Religious studies scholar Dr. Reza Aslan made international news last year after being challenged by Fox News interviewer Lauren Green on his qualifications to write Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Why would Aslan, a Muslim, want to write a book about Jesus? Green asked. After the video went viral, drawing widespread mockery of Fox News, Aslan's book shot from fourth to first on the New York Times best-seller list. To promote the release of the paperback edition of Zealot, Aslan will give a talk Friday night at downtown's Christ Church Cathedral. The ticketed event, with an admission price that includes a signed copy of the book, is being organized by Brazos Bookstore.
Aslan holds an M.A. in Theological Studies from Harvard, a Ph.D. in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and serves as an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His previous books include No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, and How to Win a Cosmic War. I spoke with him by phone last week.
Houstonia: I confess that this wasn’t a subject I had much curiosity about before, although I was raised Catholic, but your book really reignited my interest.
Aslan: You know, the best comments I’ve gotten about the book are from people like yourself. I’ve had numerous people tell me that if this was the Jesus they had learned about in church, they would still be in church.
That must be extremely rewarding for you to hear.
It is. I felt like I had two different audiences for the book—a faith-based audience that I really wanted to introduce to a new way of thinking about Jesus, but I also wanted to reach a non-faith-based audience (or an atheist audience, however you want to put it), for whom Jesus is just this mystery—everybody’s obsessed with Jesus and they can’t figure out what it is. So I wanted to say what the big deal about this guy was.
In your introduction to the book you talk about converting to evangelical Christianity before college, and say that you’d always been fascinated by Jesus. What was it that drew you to him?
I first heard the Gospel stories when I was in high school, and it was a transformative experience for me. It is, as is often noted, the greatest story ever told, and it was one that I gravitated towards in a passionate, passionate way. When I went to university I heard a different story about Jesus, a story about the historical man and the world in which he lived. And that too was transformative, but in a different way. In fact it allowed me to have a far deeper understanding of who Jesus was, what his message was about, and it actually made me more interested in the historical man. It made him more appealing, more accessible, than the figure I had been taught about in church. So although I left Christianity, I’ve become a far more devoted follower of the historical Jesus than I ever was of the Christ of faith.
And from your perspective, you don’t see anything incompatible about being a Muslim and a follower of Jesus’s teachings?
Well, you know Muslims actually have a fairly orthodox view of Jesus. Muslims believe that he was the Messiah, that he was sinless, that he was born of a virgin, that he ascended to heaven, that he sits at the right hand of God, and will return at the end of time to judge humanity. These are all orthodox Muslim beliefs. Jesus plays a huge role in Islam. The Koran calls him the greatest prophet. Emulation of Jesus is a standard part of Muslims’ spirituality. So it’s not that weird. Now, obviously my book overturns a lot of Islamic beliefs about Jesus, but nevertheless the idea of a Muslim being motivated by Jesus’s actions, seeing Jesus as an example to follow, is fairly common.
This is an excerpt of the complete interview of Reza Aslan. For the complete interview visit the link at the top of the page.