Reza Aslan doesn’t mind being called a pantheist. In his own “roundabout spiritual journey” and study of the world’s religions, which has led him to write books on Islam, the life of Jesus Christ, God, and most recently an American martyr in Persia, he has come to believe the Sufi notion that religion is just a shell one must break through to truly understand God — and that if God is anything at all, then all is God.
He joined Tyler to discuss Shi’a and Christian notions of martyrdom, the heroism of Howard Baskerville, the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, esoteric vs. exoteric expressions of religion, how mystical movements arise more organically than religion, the conflicts over Imams in the Islamic world, how his upbringing as an Iranian immigrant shaped his view of religion, his roundabout spiritual journey, the synthesis of Spinoza and Sufism, the origins of Wahhabism, the relationship (or lackthereof) between religion and political philosophy, the sad repetition of history in Iran, his favorite Iranian movie, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded October 12th, 2022
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Here I am today, live with Reza Aslan. Reza has a new book out, which I enjoyed very much. It is called An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville. Reza has many other books. I very much like No God but God on Islam, Zealot on the life of Jesus, and there is more. He is a writer, scholar, producer, and generalist, and expert on the history of religion. Reza, welcome.
REZA ASLAN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
COWEN: What are some characteristics of a good martyr?
ASLAN: Oh, well, I guess number one would be being willing to sacrifice yourself for other people. But not just other people — being willing to sacrifice yourself for your beliefs. This, of course, is at the heart of the concept of Christianity, which is all about sacrifice. It also is at the heart of Shi’a Islam, which is the majority religion in Iran. Baskerville, this Christian missionary who arrives in this Shi’a country — in a way, maybe they had different religions and different beliefs, but they had a very similar way of expressing those beliefs.
COWEN: What makes the Ali story in Shi’ism an effective story of modern martyrdom?
ASLAN: Shi’ism as a religion — just to be clear, Shi’ism is one of the major sects of Islam. Islam has many, many sects, like most religions do, but the two major sects are the Sunni Islam and Shi’a Islam. Shi’ism arose out of Sunni Islam in the seventh century, primarily as a response to what was fundamentally just a disagreement, a political disagreement over who should lead the Muslim community after the death of the prophet Muhammad.
The prophet’s family lost that argument, and over the next generation or so, Islam became a kind of Arab-centric empire. But one of the prophet’s grandsons, Husayn, decided to launch an ill-fated revolution against what he saw as a corrupt and unjust empire. In 680, in a city called Karbala in modern-day Iraq, his small band of followers, some 70 or so, came into confrontation with the caliph’s massive army.
Recognizing that there was no way to win this conflict, Husayn nevertheless went into battle in the name of justice against oppression. He and all of his followers were slaughtered, and that moment became the birth of what we now understand as Shi’a Islam, which is why, earlier, I said it has at its heart this concept of the righteous individual willing to die in the name of justice against oppression.
COWEN: There are a lot of people who are willing to die for different causes. If I want to study martyrdom, and I ask, what does the Shi’a tradition and understanding of martyrdom add to, say, Catholic notions of martyrdom? What’s the extra something that makes it different or special or interesting?
ASLAN: That’s a very good question. Of course, in Christianity, martyrdom is modeled on Jesus’s martyrdom. The idea is that Jesus died to cleanse humanity of their sins, and there’s a very clear spiritualization of that act. It doesn’t have a lot of material aspects to it.
Not so in Shi’ism. Husayn died, not to cleanse anyone of their sins, but to save their mortal lives, to actually release people from oppression and injustice. It was a very conscious effort to help people where they are now by sacrificing himself for it. That’s what I would say is really the fundamental difference. It’s that martyrdom in Shi’a Islam isn’t spiritualized in the same way that martyrdom in Christianity tends to be.
COWEN: Howard Baskerville, the subject of your latest book — he’s an American missionary in Iran in the early 20th century. He’s shot, he dies. Is that an effective martyrdom story? Or have we just forgotten about him because the external trappings were too weak to sustain our interest?
ASLAN: We have definitely forgotten all about him. Actually, I’d say it’s more proper to say that Iranians have forgotten all about him. Americans never knew him to begin with. His story never really took hold in the United States, although there were front-page stories about his death and his decision to join the revolution.
