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Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
Hey everyone, I'm excited for this conversation! Any questions you have on God, Jesus, Islam, any of my books, religion, writing, or anything else on your mind—ask away! Looking forward to answering whatever you throw at me as best as I can!
This Q&A took place between 8/26/15 and 9/2/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
20 questions
JD/MPA Candidate at Columbia Law and Harvard Kennedy School
Hi Reza,

Thanks in advance for taking our questions!

Is Islam a religion capable of reformation, like Christianity and Judaism seemed to do centuries ago? If so, what must it do to change? If not, why not?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
Don't think of reformation as being the same thing as reform. Reformation is a universal phenomenon that takes place in all great religious traditions. It refers to the ever present conflict between religious institutions and individuals over who has the authority to define the faith. That is what the Christian reformation was all about – who gets to interpret Christianity the Vatican or the individual Christian without mediation. You need to understand that this same process has been taking place in Islam for more than 100 years. In fact the violence that we are seeing in the Muslim world, the rise of groups like Isis and Al Qaeda ( both of whom are radically anti-institutional ), is the direct result of the Islamic reformation not evidence that one is needed. After all if you say that the individual without mediation gets to define his or her religion however he or she Sees fit then you are opening up a can of worms in which every interpretation no matter how extreme is valid. That necessarily result in violence. Don't forget the Christian Reformation resulted in the 30 years war and the death of half the population of Germany alone. So stop calling for an Islamic Reformation and recognize the Reformation that has already begun.
In your last appearance with John Stewart, you said "Scripture, its power comes from its malleability".

Does this make everyone qualified to deal with scripture? And if not, when does someone becomes qualified? in other words: Do we or do we not need someone to interpret scripture for us?

Finally, Do you believe this malleability leads to an infinite number of versions of religions and as a result chaos?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
As a scholar of religions I recognize that people more often insert their values into their scriptures rather then draw their values from them. This may seem counterfactual but if it weren't true every Christian in the world would interpret the Bible in exactly the same way. That of course is ridiculous. This fact also for bids me from devaluing a person's interpretation no matter how wrongheaded, unhistorical or irrational it may be. It's for this reason that I refuse to deny ISIS is Muslim. If they say they're Muslim then they're Muslim. End of story. However as a person of faith I really struggle with this idea because it is at the heart of the problems that we are facing in the world - people with violent and mysogynistic interpretations of religion are ruining it for the rest of us!! But can you find justification for such interpretations in every scripture in the world? Yes. But you can also find the justification for the exact opposite interpretation in all of those scriptures too. It's up to the individual which interpretation one garners
The rise and decline of religions has been witnessed throughout history, some stay prominent in small communities, and others get displaced. Do you think Islam will decline? What would be its breaking point? Would secularism fill the void in the Muslim world or yet another religion?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
We have been talking about the death of God very long time and the fact of the matter is the more modern the more secular the more technologically advanced civilizations become the more religious identity continues to thrive. So Islam is not going anywhere. However as with all religions Islam is in a constant state of evolution. It is constantly evolving and adapting to whatever soil it has been planted in. People keep assuming that eventually knowledge or science will get rid of religion. That is not happening. If tomorrow aliens arrive in New York City from a distant planet it won't make religion go away, it'll just make religion adapt to that new reality. When we discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe did Christianity disappear? Of course not.
Hi Reza! So excited to have you here.

What is the best advice you've ever received?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
If you walk into a room like you own the place people will assume you do and treat you as such. ;)
Founder, 10 TRAITS Leadership Institute; UN Virtual Mentor
Hi Reza: Do you think that modern day society is witnessing the emergence of a new kind of "religion" - a rapid evolution of consciousness - a "moral imperative" driven by climate change? Pope Francis called on humanity to take on this challenge as a "moral imperative" to protect Planet Earth and its inhabitants. Could a similar statement be attached to any traditional religion, Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism, for example?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
Absolutely! In fact we are seeing it happen now. Here is a major Islamic declaration on climate change that just came out. islamicclimatedeclaration...hange/

