With the violent reaction to those Danish cartoons and the seemingly inevitable civil war looming in Iraq, Reza Aslan's stunning No god but God may be the single most politically important book not being read by the Bush administration.
In the book, Aslan, attempts to reframe the apparent clash of civilizations—it's not, as conservative pundits like to say, a clash between the Western world and Islam, but is in fact an internal battle between Muslims over who will control the future of the religion. The West, Aslan says, is simply a pawn in the struggle.
To back up his argument, Aslan traces the history of the religion—from pre-Islamic Arabia to the life of Muhammad to the split between the Sunnis and Shiites (and Sufis), focusing on the clerical bodies' role in developing Islamic doctrine. Along the way, he describes how regional conflicts between leaders co-opted slight doctrinal differences to consolidate power, and how they led to the interpretations of the Koran that are used to justify violence. Further, he describes, in detail, how Western colonialism encouraged the massive uprisings that sparked modern Islamic fundamentalism.
It isn't all bad news, though. Aslan posits that Islam is currently in the throes of a reformation that parallels the reformations of the Christian church—a bloody, violent transition that ultimately led to a more moderate religion. (Of course, during the Protestant Reformation, opposing sides didn't have much destructive technology at their disposal—there was infinitely less chance that one of the Pope's 16th-century followers would fly a plane into a skyscraper.) The final chapter of the book, "Slouching Toward Medina," is spent discussing evidence that the reform is already underway, and who will survive to write the next chapter of Islamic history.
Only Edward Said's Orientalism can compare to No god but God in attempting to shed light on how Islam and the Western world interact. The history is frustratingly complex, with no clear answers for peaceable solutions in sight. Unfortunately, the people currently in power would rather spout simplistic slogans about "good" and "evil" than work toward any understanding of the problems.