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Reza Aslan

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Reza Aslan
Reza aslan 2013.jpg
Aslan at Texas Book Festival, 2013
Born (1972-05-03) May 3, 1972 (age 46)
Tehran, Iran
ResidenceLos Angeles, California, U.S.[1]
EducationSanta Clara University (BA)
Harvard University (MTS)
University of Iowa (MFA)
University of California, Santa Barbara (PhD)
OccupationAcademic, writer, producer, TV host
OrganizationAslan Media Inc., BoomGen Studios
Notable workNo God but God
Jessica Jackley (m. 2011)
RelativesLeila Forouhar (aunt)

Reza Aslan (Persian: رضا اصلان‎, IPA: [ˈɾezɒː æsˈlɒːn]; born May 3, 1972) is an Iranian-American author, public intellectual, religious studies scholar, producer, and television host. He has written three books on religion: No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization,[2] and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the International Qur'anic Studies Association. He is also a professor of creative writing at University of California, Riverside.[3] He is also currently a board member of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).[4]


Aslan's family came to the United States from Tehran in 1979, fleeing the Iranian Revolution. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.[5] He attended Del Mar High School in San Jose, and graduated class of 1990. In the early 1990s, Aslan taught courses at De La Salle High School in Concord, California.

Aslan holds a B.A. in religious studies from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) from Harvard Divinity School, a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in fiction writing from the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, and a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.[6][7][8][9] His 2009 dissertation, titled "Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework",[10] discussed contemporary Muslim political activism.[11]

In August 2000, while serving as the Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Aslan was a visiting faculty member in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Iowa.[12]

Aslan was the 2012–13 Wallerstein Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Drew University Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict.[13][14]

An Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations from 2012 to 2013,[citation needed] he is also a member of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities,[15] and the Pacific Council on International Policy.[16] He has served as Legislative Assistant for the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington D.C.,[17] and was elected President of Harvard's Chapter of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.[17] Aslan also serves on the board of directors of the Ploughshares Fund, which gives grants for peace and security issues, PEN Center USA, a writer's advocacy group, and he serves on the national advisory board of The Markaz (formerly the Levantine Cultural Center), a program to promote peace between Americans and the Arab/Muslim world.[16] He also serves on the board of trustees for the Chicago Theological Seminary[18] and is on the advisory board of the Yale Humanist Community.[19]

Religious views

Aslan was born into a Shia Muslim family.[20] He converted to evangelical Christianity at the age of 15,[21] and converted back to Islam the summer before attending Harvard.[22] In 2005 The Guardian called him "a Shia by persuasion".[23] In a 2013 interview with WNYC host Brian Lehrer, Aslan said: "I'm definitely a Muslim and Sufism is the tradition within Islam that I most closely adhere to."[24] He also proclaims himself a "genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth."[20] In a 2013 article in The Washington Post, Aslan states: "It's not [that] I think Islam is correct and Christianity is incorrect. It's that all religions are nothing more than a language made up of symbols and metaphors to help an individual explain faith."[25] In 2014, in an interview with Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, Aslan described Islam as:

a man-made institution. It's a set of symbols and metaphors that provides a language for which to express what is inexpressible, and that is faith. It's symbols and metaphors that I prefer, but it's not more right or more wrong than any other symbols and metaphors. It's a language, that's all it is.[26]


Aslan speaking at Roanoke College, 18 April 2012


Aslan has published three books, edited two anthologies and writes frequently for different media outlets.[27][28]


No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam

No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam is a non-fiction book published in 2005. The book describes the history of Islam and argues for a liberal interpretation of the religion. It blames Western imperialism and self-serving misinterpretations of Islamic law by past scholars for the current controversies within Islam,[29] challenging the "clash of civilizations" thesis.[30]

How to Win a Cosmic War (a.k.a. Beyond Fundamentalism)

In 2009, Aslan published his second book, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of Terror. The following year, it was rereleased in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization.[2] The book is both an in-depth study of the ideology fueling Al Qaeda, the Taliban and like-minded militants throughout the Muslim world, and an exploration of religious violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The author argues that the United States, by infusing the War on Terror with its own religiously polarizing rhetoric, is fighting a similar war - a war that he asserts can't be won.[31]