And here's a list of statements from Baha'i groups, Buddhists, etc

Honestly it seems like the Pope is late to the party. Burgos statements are sure to have a huge impact on believers. At least let's hope so.
Communicatons Director of Harvard College Democrats
The rise of ISIL in the Middle East and northern Africa is arguably one of the greatest threats to world peace and stability today. ISIL has claimed that their terror is based on a very strict medievalist understanding of the Quran, but on the Quran nonetheless. While some scholars believe that ISIL is "un-Islamic," many others (Tom Holland, Graeme Wood, Hassan Hassan) assert that ISIL is in fact "very Islamic" in their Salafist interpretation. In previous writings, you have said that ISIS is in fact Islamic. Do you still stand by this claim? If so, what are specific ways that the anti-ISIL world can fight this ideology?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
I understand the desire among people of faith to claim that violent radicals in their faith do not represent their religion. You hear this from Christians Jews Muslims Buddhists etc. But as I said before anyone who wants to act in any way - whether violently or peacefully – can look to any scripture in the world for justification. If Isis claims their actions are in the name of Islam we should take their word for it. Just as they don't have the ability to declare me not a Muslim I don't have the ability to declare them as not Muslims. However what gets lost in this discussion is that just because I ISIS's actions can be justified by Islamic history and interpretation doesn't make those actions representative of normative Islamic thought. Those who claim otherwise like Tom Holland etc. would also have to say that the KKK represents normative Christianity or that the price tag terrorists represent normative Judaism. Few critics of Islam would dare say those things. So is Isis Islamic? Yes. Does that mean that Islam is Isis? No.
4th Way Facilitator and Public Health Strategy Consultant
Hi, Reza -- What are two things that everyone agrees on regardless of religion or lack thereof? Or three or one?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
Actually every religion in the world shares a version of the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the foundation of secularism as well. Going all the way back to John Stuart Mill and the theory of utilitarianism. The foundation of secular society's is predicated on the notion of a simple contract. Why should stealing be illegal? Because you don't want anyone to steal from you. So there you have it. All religions and secular humanism rolled into one sentence.
Thanks for answering our questions. I was raised to believe that islam is right, all other beliefs are wrong. Easy when I lived among people who share that faith, difficult when I moved overseas, married a Catholic wife and have many atheist friends that I truly care about.
Do you support the mainstream opinion in Islam that my catholic wife is going to hell regardless of her deeds, along with Ghandi, MLK, Mother Teresa to name a few?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
Hell is a human invention. In fact the concept of hell - and indeed the Devil - is only about 3000 years old. It was first introduced into theNear East by the Iranian prophet Zarathustra. It simply did not exist in any religion before then. So do I think your wife (and mine, who is a Christian) is going to a place that has only existed for 3000 of the more than 125,000 years of human religiosity? No.
Religions are merely different paths to the same destination. Focus on the destination.
Corporate Innovation Activist | Social Scientist in training
OK, so it's not a question but I couldn't pass by without saying: wow - what an infectiously warm and positive smile you have! Love it!
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
I'll tell my mom you said so :)
Stanford student, Innovator in Residence StartX
Hello Reza, thank you for taking our questions and for your excellent books that I've enjoyed very much. My question is about gender equality / inequality in Islam. I believe it says in the Koran that a man can marry outside the religion, but a woman cannot. How do you see Islam and gender
inequality both today and potentially either progressing or regressing in the future?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
Islam is a patriarchal religion. There are few religions in the history of the world that haven't been. That said the Koran unlike most other scriptures posits a surprisingly egalitarian conception of gender relations. For example the Koran rather than claiming man was created first states that men and women were created simultaneously. It also goes to great lengths to stress the equality of men and women in the yes of God. But it is a scripture that undoudetly relies on 7th century social dynamics when it comes to the role of men and women. For instance women get half an inheritance ((tho I should mention that before Islam they got none). Men are allowed 4 wives under strict circumstances while women are allowed only one husband. Etc. I outline all this in No god but God if you're interested.

To your specific question however because Islam is patrilineal (descent from father not mother) women were not given the same right to marry non Muslims that men were given.

I find this restriction not only absurd but irrelevant. Faith is not inherited. It is a choice. I'm not Muslim because my dad was (he wasn't by the way) but because I choose to be Muslim.

Finally I encourage you to read up the exciting innovations taking place among Islamic feminists in redefining not just traditional gender roles in Islam but redefining the Quran itself.
Economist, philosopher, author, lecturer, futurist
When Islam was new, it was open to science, philosophy, debate, and intellectual scrutiny (with the knowledge available at the time) and became this cultural tornado that swept across the Middle East and North Africa.

When did it lose its curiosity and become dogmatic and intolerant and why?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
Let me begin by saying the so-called "closing of the gates of ijtihad" - whereby sometime in the 10th century Islamic scholars simply stopped using reason and independent thought and began relying on blind dogma and precedence - is a western myth. It is true that the intellectual dynamism that marked Islamic civilization in the first 7 or 8 centuries of its existence is no longer as robust as it was. But the turn came not in the 10th century but in the 19th. By then centuries of ottoman rule had begun to stifle a great deal of Islam's intellectual vigor. But it was the colonial experience that created a rapid and often violent backlash against anything that was deemed "western" including the very same scientific and technological advancements that had been the foundation of Islamic civilization. Because these things were inextricably linked to colonial oppression, they became tagged as "western" and the result was a reversion to traditionalism. In the Arab world that legacy is still felt in low literacy rates, appealing not educational services, and a decline in scientific innovation. But the western belief that "Islam" is more intolerant and dogmatic than other religions relies on a purely western lense. We like to make Islam our polar opposite so we can define ourselves against it as tolerant and pluralistic - don't fall for it.
Reza! What an honor.

