledgeable, he is a fraud – a dangerous fraud. S.G.F. Brandon and Bernard Lewis shame him. Other’s too who were and are real academic scholars present a historical “Jesus” as being “zeloti”, “sicari”. Aslan goes into mashed and distorted “history” and is horrible. The others actually study the Antiquities for a life time….and more. Aslan is an apologist for Jihad – a new “apologia” for the masses.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      “It’s pseudo scholarship. For the ignorant, he impresses.”

      Because he has enough fellow liars to cover for him in our institutions, and dupes to sing his praises.

      He’s a darling of PBS. The latent-gay jihadi.

  • kenhowes

    The idea that Muslim violence is somehow a response of otherwise peaceful Muslims to the Crusades is nothing but propaganda. The Crusades occurred only because the Muslims, in the 7th century, seized the Holy Land by force, and then, in the 11th century, attacked the Byzantine Empire and interfered with Christian pilgrims going to the Holy Land. Until the middle of the 7th century, Syria and Palestine were Christian lands. Islam spread by tribes from the Arabian peninsula swarming up first into Syria and Palestine, then into Egypt and across North Africa, and then into Europe, conquering Spain and seizing briefly, at different times, southwestern France. The Crusades, like the Reconquista in Spain, were counterattacks, not aggression.

    • Softly Bob

      Correct, my friend. It’s nice to know that some people still understand real history and not the Marxist revisionist crap that is so popular these days.

  • vulgar_imposter

    Here’s one for all you Front Page bigots. Thomas Jefferson supported the rights of…wait for it…Muslims!

    http://www.salon.com/2013/10/05/our_founding_fathers_included_islam/

    • defcon 4

      Here’s one for you lying muslimes. Muhammad didn’t support the rights of the najjis kaffir, which is why he had them slaughtered, persecuted, enslaved and deported from Soddy Barbaria.

    • N. Wasse

      And here’s one for all of you Arab wannabes Muhammad supported the rights of…. wait for it ….. Oh darn it I mean he wanted protection money aka al-Jizya from them Jews and Christians
      Shame on you

    • Drakken

      Well you might want to explain that whole Barbary pirates thingy and why my Marine Corps has to the shores of Tripoli in a verse of the Marine Corps. Ask yourself why ole Jefferson had that Koran? Because he needed to know how the enemy thinks, but hey, don’t let your kumbaya moment go to waste. Yeah he was for muslim rights alright.

      • vulgar_imposter

        Because the pirates were attacking US ships? Duh. Go away, Drakken. You bore me.

  • Joe Chernicoff

    It’s strange, but as I read ‘No God but God’, I discovered quite a few bits of information leading to the reader’s understanding of why Islam is a problem for the West, and how Muhammed understood that obliterating those societies not interested in following the ‘no god but Allah’ concept was important t the rise of Islam, among many other points of interest. Maybe it’s just in the interpretation of Aslan’s words, but the book, I believe, provides a good foundation for understanding what we face from Islam. It is also a good idea to read Fukuyama’s “Origins of Political Order”; the section on Islam will be found to be a good addition to your knowledge re: Islam’s move to world-wide domination.

  • Infovoyeur

    Aslan spoke at our midwest state university two years ago. At that time I was still learning. But even then, I could see see that he gave the 750 students, and faculty, a Happiness Pill. Item: “In 20 years, the prejudice against Muslims will have passed, as among earlier immigrants.” (Check Britain, France, etc.) Item: asked to define sharia, he said: “Oh, sharia is only those things from the 7th century we don’t do anymore, plus the simple desire for sharia courts to solve framily disputes.” (You can unpack this: it’s deft ju-jitsu, the naive reader offloads all those things we don’t like about Islam but which Islam largely retains. Plus, how innocuous family courts–except see the undercover video from one in Britain dictating that the wife submit, etc.)
    Whether % of self-aggrandizing careerist, or % of viciious subversive-jihad practitioner, he is disgusting.

  • Biff Henderson

    A picture is worth a 1000 words. Pretty in pink raises a stink.

    • vulgar_imposter

      How much time did it take you to find this picture? What a sad sack o’ crap you are.

      • Biff Henderson

        Com’on vulva infusion, when this lying, shameless, self-promoting drama queen gets his b*tch twitch in steamroller mode it’s a hoot.

      • defcon 4

        Is that you Reza? Or is it your catamite boy toy Lean?

        • Biff Henderson

          This bit of harmless fun resulted in my Flickr account being hacked and closed out. Still brings a smile to my face that this shill for Alan Enterprises has a champion to defend his “honor.”

      • objectivefactsmatter

        Google images, dipshirt.

  • Biff Henderson

    More of the same.

    • defcon 4

      Reza seems to have lost his boyish good looks. I wonder how how his pink pig tie would go over in any islamic state? Maybe he should go back to Iran and find out.

