Interview with Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan

The Diplomat speaks with scholar and writer Reza Aslan.

Sanjay Kumar, The Diplomat

The Diplomat‘s Sanjay Kumar spoke to Reza Aslan, whose book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth created controversy recently. An Iranian-American scholar of religion at the University of California, Aslan has been in the news ever since his first book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam was published in 2005. In that book, he advocates for a liberal interpretation of Islam and challenges the thesis of a “clash of civilizations.” InZealot, Aslan argues for humanizing Christ. Many conservative Christians have questioned his intent and also doubted his credentials as a Muslim to write on Christianity. Aslan answers some of the questions related to the controversy.

How do you feel that your book, Zealot, has received so much attention?

There is nothing more satisfying for a writer than to know that  people are interested in knowing what he is writing. I feel absolutely honored and blessed that I can come to a place like Jaipur and people are excited and want to know about my book and me; that is the greatest feeling in the world.

How you see the role of controversy in popularizing a book?

People are interested in the controversy of the book and nothing is more controversial than religion. I have been writing about religion for the last ten years. I am used to this kind of controversy. I am used to this kind of polarization. There are people who love what I write and there are groups who don’t like what I say in my book. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that.

Over the course of the whole controversy related to your book, do you think that the content of the book was reflected accurately in the debate or not? Or was it just a controversy for the sake of controversy?

I think most people who hate this book have never read it. I get lots of email from the readers, who say that they bought this book with the feeling that they are going to hate it but on the contrary they enjoyed reading it. They say the book is actually a very moderate and respectful look at Jesus. In most of the cases people who react aggressively and violently are those who never bothered to read the book. How many Muslims do you think have actually read Satanic Verses … very few.

You have become a sort of Salman Rushdie figure for a section of conservative Christians.

Yes, kind of. You know, I have received seven or eight death threats from Christians — but again if you are going to write about religion for a living, you have to get used to this kind of threat. It comes with the job.

As the author, how you would explain to a layman the real content and intent behind Zealot?

It is an attempt to separate Christ of faith from the Jesus of history. It is an attempt to dig through the layers of theology and interpretations that surround the figure of Jesus and get to the man himself and to allow the world in which he lived to define who he is. That is what this book is all about.