Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

'The Islamic Reformation Has Begun': Reza Aslan, a Tehran-Born Muslim, Joined His High School's Young Life Group to Become a Christian, Then Got Kicked out. Now He's One of the Top Spokespersons for Progressive Islam in America

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

'The Islamic Reformation Has Begun': Reza Aslan, a Tehran-Born Muslim, Joined His High School's Young Life Group to Become a Christian, Then Got Kicked out. Now He's One of the Top Spokespersons for Progressive Islam in America

Article excerpt

A DECADE AGO, author Reza Aslan had a dinner conversation that helped set him on a path that makes him one of the hottest new voices on Islam At the table, a man argued "Muslims are violent and irrational. They're all terrorist." His dinner companion? His father, an Iranian emigre not only the clerics of Iran's Islamic revolution for turning his country upside down, but Islam itself.

Facing hatred against Islam from an early age set Aslan on a path that makes him one of the brightest lights for Islam today, separating fact from mythology in his groundbreaking, thinking person's guide to Islam, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Reza Aslan is the "It Boy" of Islam. He is a rising star few could have predicted. Just 32 years old, he is still a student: a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But Aslan has a strong aura of confidence, clear thinking, and intellect that makes him look at ease everywhere from Comedy Central to the Sunday morning news shows. This makes him one of the greatest hopes for Muslims to take back the faith from puritanical and dogmatic interpretations that sanction ideological beliefs such as the killing of innocent people--the most egregious crime confronting the Muslim world today.

He is a staunch supporter of the progressive values of Islam, including women's rights and tolerance. Amusingly, he receives entreaties just about every week from aunties in the Muslim world interested in matching their daughters up with him. This would be a charming but insignificant detail except that winning over the aunties and uncles, as elders are often affectionately called in many immigrant Muslim communities, is vital to winning the kind of transformation Asian argues for in No god but God. He writes: "This book is, above all else, an argument for reform."

BORN IN TEHRAN in 1972, Aslan spent his boyhood years in Iran during the last years of the Shah's reign. His parents met as college students, fell in love, and parted sadly because his father had been betrothed since childhood to a distant cousin. When his father returned to his home to get married, he learned that his fiancee had fallen in love, like him, with another and had eloped. "He had to pretend to go into mourning," Asian said. But, relieved, he told his real love, and they were married. Aslan's life story began before his birth when a woman liberated herself from the traditional expectation in many Muslim communities that she marry her family's choice, not her own.

The lessons continued in the most intimate of ways. Asian saw his mother, like most women "ruling the roost" at home but being forced to slink into subordinate roles to their husbands in public. At many a restaurant, he remembers his father reining in his mother's assertiveness. Still a young boy, Aslan would scamper to the "women's table" with his mother and other boys. '"Women would talk about men as if they were children," he recalled. Asian was only 7 when Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the government of the Shah. He never made it to the "men's table," a fact that he recognizes as life-changing. Instead, he fled with his family to the United States, where feminist societal values, a working mother, and a high-school Christian youth group molded the scholar he was to become.

The family lived in a motel where his parents kept the presence of their two children a secret. Asian and his older sister weren't allowed to go out by day, a fact that Asian was happy about because it meant he could watch TV without interruption. Asian saw his family structure disintegrate as his mother soon began to earn more than his father in an administrative post she took at a software company. This didn't sit well with his father who--despite his hatred of Islam--inherited many of the traditional expectations of gender roles associated with Islam. "It brought to light to me the difference between religion and tradition," Asian recalls. …

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