Aslan refers to Al Qaeda's jihad against the west as "a cosmic war", distinct from holy war, in which rival religious groups are engaged in an earthly battle for material goals. "A cosmic war is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens." American rhetoric of "war on terrorism", Aslan says, is in precise "cosmic dualism" to Al Qaeda's jihad. Aslan draws a distinction between Islamism and Jihadism. Islamists have legitimate goals and can be negotiated with, unlike Jihadists, who dream of an idealized past of a pan-Islamic, borderless "religious communalism". Aslan's prescription for winning the cosmic war is not to fight, but rather to engage moderate Islamic political forces in the democratic process. "Throughout the Middle East, whenever moderate Islamist parties have been allowed to participate in the political process, popular support for more extremist groups has diminished."[31]

The New Yorker called Beyond Fundamentalism a "thoughtful analysis of America's War on Terror".[32] The Washington Post added that it "offers a very persuasive argument for the best way to counter jihadism."[31]

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

In 2013, Aslan published Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, an historical account of the life of Jesus, which analyzes the various religious perspectives on Jesus, as well as the creation of Christianity. In the book, Aslan argues that Jesus was a political, rebellious and eschatological (end times) Jew whose proclamation of the coming kingdom of God was a call for regime change that would end Roman hegemony over Judea and end a corrupt and oppressive aristocratic priesthood.[33]

Other writing

Aslan has written articles for The Daily Beast as a contributing editor.[34] He has also written for various newspapers and periodicals, including the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post, Slate, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The Nation,[35] and The Christian Science Monitor.[36]

Work as editor

Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, an anthology edited and published by him, appeared in 2011. In collaboration with Words Without Borders, Aslan worked with a team of three regional editors and seventy-seven translators, amassing a collection of nearly 200 pieces originally written in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Turkish, many presented in English for the first time.[37]

Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities (2011 ) coedited with Abraham's Vision founder Aaron J. Hahn Tapper, is a collection of essays exploring contemporary Jewish-Muslim relations in the United States and the distinct ways in which these two communities interact with one another in that context.[38]

Business ventures

Aslan Media

Aslan founded Aslan Media, a media platform offering alternative coverage of the Middle East and its global diaspora communities.[39]

BoomGen Studios

In 2006, Aslan teamed up with Iranian American cinematographer and producer Mahyad Tousi to create BoomGen Studios, a studio and production company focused to bring stories from and about the Middle East to American audiences. Projects that they consulted on include National Geographic's Amreeka; Disney's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and the Broadway adaptation of Aladdin; the Weinstein Company's Miral; Relativity Media's Desert Dancer; Fork Films' The Trials of Spring; Jon Stewart's directorial debut Rosewater; and 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary The Square.[40]

Of Kings and Prophets

In January 2015, BoomGen announced that ABC picked up its biblical epic, Of Kings and Prophets, a dramatic retelling of the central story in the Hebrew Bible: the story of King David from shepherd to king. The series followed an ensemble of characters including Saul and David, the successive Kings of Israel, their families, and their political rivals. Of Kings and Prophets was set in the Kingdom of Israel, but filmed in Cape Town, South Africa. Aslan, Tousi and Jason Reed served as executive producers on the show.[41]

TV projects

The Leftovers

In 2015, Aslan joined popular HBO series The Leftovers as a consulting producer for both its second and third seasons. In addition to helping to craft the foundation of the show, Aslan was integral in protagonist Kevin Garvey's season two character arc.[42]

Rough Draft

In March 2016, cable network Ovation premiered Rough Draft with Reza Aslan, a fast-paced and timely talk show featuring Aslan in conversation with critically acclaimed authors and writers in film, TV and journalism.[43]


In 2015, Aslan began production for "spiritual travel series" Believer, a documentary series that follows Aslan as he immerses himself and experiences various religious traditions all over the world, focusing on sects considered fringe and disreputable by larger religions. The program, which Aslan compared to Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown[44] was part of CNN's original programming lineup and premiered in March 2017.[45][46]

The first episode focused on the Aghori sect of Hinduism. This led to controversy with accusations of sensationalism and anti-Hinduism when Aslan ate part of a human brain while meeting Aghori sadhus.[47][48] The United States India Political Action Committee said in a statement that "[w]ith multiple reports of hate-fueled attacks against people of Indian origin from across the U.S., the show characterizes Hinduism as cannibalistic, which is a bizarre way of looking at the third largest religion in the world."[49][50] Vamsee Juluri, professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco, described the episode as "reckless, racist, and anti-immigrant",[51] while Aseem Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation accused Aslan of being "poorly informed", circulating "common stereotypical misconceptions" about Hinduism and indulging in "religion porn" "to grab ratings", with the "most clichéd, spurious conflations of the Hindu religion with the caste system".[52]

