“You’re a Muslim, so why would you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”
That’s how Fox News’ Lauren Green began her challenge to Reza Aslan’s right to write about Jesus. The video of her interview with him instantly went viral (in fact, several accidental theologists sent it on to me — thank you!). It inspired several spoofs, including this one here. Aslan’s book, Zealot (my San Francisco Chronicle review of it here) was already #2 on the Amazon bestseller list; by the next morning, it was #1.
“Gotcha, J. K. Rowling!” Aslan responded.
But aside from the small detail that Christianity was founded by Paul, not Jesus, Green’s question may not be such a terrible one after all.
I’ve been there, and often still am — from the other side, as it were. The first time conservative Muslims asked why I’d decided to write a biography of Muhammad, I spluttered in amazement: “But you don’t think he’s worth writing about? This man who carved such a huge profile in history? He’s your prophet, how can you even ask?”
It quickly became clear that this was not a sufficient answer, and that the question was not about my decision as a writer. It was about my decision as a Jew. Just as Green focused on Aslan’s Muslimness and assumed that his real agenda was to attack Christianity, so certain conservative Muslims focused on my Jewishness and assumed that my real agenda must have been to attack Islam.
Let’s get one thing straight right away: just as many mainstream Christians have welcomed Aslan’s book, so many mainstream Muslims have welcomed mine. It’s the conservatives we’re talking about here, those who cannot tolerate any deviance from received orthodoxy.
In the context of Fox’s Islamophobic politics on the one hand, and of the Israel-Palestine conflict on the other, perhaps such suspicion is inevitable. But since Aslan’s book and mine both draw on scholarly resources but were written for general audiences, there’s another less obvious factor. Most devout believers are unaware of the vast body of academic research on the early history of Christianity and Islam. Used to hagiographic or devotional literature, they see any more dispassionate view of their revered figures as an assault on their belief. Demanding perfection, they refuse to tolerate human imperfection.
But what if Green had interviewed Aslan not with the desire to criticize, but with the desire to know? What if my conservative Muslim questioners had been more curious than judgmental? Without such knee-jerk defensiveness, the question of what a non-Christian brings to the study of Jesus or a non-Muslim to that of Muhammad becomes an interesting one – a question, that is, about the value of the ‘outsider’ point of view.
Precisely because he or she does not come from a place of belief, what seems obvious to the insider is not at all so to the outsider. It demands to be explored, to be understood on the multiple psychological, cultural, and political levels on which history takes place. Done well, this process can create important new insights into otherwise received versions of history, opening up fresh ways of seeing and understanding, and finding new relevance in old stories.
As with Jesus, so with Muhammad: by placing him in the world he experienced, in the full context of place and time, politics and culture – the ‘outsider’ biographer honors the man by honoring his lived experience.
Historical reality doesn’t detract from faith; it humanizes it. And when gross inhumanities are committed every day in the name of one faith or another, that alone should surely be more than enough reason to write.