Cultural Arts Review: Scholar of Religion

Posted on October 21, 2013 by



Reza Aslan is identified in one biography as an associate professor of creative writing.  In another, he is described as an assistant professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies who has studied at Santa Clara University, Harvard University, and the University of California–Santa Barbara. Two years later, in the biography attached to his most recent book, he is identified as a scholar of religions. This book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus Christ, has stirred up interest in many circles when taken in the context of his other works, especially No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam. 

Zealot paints a picture of Jesus of Nazareth as a military revolutionist instead of the peaceful teacher and center of what is today one of the world’s largest religions. It seeks to understand who Jesus was by looking at his life in a historical context by considering the economics, politics and religion of first-century Palestine. Despite the author’s lack of scholarly authority in this area, critics seem to agree that this work does accurately reflect the social climate of Jesus’s time. In other areas, however, their opinions are much more varied.

 No god but God also takes a historical approach; Muhammad is painted as a revolutionary social reformist, similar to the way Jesus is portrayed by Aslan in his most recent work.  In No god but God, Aslan’s attempt to contextualize the historical understanding of Islam presents an argument for a liberal interpretation of the religion.  He argues against the idea of a clash of civilizations and suggests that there are other factors, mainly with Western influences, that are the source of the problems facing the Muslim world today. 

Both books ask readers to reconsider what creates the foundation of both Islam and Christianity.  Aslan compares Jesus of Nazareth to Muhammad from one work to another, which makes it difficult to take Zealot as a simple historical representation of Jesus with no motivation behind it besides presenting “the whole story”.  This, taken in conjunction with comments about the reliability and credibility of his sources and claims that can be found for both of these novels, makes it difficult to read Zealot as a historically accurate look at Jesus of Nazareth.

 In the end, however, is it possible to be a scholar of religions and simply present the facts of each religion, without arguing for one or the other, either blatantly or unintentionally?  What does it mean to be a “scholar of religions?” Is it possible to simply present the facts, or will the facts always be colored by the facts related to who is presenting them, and what else they have presented?  Aslan may be a scholar of religions; however he is most definitely more than just that, and may even be less.  A wise reader would not accept his title without question.  Calling Zealot just another work of fiction by an associate professor of creative writing would be going too far, but as is the case with most things affiliated with religion, it is about more than just the facts. It is about beliefs; it is about faith. It is about who you are and what you think is the truth. The problem with Zealot is not that it tries to be a historical account of the life of Jesus Christ.  The problem arises when it becomes clear that a scholar of religion, one who should be seeking to understand religions on a single level, does not approach each religion in the same way.

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