Some years ago an Ayatollah’s fatwa jolted Salman Rushdie’s S. V off book shelves all over the world, following a rather sluggish release, sending Rushdie both an unexpected fortune and him and his family scrambling for cover.
Reza Aslan’s book ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ (published a year ago today by Random House) generated its own share of controversy on a much milder scale than S.V (S.V being something of a Voldemort around these parts, is best not named too openly or too often, hence the abbreviated reference). Refreshingly though, it is not the rabid Muslim right that is railing against Zealot, but the equally rabid Christian right, and one example of this was Aslan’s interview on Fox News by the channel’s somewhat confused religious correspondent, Lauren Green.
One of Aslan’s other books ‘No God but God: The Origins and Evolution of Islam’ is so interesting that I would have read Zealot anyway, eventually. But the Fox interview forced me to check out Zealot sooner, because the interview was so awful even by Fox’s standards that it went viral as soon as it was put up online at The Daily Beast.
The website itself owns that ‘it was excruciating viewing,’ and oh it was, but I would recommend that every Muslim suffering Taliban fatigue see this interview to cheer up; I cheered up immensely. In fact I felt euphoric because I’m used to right wing excruciation, I wince whenever a militant extremist calls himself ‘a Muslim’ and groan as people in complicated headgear issues strange religious pronouncements on television. But here in this interview was a young lady, Ms Green, firing irrational questions at a well known and intelligent scholar and writer, and she was not the Muslim. He was. A Muslim moreover with a list of academic qualifications (not that it is uncommon), rather than a length of facial hair. Really, if you replaced Ms Green’s sleeveless dress with something (considerably) more muffling the usual picture would be complete.
Green asked Aslan repeatedly why he, a Muslim, should write about Jesus Christ and why he did not reveal the fact that he, Aslan, was a Muslim. And Aslan answered, just as repeatedly, that he was, “A scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament and fluency in Biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades...who also happens to be Muslim.”
He also denied concealing the fact that he was a Muslim, saying that had Ms Green read his book she could have read his declaration of faith for herself very early on in the Preface. “But,” she came back again, “why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Somewhere along the family line Ms Green is obviously related to a terrier. They’re known to be hard to shake and sometimes a bit thick.
This column is ‘about the book’ and not ‘a review’ because a review of a book of this stature would require an academic background in the subject that I do not possess. But there is no doubt that ‘Zealot’ is a meticulously researched, extremely interesting book, a biography of the man and political activist later called Jesus Christ who lived 2,000 years ago. It is not a religious work but a scholarly study of a towering personality from an historic point of view. “My biography of Jesus,” says Aslan, “Is probably the first popular biography that does not use the New Testament as its primary source material.”
Aslan was born to an Iranian Muslim family which moved to the USA many years ago. Although now a Muslim, Aslan was a Christian for a period in his life; he studied and wrote about the historical Jesus after discovering that there was a chasm between the historical Jesus and the Jesus that he had been taught about in church.
“Whether or not you believe that after three days of being dead and entombed, Jesus got up and walked out of his own accord,” Aslan says, “What you cannot argue about is the fervent belief of the followers that this happened.” So what probably happened? This is what this book explores and it is in this spirit of curiosity that it deserves to be read.