Reading Up On Islam
This is what's so great about Aslan's book. For one thing, it's beautifully written. But more to the point, he constantly shuffles between what Muslims practice and what he personally believes, and helps you understand pretty much everyone. By the time I read his history of the Prophet, I'd read two others already, and his take is probably the most comprehensive and yet efficient. He's not a Sufi, but he conveys Sufism with stunning vividness; the chapter on Shi'ism alone is worth the price of the book. But then he explains---actually explains!---the origins and reasoning of Islamism, Islamic fundamentalism, and other movements against the history of colonialism and post-colonialism, and I'm putting the book down feeling very educated indeed. (This is not to diss Karen Armstrong, whose book has been a great source of sympathy. Aslan gives her props a few times, so it's not just me.)
Reza Aslan's overall take, if you should want it, is that Islam is not an inherently violent religion (big surprise) nor an inherently intolerant one. Normally and historically. (through the middle ages and beyond, Jews and Muslims lived together in almost perfect harmony by comparison to the Jews and the Christians.) But Islam is in the middle of a Reformation and a crisis of identity, and America is the backdrop that these Muslim identities---moderate, radical, religious, secular, rationalist, etc.---are performed against. (On the very first page, he points out that the train bombings in London occurred in a predominantly middle-class Muslim neighborhood. The target wasn't America or Westerners, but moderate Muslims.) Which has sort of been my own theory all along: that terrorism now is sort of like what happened with the Wobblies at the start of the Industrial Age: violent conflicts, businessmen being lynched, bombs going off at factories ... and where are they now?
So my own hope is that peace will arrive in due time as these revolutionary movements work out their troubles. In the meantime, Aslan's book is a terrific tonic for anyone who wants to know what most Muslims---who, like most people, are pretty decent one by one---believe and hope for. I'm going to keep reading other books, but I doubt I'll find any better single-volume treatment of all the major questions.