But in Iran, the facts of his martyrdom, which is that he was living in a city that was besieged by the shah’s soldiers, a city that was slowly starving to death, a city that had run out of food. And he and his students at the time made this fateful decision to try to break through that siege and bring help and food to the city. And he died in that process, which, going back to what we were just saying is the quintessential notion of Shi’a martyrdom — this is a suicide mission. There is no way that this will succeed, but I’m going to do it anyway because it is to free people from suffering and injustice.
COWEN: In a funny way, it’s not a Christian enough story for the Western audiences.
ASLAN: [laughs] That’s a nice way of putting it, yes.
COWEN: What do you think of the common criticism that Shi’a Islam ends up too obsessed with personalities? You have all these Imams. They’re made of light rather than dust. They command so much attention. It’s maybe a tension with the monotheistic emphasis of Islam. What’s your take on that?
ASLAN: I think that’s an absolutely correct interpretation of Shi’a Islam. Sunni Islam, which is the majority version of Islam — about 80 percent of the world’s nearly 2 billion Muslims would call themselves some form of Sunni Islam. Sunni Islam tends to be focused on text and interpretation. The Quran and the so-called Sunnah, which is this vast body . . . I think Jews will know what I’m talking about. There’s the Scripture, and then there are tens of thousands of pages of interpretation on that Scripture.
For most Sunnis, that is the sum and total of where authority lies, but not so with Shi’ism. You’re absolutely right. Shi’ism has had, first, a series of so-called Imams, and depending on what kind of Shi’a you are, you recognize a different number of Imams. Some recognize 6, some recognize 7, some recognize 12.
Iran is what’s called Twelver Shi’ism, so they recognize 12 Imams. You said it right — these are different. They’re not like the rest of us. They’re infallible, they get divine authority. They have access to knowledge from a divine source that the rest of us don’t have access to. Now, of course, there are no more Imams left. They’re all gone now at this point.
What that does is, I think, twofold. Number one, you’re right, it does become a religion about charisma and a religion about personality. You can very easily see how that can lead to someone like Ayatollah Khomeini taking over an entire country because he taps into that notion of a charismatic personality with access to some kind of divine knowledge that you need to follow.
The flip side, however, is that Shi’ism can be much more innovative than Sunni Islam. It’s open to experimentation and reinterpretation because it’s not all about trying to figure out new ways of interpreting static text like Sunni Islam is. That’s all you’ve got, is text. That’s it, and people can interpret it in their different ways.
Here, you have different sources of emulation, different people who have authority to interpret and reinterpret, sometimes in fairly radical and innovative ways. Khomeini — that’s what he did. We can talk about that later. That allows for all kinds of new ways of thinking about this religion. It’s much more malleable, let’s say. There are, I’d say, positives and negatives to that kind of religion.
COWEN: If there’s more innovation overall in Shi’ism, why do Sufi traditions seem so strongly tied to Sunni Islam? Because that’s an innovation, right?
ASLAN: That’s right. Sufism is, of course, the mystical branch of Islam. All religions have a mystical branch to them — Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism. In scholarly terms, we talk about religions having an exoteric and an esoteric version. The exoteric is scripture, tradition, rituals — all of that stuff, the external stuff.
The esoteric is the hidden, mysterious, spiritual meaning at the heart of the religion. Islam, like all religions, has that esoteric movement, and it’s called Sufism. While it is true that Sufism arose out of Sunni Islam, in many ways, it has a lot more in common with Shi’ism actually. Sufism balances the divide, if you will.
One thing that Sufis are adamant about is that religion — not just Islam, but all religion — is nothing more than an external shell. It’s important. It’s not like we should just ignore it, but to truly know God requires breaking through that external shell and getting to the very heart of the matter. In other words, Sufis have this line that I’ve always loved. They say, “Religion is the signpost to God.” Religion does nothing more than just point the way to God. But to know God, you have to rid yourself of the ego and become one with God.
COWEN: In your understanding, can Sufism stand alongside the prophetic structure of Islam as something separate? Or is it synthesized with it into one consistent picture?
ASLAN: That’s a hardcore, brilliant theological question because it’s been debated for generations. What I will say is this: that Sufism is, like all mystical traditions, incredibly eclectic. It comes in thousands of different forms.