US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard compared the show to "touring a zoo".[53][54] The show has also been criticized for saying that Varanasi was called "the city of the dead",[55][56] calling the immersion of ashes "dumping", presenting the Aghors as an exception in their struggle against the caste system,[57][58] and claims he misunderstood the distinction between Varna and Jāti,[59] and the notion of God in Hinduism.[57] The organizations American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) have also both questioned why Aslan's show does not cover Islam, his own religion. Aslan said that he had planned to cover the Ashura festival in Pakistan, but abandoned the plan because of insurance costs. He pledged to cover Islam if Believer had a second series.[60] On June 9, 2017, CNN announced that it has "decided to not move forward with production" on Aslan's Believer series after his profane anti-Trump tweets were widely criticized earlier in the week.[61]

Aslan has defended the episode on Facebook.[62]

Remarks about President Trump

After the June 2017 London Bridge attack Aslan took to Twitter to call President Trump "a piece of shit" and a "man baby" for his response to the attack.[63] On June 9, 2017, in response to his remarks, CNN decided to cut ties with Aslan and announced they would not move forward with season two of the Believer series.[61] Aslan said of the cancellation, "I am not a journalist. I am a social commentator and scholar. And so I agree with CNN that it is best that we part ways."[61]

Other media appearances

Aslan has made numerous appearances on TV and radio, including National Public Radio (NPR), Spirited Debate on Fox News, PBS, The Rachel Maddow Show, Meet the Press, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, Anderson Cooper 360°, Hardball, Nightline, Real Time with Bill Maher, Fareed Zakaria GPS, and ABC Australia's Big Ideas.[64]

2013 Fox News interview

On 26 July 2013, Aslan was interviewed on Spirited Debate, a Fox News webcast by Chief Religion Correspondent Lauren Green about his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.[65][66] Green was "unsatisfied with Aslan's credentials," and she pressed Aslan, questioning why a Muslim would write about Jesus.[67] Aslan answered, "Because it's my job as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That's what I do for a living, actually." The interview lasted about ten minutes and focused "on Aslan's background more than the actual contents of the book."[67] The video clip of the interview went viral within days[65] and the book, which was up to that point selling "steadily",[65] appeared at the 4th place on the New York Times print hardcover best-seller list.[65] By late July 2013, it was topping the U.S. best-seller list on Amazon.[68]

Following Aslan's interview with Fox News, Elizabeth Castelli, professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University, reported a sense of outrage in academia, writing "Those of us in the academic field of religious studies, especially biblical scholars and historians of early Christianity, found the whole business deeply cringe-worthy. The Fox News interview was not just embarrassing but downright offensive. The anti-Muslim bias of Fox is well-documented and is bad enough, whatever the specific context. For scholars of religion, Green's conflation of the academic study of religion with personal religious identification is a familiar misunderstanding."[11]

Despite Elizabeth Castelli's dismissal of Fox News for questioning Aslan as a religious scholar as she acknowledged Aslan could claim as a scholar of "history-of-religions", she dismissed his claims of being a historian. She wrote "History of religions is [...] a particular disciplinary approach[...] often associated in the United States with the University of Chicago and the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Aslan earned his PhD in sociology. To the extent that he did coursework in the UCSB Religious Studies department, he can certainly lay claim... But his claims are more grandiose than that and are based on his repeated public statements that he speaks with authority as a historian. He has therefore reasonably opened himself to criticism."[11] The Atlantic concurred with Prof. Castelli's acknowledgment on Aslan's religious credentials.[69]

In The Washington Post, the journalist Manuel Roig-Franzia concurred with Prof. Castelli's critique of Aslan's historian credentials, noting that Aslan's university does not offer degrees in the history or the sociology of religion and writing that Aslan "boasts of academic laurels he does not have." However, he quoted Aslan's dissertation adviser, Mark Juergensmeyer, who acknowledged that their departments "don't have a degree in sociology of religions as such" but said that he "doesn't have a problem with Aslan's characterization of his doctorate, noting... [Aslan] did most of his course work in religion" and his arrangement of getting Aslan out of the religious studies department into the sociology department "was undertaken to get Aslan out of time-consuming required language courses".[70] The Philadelphia Inquirer also noted UCSB "is famous for its interdisciplinary program—students tailor their studies around a topic, not a department. They choose a department only for the diploma."[71]

Professional membership

Aslan is a sitting member of the advisory board for the National Iranian American Council.[72] In 2015 as a member of the group, he joined with 73 other "prominent International Relations and Middle East scholars" in signing a statement of support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an international agreement regarding the Iranian nuclear program.[73][74]

