It is quite a task in the Western world, in the post 9-11 world when there are still active warfare situations taking place in two different Islamic country settings, to set out to write a book on the history, culture and heart of Islam as being something other than that which seems to come across in mass media on a daily basis.
The beginning of this text is the Quran - 'It is invaluable in revealing the ideology of the Muslim faith in its infancy: that is, before the faith became a religion, before the religion became an institution.' Aslan states that the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad are grounded in mythology (mythology not as false tales, but rather as stories of the supernatural) which has both credibility and legitimacy in significant ways - these ways are variously interpreted by different groups within the Muslim world.
Within the many chapters, Aslan looks at the early days Islam during the life of the Prophet, the immediate successors of Muhammad, the development of the Shariah and theological positions, and the mystical system of the Sufi. Aslan also looks at the contemporary aspects of Islam by tracing post-colonial sentiments (something still very much at work in the conflicts of the present time) and what Aslan and other have termed the Islamic Reformation, a return to early principles of the Islam that have been obscured in the history of the faith and its interplay with political reality.
Aslan's running motif is that Islam, at its philosophical and theological heart, is a pluralistic system with democracy as the best, final outcome. There is support for this - the long-standing Jewish communities in Babylon and Spain under Islamic rule, the recognition of the validity of Jewish and Christian theological bases by Muhammad, etc. However, the history of Islam is a very human history - as in other religious contexts, the rulers have frequently failed to live up to the ideals, persecuting not only outsiders, but also different members of their religion with special ferocity (not dissimilar to the stories of Moses imposing the death penalty on Israelites in the desert for collecting sticks on the Sabbath, or Christians burning other Christians at the stake for holding heretical views).
Aslan is passionate, but fails to persuade in many cases. In giving his own account of his return to Iran after the amnesty was announced for exiled Iranians to visit without fear of detention and punishment, there was still a sense of the failure of the government and culture to live up to its ideals, and Aslan is a bit quick to assign blame outside of Iran than on the rulers themselves. Still, the experiences are interesting to read, and Aslan's analysis worth considering.
Aslan writes that not only did the events of 9-11 set in motion a clash between the Judeo-Christian world and the Muslim world in broad terms, but 'also initiated a vibrant discourse among Muslims about the meaning and message of Islam in the twenty-first century. What has occurred since that fateful day amounts to nothing short of another Muslim civil war - a fitnah - which, like the contest to define Islam after the Prophet's death, is tearing the Muslim community into opposing factions.' We are in the midst of the Islamic Reformation, and it is too soon to tell what the outcome may be.