Lightning Rod

Jesus Needs Reza Aslan, Author of 'Zealot'

Kirsten Powers talks to the writer about why Muslims rarely write about Christianity.

What is it about Reza Aslan that has unhinged so many people?

The author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is at the center of an inexplicable firestorm for writing a book about Jesus. He’s been treated to hair-splitting attacks on his academic credentials and claims of a secret Muslim agenda. Nearly every critic of the Iranian-American and Muslim author has fretted over whether he has the right to tackle his subject. In an interview, Aslan was exasperated, pointing out to me repeatedly that his credentials were never questioned when he wrote the bestselling, No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.

Reviewers spanning the theological spectrum have reacted with a curious level of hostility toward a writer who even by their own estimation is embracing a theory of the historical Jesus that has been around for a long time. What’s going on? Aslan told me, “My faith background makes me suspect. Not just to the fringe, but to the Washington Post and the New York Times.”

That’s too bad. A Muslim writing an academic book about Jesus is groundbreaking. It should be welcomed. You don’t have to agree with his conclusions about Jesus – I don’t – to hold this view.

My friend, the Rev. Matthew Anderson – who has worked in Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt and is currently a doctoral student in the field at Georgetown University – told me, “While I don’t affirm Aslan’s conclusions, from the perspective of inter-religious dialogue, his book can be interpreted as a positive development. In the field of Christian-Muslim dialogue there has been a shortage of serious academic scholarship on the historical Jesus or the New Testament generally written by Muslims. Perhaps the book is a sign that things are changing."

Aslan concurs. “About 90 percent of the scholarly historical study of Islam is written by Christians or Jews,” he told me. “Very few scholars of religion who are Muslim write about Christianity.”

Aslan is refreshingly unique in another way. He says, “Unlike the majority of my colleagues, I am a person of faith.” He recalls his time at Harvard Divinity School, where “anyone who espoused faith would sort of be ridiculed for it. You know the saying, ‘Harvard is where faith goes to die.’ A lot of people enter Harvard with faith and leave with nothing. I was confident in the notion that we cannot just treat [religion] like it’s something to be looked at under microscope. It is a real thing. [Let’s] not treat religious people or faith the way a scientist would treat a microbe. That was definitely the minority view.”

The academic field is famously hostile to believers and Aslan has bucked that worldview. Perhaps the most high-profile anti-God academic is Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, who this week created controversy when he tweeted, "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though."

Says Aslan, “Dawkins gives science and atheism a bad name. This is a man who believes any person of faith is not just wrong, but stupid. That he is in solitary possession of truth. That’s called fundamentalism.” Aslan eschews fundamentalism. He is a Muslim, but in his book he rejects the virgin birth of Jesus and concludes that Jesus was in fact crucified, putting him at odds with mainstream Islamic doctrine.

In the interview that helped launch “Zealot” to the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list, Aslan said he had been obsessed with Jesus most of his life. I asked him why this was. He responded, “I don’t know why everyone isn’t obsessed with Jesus. He is the most interesting person who ever lived.”

So he wrote a book about him. Makes sense to me