There are some Sufis that are very traditionalist, very hard to even, sometimes, tell the difference between them and your basic Sunni. And there are some Sufis that take part in the spectacular displays, sometimes displays that involve putting swords through their bodies, taking part in painful acts, ways of trying to deny the self and the body in a way that most Muslims would look at and say, “That looks nothing like Islam.” Sufism is what a Sufi says it is, basically.
COWEN: If I go to Albania and I chat with the Bektashi, how is their version of Sufism different?
ASLAN: Then say the Naqshbandi? Absolutely. What’s great about Sufism — and again, this is a standard description of all mystical movements — is that they absorb themselves into local cultures and local practices. When you have these kinds of deeply spiritual, mystical movements, they most often arise from the culture. They’re not so often brought in from the outside.
Religion, in its most orthodox sense, is usually introduced to a culture or to a people. Somebody shows up and says, “This is Islam, this is Christianity, this is Buddhism.” Sufism, like much of mystical movements, is something that comes out of the ground itself and then starts to marry itself to that dominant religion.
We see Christian mysticism all around the world that in some places looks like paganism, and in some places looks like traditional nature worship. It uses some of the symbols and metaphors of Christianity, and it becomes an indigenous version of Christianity. That’s exactly the same thing with Sufism and Islam. It depends on where you go —
COWEN: Let’s say I go to India. How’s Sufism in India?
ASLAN: India, of course, is the most religiously diverse nation on Earth. Every religion that you can possibly imagine exists in India, including all the forms of Islam. You’re going to see the traditional Naqshbandi version of Sufism, which means people sit around in circles, and they take part in breathing exercises and maybe yogic movements as a way of . . . or they recite certain verses from the Quran over and over again as a way of achieving oneness with God.
But then you go into the villages, and you see Sufis who are walking on hot coals, for instance, as a way of denying the body. It really runs the gamut. It really does.
COWEN: How is Shi’ism different in India? I was just in Ahmedabad. I saw a Shi’ite religious procession of some kind.
ASLAN: Yes, Ashura. There are a lot of Shi’as in India and in Pakistan — all of South Asia, actually — a large number of Shi’a.
COWEN: How’s that different from the Persian tradition? What theologically, or in terms of practice, would stand out?
ASLAN: The kind of Shi’ism that one finds in South Asia is primarily what we refer to as Ismaili Shi’ism or Sevener Shi’ism. Remember, earlier I said it depends on how many Imams you accept, and the Ismailis accept seven Imams. In Iran they accept 12 Imams. Twelver Shi’ism is by far the majority Shi’ism, but the Ismailis are a very robust and expanding religious community. A lot of Ismailis here in the United States, actually, and in Canada, but they are primarily focused in South Asia.
They tend to be much more into music and dancing and movement, something you don’t see that often in the traditional Shi’ism of Iran. There’s not a lot of music and dancing in the religious ceremony. There’s music and dancing, but it’s not part of the religious ceremony. Whereas Ismailis will have fazals, these songs that are very spiritual.
COWEN: Like in Pakistan.
ASLAN: Exactly. They’ll have concerts that will go on for hours and hours and hours, where people will be dancing and falling into an ecstatic state. Very much looks like Sufism. It just goes to show you that a lot of these religious traditions are bounded much more by culture than they are by theology or doctrine. A Sufi in India will look a lot more like a Christian mystic than he will look like a Sufi in, say, Macedonia.
COWEN: The Ismailis in India, Pakistan — if you were to boil down their objection to the extra five Imams to its most conceptual level, how would you explain that? What’s wrong with those Imams?
ASLAN: This is one of those historical arguments that I’m sure made . . . It was so important at one point, and nowadays, we look at it and we think, “Seriously, that’s what you guys broke up for?”
COWEN: But if you look at Christian debates over the Trinity, they correspond to some real difference. Can man be God, monophysites and so on.
ASLAN: Christian debates over the nature of Jesus resulted in massacres, because one person said, “No, he’s God but in man form.” One person would say, “No, he’s man, but he has God inside of him.” The next thing you know, there are a thousand dead people on the battlefield.
The way that this worked was, the sixth Imam — now remember, the Imams are infallible. That’s the note very important for you to understand.
COWEN: If they’re Imams.
ASLAN: The Imams with the capital I’s in Shi’ism are supposed to be infallible. The sixth Imam, before he died, designated one of his sons, Ismail, to become the seventh Imam. Then, before the sixth Imam died, the seventh Imam died. Ismail died. So the sixth Imam said, “Okay, never mind, then it’ll be this other Imam.”
