The sociology of Islam


Internationally acclaimed author Reza Aslan was in Vancouver this past weekend as part of the annual Indian Summer Festival. Aslan is a New York Times bestselling author (No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam; Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth) and a specialist on Abrahamic religions. On July 11, 2014, at SFU Woodward’s, Aslan spoke about Jesus and the origins of Christianity. Before the talk, Ricochet editor Jahanzeb Hussain caught up with Aslan to discuss the birth of Islam, the Prophet Mohammad, and a sociological understanding of his message and religion.

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What does a sociological reading of the origins of Islam tell us about this religion? How important is it to analyze the social context in which Islam came to be?

The social context of pre-Islamic Arabia is absolutely key to understanding Mohammad’s message because whatever else the Prophet Mohammad was, he was a product of that world.

First of all, the social context of pre-Islamic Arabia is absolutely key to understanding Mohammad’s mission, message, and the meaning of his message. To your larger question—as to what does a sociological look at Mohammad show about Islam—most importantly it shows that there is nothing unique or unusual about Islam; that it is privy to all the same cultural influences that every religion in the world is privy to; that it is deeply embedded in the soil out of which it arises; and that to truly have a better understanding of the origins of the religion, you have to have a better understanding of the society, the culture, the politics, and religion of the world in which Mohammad lived, because whatever else the Prophet Mohammad was, he was a product of that world.

What then is the essence of Islam and Prophet Mohammad’s message if we look at it from a sociological perspective?

That is a good question. I would say that from that kind of perspective, it is clear that the essence of the Prophet Mohammad’s message was a message of social justice. That, after all, is the kernel of what he preached. Now, let me explain the difference between a theological perspective on the rise of Islam and a sociological perspective. The theological perspective, which may sound familiar to many Muslims, is that pre-Islamic Arabia was a land of darkness and ignorance; that the Prophet Mohammad arose in a sort of cultural and religious vacuum; that he received messages directly from God proclaiming monotheism; that his monotheism contrasted to the ignorance of polytheism, resulting in conflict; and that Mohammad ultimately emerged successful.

The sociological view is completely different. It recognizes that Mohammad’s religious message was already very familiar to the pagan Arabs of his time. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a land swarming with Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Hanifs (believers in a monotheistic religion based on Abraham, but neither Jewish nor Christian).... Far from a land of ignorance, Arabia was a land of extreme religious sophistication. The message that there is no god but God would have been received with a collective yawn by Mohammad’s contemporaries because they had heard it many, many times before.

Mohammad’s social message would have been received with enormous concern since that is not an attack on the religious sensibilities of Mecca, but an attack on the economic stability of the city.

So then, why the conflict? That is when you start looking to the core of what the Prophet Mohammad reveals in these revelations, especially during that initial decade in Mecca. And the core of that message is as clear as it gets: it is a message of social justice for the weak, for the poor, for the dispossessed, the orphans, the widows, and those without protection. It is a message of condemnation and judgement for those who accumulated power and wealth. This is the core of the message and that message, unlike Mohammad’s theological message, would have been received with enormous concern, particularly amongst the ruling Quraish, since that is not an attack on the religious sensibilities of Mecca, but an attack on the economic stability of the city. Such an attack could not have been tolerated. So that is a perfect way of describing the difference between a theological and a sociological explanation of the origins of Islam. The theological view that is so predominant also comes out of a specific social setting. Why is the theological explanation more prevalent?

What are some of the social forces behind this?

To be perfectly honest, that is the case of all religions. People are just as shocked about the sociological dimensions of Jesus’ message as Muslims are when it comes to Islam and Jews are to Judaism. I suppose there is something inherent perhaps in the mindset of certain people that they want to think of their prophets, messiahs, messengers as being utterly unique and as being uninfluenced by any kind of social or political dimensions at all.

This is particularly true of the Prophet Mohammad. There is this entire kind of a legend about the Prophet. He receives his revelation around the time he is 40 years old, and so there is a great deal of consternation among a lot of Muslims as to what he was doing before. And the answer cannot be he was doing what everybody else was doing because somehow that makes him less special. Somehow he has to be preserved and protected from the world in which he lived. However, that is historically wrong and it is theologically incorrect, but it is part of, I think, human desire to think of their prophets, their saviours, their messiahs, as different than anybody else, even in Islam, where Muslims are constantly reminded over and over again that the Prophet was just a man. Nevertheless, from the very, very beginning there was an innate desire to make him more than a man, to make him at the very least the perfect man, a sinless man, a man without fault, a man without error—and that is where that impulse comes from.

If we understand the Prophet’s life the way you describe, what do you think some of the effects of that would be for Muslims today?

Well, I think, first and foremost, it strengthens faith. For those who do have faith in Prophet Mohammad, understanding the world in which he lived, how that world shaped him, understanding the influences that were so much a part of how he understood the world, how he reacted to the religion, how he reacted to the social structure of his time, should make him only that much more approachable. You know, if Muslims are told to follow the example of the Prophet, well then you better know that world in which he lived and how that world influenced him and how he negotiated that world. So, I think that truly is what it can do for those who have a perhaps more puritanical view of it, one that does not allow for the idea of thinking of him as a man, a flawed man, with complexities and contradictions. This kind of view can come across as offensive and somewhat frightening, but I think that is based on a fallacy about who the Prophet actually was.

Lastly, is there a divine truth in Islam when we look at it from a sociological perspective?

I am not a theologian so I am not in a position to make those kinds of claims. As a person of faith, as someone who believes in God, as someone who believes that God manifests himself throughout history, and that he communicates his will to humanity throughout history, then I have no problem with there being a divine truth to the Quran, but I also do not think that there is anything uniquely divine about the Quran. I believe that, as the Quran itself says, that God declared himself, has revealed himself to all humanity in his different ways and forms, and that makes all of those revelations equally valid, equally divine, equally true as far as I am concerned.

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