How difficult are you finding the battle for building informed narratives on Islam, particularly in the US - but also, given the seemingly increasing xenophobia in several European countries? As such, what's your next step?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
There's no question that anti Islamic sentiment is at unprecedented levels in the U.S. and Europe. I think many Muslims think that this is because people don't really understand Islam - they may be right but the point is moot. Because bigotry - no matter if it's against Jews or blacks or gays or Muslims - is not a result of ignorance. It is a result of fear. And fear is impervious to data. The sad truth is that knowledge and information rarely changes peoples's minds. Relationships do. And so the only cure to islamophobia is through the slow building of relations between individuals. Now I believe we can speed that process up by inserting Islamic narratives into pop culture - films, music, TV etc. that's what I am doing with BoomGen Studios. It's what happened with the LGBT movement in the U.S. The pendulum swung in favor of LGBT rights in this country not because people learned more about LGBT issue but because they got to know LGBT individuals - if not personally then on TV. It becomes very difficult to label someone as "other" when you know them personally.
My view of Islam (and I am a muslim) is hardly shared with many, I guess. It is not a separate entity of other monotheistic religions, nor it is a branch of one. Actually, I believe it is the concept that is common among any message from God. It is the umbrella, and it is the commonality. If Abraham himself was Muslim (as stated clearly in the Quran), then it is the simpler approach (Occam's Razor?) to consider all religions as Islam. Again, from the Quran, "Faith in the eyes of God is Islam"; it is taken usually to mean that others are not even real faiths, but it could as well mean that Islam is the faith, the general category that Christianity and Judaism fall into, nothing separate for sure.
Also, how can we explain the thousands of prophets, if each is preaching a separate faith... they are all the same, and all are preaching the same faith: Islam (Quran: Bakarah-285: We make no distinction between any of His messengers.)
I believe it was all a separatist movement by earlier Muslims, intentional or not (and the same with first Christians) to create something new so they can own...
How far off is my model from your own understanding of different religions and their relation? Because sometimes I see this meaning slightly show from your own discussions/writings.

(Thanks for reading this long "question")
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
I'd say you are pretty spot on actually. The Quran itself repeatedly says that it is NOT a new message but a confirmation of all the previous messages handed throughout time to all the prophets. In fact, the Quran proposes the unprecedented notion that all revealed scriptures are derived from a single concealed book in heaven called the Umm al-Kitab, or “Mother of Books” (13:39). That means that as far as Muhammad understood, the Torah, the Gospels, and the Quran must be read as a single, cohesive narrative about humanity’s relationship to God, in which the prophetic consciousness of one prophet is passed spiritually to the next: from Adam to Muhammad. That seems to fit pretty well with your conception of Islam.
Associate Dean, Columbia U- Graduate School of Journalism
Hi Reza - Thank you so much for taking our questions. I am fascinated by your religious journey and am curious to know how your faith is informed, fueled, inspired. My own experiences have led me to a point of viewing God as antithetical to religion. In short, the Bible’s inclusion of elements I found morally indefensible or inconsistent negated the whole; I am too much of a reverse literalist. And I cannot fathom that God cares about what we eat, wear, with whom we sleep or our means of worship (or that we worship). It is not that I need proof in order to believe necessarily, it is that I need exactitude about that which I am taking the leap, so I have abandoned religion. For you, what is it about the metaphors of Islam that work for you as opposed to simply believing in a higher power without all the messy contradictions and restrictions of religion?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
Very smart question Melanie. I do think you need to be wary of the reverse literalism problem. Of course scriptures have awful passages. They also have beautiful passages. That is why they have lasted so long - because they speak to the complete human condition. It is up to the individual to decide how to interpret and live the scripture. But always cognizant of the fact that these are divinely inspired human constructions written in a specific context. That means context is supremely important in interpreting them.

In general don't confuse religion for faith. These are different things. Faith is individualistic and mysterious and ineffable. Religion is just a language of symbols and metaphors that help us communicate with each other and ourselves the inexpressible nature of faith experiences. That's it. So pick the metaphors that make the most sense to you, but NEVER mistake the metaphor for the thing itself.

For me, the metaphor of Tawhid (the ONENESS and UNITY of God) is how I already understand the world, my place in it, and the relationship between creator and creation. That is why I use it.
Can you perhaps recommend 1-2 books on improving writing skills?

Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
I would avoid books about How to Write and instead study the works of great writers. They are the best teachers you could ever hope for.
Does some of the strongest analysis of a religion and its beliefs come from non-adherents?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
Almost all of it does :)

I have repeatedly said that my greatest and my most influential teachers were all atheists. But that is also why I am so grieved at the way in which the anti-theist fringe has hijacked atheism in this country, making so many people think that Dawkins or Harris, rather than Marx, Freud, Schopenhauer, Freuerbach etc, are the voice of rational atheism.
Director of Strategy at Maple Leaf Foods - Canada
Hi Reza,

Thank you so much for participation.

The Quran is promoted among Muslims to be a unique unparalleled miraculous piece of literature, partially based on the verse "Then let them produce a statement like it, if they should be truthful" At-Tur 52:34.

You are a world renowned religious scholar, a creative writing professor and a famously eloquent speaker. Do you think that Quran's scripture has the miraculous beauty of literature it claims to have?

Thank you very much
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
It's hard for non-Arabic speakers to appreciate the exquisite quality of the Quran’s language. It is widely recognized as the Arabic language at its poetic height. In fact the Quran essentially created the Arabic language. It is the source of Arabic grammar. It is to Arabic what Homer is to Greek, what Chaucer is to English: a snapshot of an evolving language, frozen forever in time. I have no problem attributing this beauty to divine inspiration.

But let me be clear. I also thing Abbey Road is divinely inspired. In other words, I can appreciate and recognize the divine beauty of the Quran without necessarily accepting that beauty as UNIQUELY Quranic.
You always seem serene, calm, and give proper answers no matter how offensive the question or tone is - but what do you think when journalist or tv-personalities ask you these types of questions? It is really impressive! :)
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
I recognize that the media - especially cable news - is geared toward the mind of a 5th grader. That is why it presents issue as black and white: as though there are only two sides to each issue (often there is only one side - one rational side). But I also recognize that sometimes the media is the best way to communicate to a large audience. So i try my hardest to use it to my advantage - not necessarily to try to make some grand point, but to point out the absurdity of the debate. But I'll be honest, it takes a toll.
Writer / Podcaster Co-Host of Part Of The Problem
My Question may not get a response or any upvotes because it may be viewed as combative or it may make people uncomfortable, however, this is no reason to shy away from reason, rationality and logic in favor unscientific, ignorant, and implausible ideas. All Religions are dogmatisms that seek to exact power and control over their loyal subjects. They rely on ritualistic, habit forming indoctrination tactics to build an army of worshipers who are immune to any critical analysis, thus absolving them of their individual actions, and discouraging them from independent thought, cognitive liberty, free will, and the primacy of direct experience. Instead, religions supply their mental slaves with their own version of reality that is fueled by fear, historical longevity, tradition and cherry picking, all the while, hiding their true nature behind an ideological camouflage. Any comments or questions like this are somehow seen as abrasive and are able to evade rigorous scientific scrutiny, and rational criticisms, even from the most intelligent intellectuals why? My questions are: 2 questions: 1. How can any reasonable, intelligent person justify this behavior? And 2. Isn’t it immoral to indoctrinate vulnerable children into these divisive and dangerous old world power structures?
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
I think that reasonable intelligent people try their hardest not to make grand pronouncements about the lived experience of people of whom they have no direct knowledge of. It is not that your view of religion and religious people is incorrect. It is that it is severely limited and unsophisticated and does not take into account the reality of religion in history - which has been the cause of great evil and great good - or the reality of how religion is actually experienced in people's lives - as part of their identity and not as simply a matter of belief or practice. Let me put it this way: absolutely every legitimate criticism you have of religion can be EQUALLY applied to nationalism, tribalism, socialism - every ideology that has ever existed. You may say, "yeah but religion deals in absolutes!" So does nationalism. So does tribalisms. Etc.

So then, as a rational intelligent person, ask yourself this question: if your criticisms of religion can be applied to other ideologies, maybe the problem isn't religion per se but human nature.
How do you approach theodicy?
As a child, I was praying to God because I thought God could change something. Obviously, when you grow up, you see so much evil in the world and history.

And thank you - I think the discussions you provoked are invaluable!
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
I think the "problem of evil" is not a metaphysical problem but a mundane one. People have the capacity for great evil and regularly act in evil ways. The minute we start attributing such evil to supernatural forces - God or the Devil - we remove responsibility for that evil from the individual.

So to me, the presence of evil in the world does not negate the presence of God in the world.

Frankly, good and bad are, in my view, human attributes. And my definition of God does not allow for the attribution of any human attributes, no matter what it is.