Eating human brains, burying one’s face in dead people’s ashes and publicly deriding the president of the United States as a ‘piece of shit’ are not among the activities usually associated with serious religious historians. But Reza Aslan is something else. An American academic born in Iran, brought up as a Muslim, converted to Jesus by the Jesuits and back to Islam through his own free will, he came to prominence following an interview on Fox TV to promote his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013). He was repeatedly asked how being a Muslim qualified him to write about Jesus, to which he responded by listing in pushful, indignant tones all his academic credentials.
He claimed to be a ‘historian’ (which strictly he isn’t); a ‘professor of religion’ (he is actually a professor of creative writing) and a ‘PhD in the history of religions’ (when actually he is a doctor of sociology). This interview, which reflected badly on both participants, went viral on YouTube under the title ‘The most embarrassing Fox News interview ever’, and in consequence, Aslan’s Zealot became a bestseller.
The excitement generated by the video, together with Aslan’s boyish good looks, led to his fronting a six-part religious series on CNN, called Believer, in which he ate the aforementioned brains, smothered himself with the char, and from which he was sacked for tweeting derogatively about Donald Trump.
Each episode featured the sensational and disgusting practices of fringe groups connected to Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism, which, unsurprisingly, offended mainstream Hindus, Christians and Jews who did not care to be associated in the public mind with their pee-drinking, brain-eating, death-worshipping sub-sects. No discreditable customs of any Muslim sub-sect were shown. Since Aslan has elsewhere gone out of his way to dismiss Islamic terrorism as less of a problem than ‘faulty furniture’; has described jihadism as a mere ‘pop culture’; and has denied any link between the Islamic religion and female genital mutilation, he soon found (no doubt to his delight) that he had sharply divided America’s liberal progressive movement. On the one hand, he was lauded for his defence of Johnny Muslim against the odious advances of populist bigotry; on the other, he was accused of failing to protect human rights and global peace by diverting attention from the obvious threats posed by the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
Aslan explained that the purpose of his Believer series was to reveal to the world how everyone is ‘the same’. His detractors interpreted this to mean that Christians, Jews and Hindus should stop complaining about the unappealing practices of Muslims because there are people doing equally appalling things in the name of their religions too.
All this is useful background to anyone intending to read God, a brief and lively history of the development of the God-like type over 12 millennia. Aslan writes in clear, concise and attractive English. He is intelligent and has an uncommon ability both to marshal and contextualise seemingly random facts, and is skilful at condensing complex ideas into short, effortless paragraphs. But despite his claims to high scholarship, he is at heart a popular historian. Even his end-notes are fun.
The surface message of his book is simple. He repudiates the ‘humanisation of God’, by which he means man’s historical desire to portray him in his own image —to give him a face, eyes, hair, hands, feet, a tongue, lips, even a womb (Job 38:29) and bowels (Jeremiah 31:20). The ‘Odes of Solomon’ describe God with milk-filled breasts: ‘The Father is he who was milked, and the holy Spirit is she who milked him’; while the ancient Jewish Hekhalot gives precise measurements of the space between God’s thighs and his neck, revealing that from head to toe he is 1.298 billion km tall.
Aslan has no time for any of this, but considers it an aberration borne of human arrogance that began when man started putting fences round animals. Prehistoric man, he argues, worshipped animals as spirits; but farming subjugated the beasts and so man made God in his own image. Islam, according to Aslan, is innocent of all this. References in the Quran to God’s eyes, hands, face and shin are to be read metaphorically. Isn’t this also true of the Bible?
As Aslan’s commentary passes from French and Spanish cave drawings to the temples of Göbekli Tepe, and from ancient Egyptian animists to the monotheistic Yahwists, it becomes increasingly obvious to the reader that his impatience is growing; that the scholarly impartiality he vaunted so famously in his interview on Fox TV is starting to disintegrate and that he is now bursting out of his chrysalis. He is an ambitious man who enjoys the limelight. He has already played many parts — Christian, Muslim, businessman, sociologist, lecturer, editor, presenter, producer, public intellectual, scholar, historian, creative writing tutor and performing clown. Now it looks as though he wants to become a guru.
I don’t think it would be spoiling the story (it’s not that kind of book) if I revealed Aslan’s conclusion: ‘God,’ he writes three pages from the end, ‘did not make us in his image; nor did we simply make God in ours. Rather we are the image of God in the world — not in form or likeness, but in essence.’ This he describes as a personal ‘epiphany’, arrived at through his ‘long, and admittedly circuitous, spiritual journey’. Only now does he reveal to his readers that the history contained in the first 166 pages of his book is a ‘mirror’ of his own ‘faith-journey’. His title, God: A Human History, might just as well have been God: A History of Me. ‘The entire reason we have a cognitive impulse to think of God as a divine reflection of ourselves,’ he writes, ‘is because we are, every one of us, God.’
And so this extraordinary book, which started as an informative history of an idea, transforms itself into a self-help manual and an autobiographical consecration, delivered as a sermon from the pulpit of the author’s personal epiphany. ‘God,’ he writes, ‘is not the creator of everything that exists. God is everything that exists’ — an idea which leads him inexorably to his final remarks: ‘So then, make your choice. Believe in God or not. Either way, take a lesson from Adam and Eve and eat the forbidden fruit. Do not fear God. You are God.’
Aslan’s theology, as well he knows, is not original. It is called pantheism — an ancient belief that God exists through his creation — that the creator and that which he has created are indivisible. Pantheism is espoused in the philosophy of the Stoics and Spinoza, in Zen Buddhism, and by a group of Muslim thinkers known as ‘the drunken Sufis’; it can be interpreted from the teachings of St Paul and even in the mystical opening chapter of the Gospel of St John, where Aslan (I think incorrectly) declares that Jesus is ‘unambiguously recogised as the incarnate God’. Pantheism underpins the love of discovery — the desire to understand all of God’s creation in order to know God and find the eternal life. It was precisely this impulse that drove the Knights Templar to donate all their money to learning and religion and the Rosicrucians to devote their lives to scholarship.
If Aslan is hoping to found a new religion based upon this ancient wisdom and his own charismatic personality he may succeed. He is after all articulate, handsome and a keen self-publicist, who already appears to have a following of sorts. If he plays his cards right he could be wearing togas and flying around in a private jet in five years’ time.
But he needs to advance with caution. If hubris tempts him to fly too high, he could fall victim to one of those vicious sub-sects of Islam that he chose to ignore on CNN — one, for instance, which still believes in the death penalty for Muslim apostates, or which threatens to castrate authors who print pictures of Muhammad in their books about God (I have personal experience of them). There was a wool-carder from Baghdad, called Husayn ibn Mansur, who stood up and shouted ‘Ana ‘l-haqq’ (‘I am the Truth’) which a number of furious Muslims interpreted to mean ‘I am God’; so they seized him, tied him up, tortured him, doused him in oil and set him on fire.
Despite Aslan’s professing of the Muslim faith, he must know that some of his ideas are not congenial to Islam’s sub-sects. Human beings may be ‘all the same’; they may even all be God; but Aslan would do well to remember, as he lays the foundations of his first temples in the receiving soil of southern California, that ‘those who annoy Allah and his Messenger shall have a curse on them: and whenever they are found, shall be seized and slain without mercy’ (Quran 33:57-61).