      • Biff Henderson

        I may have taken a liberty or two on the tie but this “authority” on Islam made in bones not at Al-Azar or Qom but in the blasphemous and decidedly secular academia of the infidel. Some of the opinions he has forwarded about Islam would have his head on a chopping block in many a Musloid hellhole. The pampered pup will venture no further than the adoring crowds of useful idiots.

        • defcon 4

          I had thought Iran was cracking down on men w/fashionista hair styles?

          • Biff Henderson

            Trending. #effete treat, the Musloidsexual.

  • Biff Henderson

    He can be such a meanie sometimes.

  • Muslim Comments

    what a stupid article — total BS

    • Biff Henderson

      Hey, hand job of the Muslim Mob, explain yourself.

    • N. Wasse

      The Rabaa hand another sign of terrorism and those that support terrorists so are you also a terrorist Mr ignorant?

    • ServosT

      Well I’m convinced.

    • iluvisrael

      is that the hand you eat with on the one used to wipe your a$$?

    • gray_man

      Much like your comment, but then you are a muslim.

  • Biff Henderson

    But most of the time he’s just a clown.

    • vulgar_imposter

      You just spent time looking for images of Aslan and posting them. How much thought has Aslan given to you? None. He doesn’t even know you exist. And he never will.

      • Biff Henderson

        An irreverent vulgarian like yourself should be lapping this stuff up like a dog roots through a litter box for a choice morsel. The hot, wet mess of of Muslima baking in a black bag. Tragically amusing and the stink that rolls off it, now that’s vulgar in the extreme.

  • tanstaafl

    Reza Aslan spouts nothing but taquiyya.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    It’s John Oliver who called Aslan “the fantastic Reza Aslan” this year, not Jon Stewart. Stewart was in the Middle East while Aslan was on the Daily Show this year. I’m the guy who wrote the transcript linked to in the “Jon Stewart” link in this article.

    • defcon 4

      Jon Stewart the a-hole who invited Yusuf Islam to speak at his D.C. rally. Yusuf Islam, the guy who stated Salman Rushdie should be murdered for insulting the prophet of islam.

  • defcon 4

    I think the Saudi or Iranian religious police should be investigating Reza as a possible sorcerer. I’ve heard he’s been consorting with Djinns.

  • Gloria Stewart

    It is very common for Muslims and their apologists to speak of Jihad as a purely defensive measure. They claim that Muslims are permitted to fight only defensive wars. Let me explain that by reminding the reader that any apocalyptic/utopian creed always defines it actions as defensive. Their total victory is either the movement of history (as with the Communists) or the will of their god. Thus the Communists called the Korean war a defensive war despite the aggression of their surrogates in North Korea. Thus the Muslims as they fulfill the will of Allah to establish a caliphate will regard anyone who stands in thier way as aggressors.

  • Hass

    “Reza Aslan has been known primarily as an authority on Islam and the Middle East.”

    He would never repeat that nonsense in front of real Muslimes nor in any Islamic state. He’s what real Muslimes call an Apostate.

    • defcon 4

      I often wonder how well Mr. Aslan would do in the islamic “republic” of Iran in the here and now. After, all he’s too old to be a dancing boy anymore.

      • Hass

        Not well at all that’s for sure.

      • Drakken

        Well one thing for, it would be fun to watch as his fellow muzzys have fun with him.

  • alihusaini

    Go Aslan!! Yipeeeee! Your doing a great job! To pizz off all the right-wing nuts,
    you gotta be doin something right.

    • Biff Henderson

      A cretin that is a disgrace to Islam is your hero. Given your track record that makes perfect sense.

    • defcon 4

      He has to do something, after all his career as a dancing boy in the islamic “republic” of Iran is all but spent.

      • alihusaini

        Still fascinated with those dancing boy, huh defcon 4? You go boy, as for me I’ll stick with my wife.

        • Biff Henderson

          That any woman would have to suffer your company. Poor thing. My heart goes out to her.

        • defcon 4

          Reza, is that you?

          • alihusaini

            No,it’s me,Ali with your wife.

          • defcon 4

            Nah, my wife only has two feet.

        • N. Wasse

          So who is your wife? Let me guess Reza Aslan?
          But you still did not answer my questions: Did ‘Aisha cheat on Muhammad and was Omar a sodomite? And where can i rent a winged horse aka al-Buraq?

  • herb benty

    Reza Ass—e, is a well funded stealth jihadist, if he can even get us to question our resolve…………………

  • redwood05090

    I will not question his knowledge about being a closeted gay Leninist- Islamist!
    On all other issues he is a Pisher!

  • uragoner

    Since the Koran steals stories from the Bible then changes them and declares war on those that don’t believe in those changes specifically targeting Christians and Jews and anyone else that doesn’t accept their faith calling them infidels, the fact that this Muslim would write about Christ can only be construed as just as misleading as the koran’s claims are.