Political analysis

Analysis of War on Terrorism

Reza Aslan at the Miami Book Fair International 2013

Aslan refers to Al Qaeda's jihad against the west as "a cosmic war", distinct from holy war, in which rival religious groups are engaged in an earthly battle for material goals. "A cosmic war is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens." American rhetoric of "war on terrorism", Aslan says, is in precise "cosmic dualism" to Al Qaeda's jihad. Aslan draws a distinction between Islamism and Jihadism. Islamists have legitimate goals and can be negotiated with, unlike Jihadists, who dream of an idealized past of a pan-Islamic, borderless "religious communalism". Aslan's prescription for winning the cosmic war is not to fight, but rather to engage moderate Islamic political forces in the democratic process. "Throughout the Middle East, whenever moderate Islamist parties have been allowed to participate in the political process, popular support for more extremist groups has diminished."[31]

Protection of religious freedom

Aslan has argued for religious freedom and protection for religious minorities throughout the Middle East.[75][76] He has called for Iran to protect and stop the "horrific human rights abuses" against its Baha'i community.[75] Aslan has also said that the persecution and displacement of Middle Eastern Christian communities "is nothing less than a regional religious cleansing that will soon prove to be a historic disaster for Christians and Muslims alike."[76]

Criticism of New Atheism

In a 2014 interview, Aslan criticized the "armchair atheism" of atheists like Sam Harris and Bill Maher for not having a formal background in the study of religion, and who in Aslan's opinion are therefore unable to effectively comment on how it shapes human behavior.[77] Aslan has also referred to Richard Dawkins as a "buffoon, embarrassing himself every day."[78] He contrasted New Atheists to the "philosophical atheism" of earlier thinkers who "were experts in religion, and so they were able to offer critiques of it that came from a place of knowledge, from a sophistication of education, of research."[77]

On 29 September 2014, Antonia Blumberg in The Huffington Post stated that Reza Aslan, on CNN, "criticized comedian Bill Maher for characterizing female genital mutilation as an 'Islamic problem,' in addition to making several other sweeping generalizations about the faith."[79] Aslan was reported as saying that "To say 'Muslim countries', as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same... it's frankly, and I use this word seriously, stupid!" His criticism was not just of Maher, but of the overall way Muslims are portrayed in mainstream media.[80] Prachi Gupta, in Salon, wrote that Reza Aslan believed that the United States was partnering with Saudi Arabia while simultaneously condemning ISIS.[81]

On 8 October 2014, Aslan published a New York Times article titled, "Bill Maher Isn't the Only One Who Misunderstands Religion" writing that, "Bill Maher is right to condemn religious practices that violate fundamental human rights. Religious communities must do more to counter extremist interpretations of their faith. But failing to recognize that religion is embedded in culture—and making a blanket judgment about the world's second largest religion—is simply bigotry."[82]

Writing in New Republic, Eric Sasson took issue with Aslan's claim in the CNN interview that men and women are treated equally in Indonesia and Turkey due to the countries having elected female leaders, pointing out that the Human Rights Watch reported a "significant rollback" of women's rights in both countries. Sasson also challenged Aslan's statement that female genital mutilation is only a problem in Central Africa, stating that it's also an issue in the predominantly Muslim country of Malaysia, which is in Asia.[83] The television and radio host David Pakman also cast doubt on some of Aslan's claims from the CNN interview.[84] Sam Harris criticized Aslan for blaming individuals rather than Islam as a whole for violence in the Muslim world, calling his approach "post-modernist nonsense."[85]

Personal life

Aslan and his ex-fiancée, journalist Amanda Fortini, ended their engagement in 2008.[86] He married entrepreneur and author, Jessica Jackley, a Christian, in 2011 together forming an interfaith family.[87] They have three sons.[1] His aunt is famed Iranian-American pop singer, Leila Forouhar.[88]


  • 2014 Intersections Honoree, Intersections International[89]
  • 2013 Media Bridge-Builder Award, Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding[90]
  • 2013 Peter J. Gomes Memorial Honor, Harvard Divinity School[91]
  • 2012 East-West Media Award, The Levantine Center[92][93]



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  69. ^ Graham, David A. (July 29, 2013). "Is Muslim Academic Reza Aslan More Biased Than a Christian Scholar?". The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. Retrieved 20 May 2015. Aslan may not have a graduate degree in history, but he does have a Ph.D. and an M.T.S. that bear on the topic at hand. He has also published extensively on religion. Arguing he's somehow not a scholar, as John S. Dickerson did, isn't really credible.
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  76. ^ a b Aslan, Reza (September 11, 2013). "The Christian Exodus". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved September 25, 2013.
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