The vast majority of the Shi’a just said, “Okay,” and they continued with that seventh Imam. But a minority of the Shi’a scratched their heads and said, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense. You’re infallible. You chose this person, and if you chose that person, then that’s the Imam. Maybe he’s not really dead. Maybe he is just an occultation. Maybe he’s just in hiding. Maybe, in fact, he’s a messianic figure who will return at the end of time.” So they broke off at that seventh Imam, and they called themselves Ismailis.
COWEN: How would you describe your own relationship to Shi’ism and Sufism?
ASLAN: I grew up in Iran, so I grew up in a Shi’a family, but my religion was more a matter of my identity than really anything else. Most people — you go to mosque or you go to temple or you go to church on the holidays, and it’s how you understand yourself. By any means, I don’t think I came from a very pious family, that’s for sure. Certainly, when we left Iran, my dad who —
COWEN: You were how old then?
ASLAN: I was seven.
ASLAN: In 1979, I was seven years old. My father was never a religious man, so when he came to America, he thought, “Great, now we don’t even need to go on holidays anymore. We’re done now with all religion.” Maybe that’s partly why I became so interested in religion, because when you live in a household where there’s no religion anymore, you just suddenly start to wonder why.
I had a very roundabout spiritual journey, but for me, as an adult, when I was studying the world’s religions and still longing for some spiritual edification of my own, I began to read about Sufi Islam, which is a tradition that I didn’t know that much about. It not only appealed to me . . . the way that I put it is that I was reading things that I already believed. I just didn’t know there was a word for it. Sufi Islam gave me the words for these ideas and these feelings and these beliefs that I felt like I already had. That’s why I associate myself with Sufism.
COWEN: Is it the framework? Or is it that you personally have a very definite view about each Imam and which ones are appropriate —
ASLAN: No, no, no, I couldn’t care less about the Imams at all. I am not Shi’a. I would not refer to myself as Shi’a at all. What appealed to me about Sufism beyond the fact that — as I’d already said before — that it really does think of religion as the starting point. I often say when you study the world’s religions for a living, it becomes very difficult to take any one of those religions all that seriously anymore. It makes it very hard to take their claims to absolute truth seriously anymore, that’s for sure.
What I love about Sufism is that it doesn’t take religion or those claims to absolute truth seriously anymore. But one thing that Sufism does do, which is very appealing to me, is that at the heart of Sufism is this notion that God — if God is anything — is all things. That God is all and all is God. That you and me and this desk and this microphone — if a thing exists, it exists only insofar as it shares in the existence of the only thing that exists. There’s this concept of divine unity at the heart of Sufism that I’ve always found very appealing spiritually speaking, and that’s why I was drawn to it.
COWEN: If you had to describe what, for you, is more beautiful in Islam than in other religions, what would it be?
ASLAN: That, yes. That is not to say that there aren’t other religions that hold something similar to this notion. Buddhism also believes that all things are the same, except that in Buddhism, the thing that all things are is an illusion. All things are nothing. There is nothing. Nothing exists, you don’t exist, nothing exists. Sufism is the opposite end of that. Yes, all things are the same, but all those things are one thing, and that one thing is God.
COWEN: You worry that that slides into Spinoza and pantheism? What keeps that move away?
ASLAN: I am an unapologetic pantheist. [laughs] I don’t have a problem being called a pantheist at all. I do believe that all things are united, that all things are one. I do believe that if there is a thing called God, whatever that thing is, it’s pure existence, and I share in that existence.
COWEN: If there’s this one all-encompassing thing, to what do we compare it to, to distinguish secular pantheism from religious or spiritual pantheism?
ASLAN: I guess what I would say is the difference between monism and pantheism. Spinoza’s idea is that all things are made of the same thing — which, by the way, he was right, as far as we know so far, [laughs] that everything that exists today has always existed and will always exist as long as the universe exists.
That’s a scientific statement, not a religious one, but it sounds a lot like Sufism to me, that everything that exists always existed and will always exist as long as the universe exists, as long as you define the universe as God. That’s what I would say is the difference between your delineation of secular pantheism and religious pantheism.
COWEN: As you know, Wahhabism is often cited as a whipping boy for what people don’t like about Islam. Is there something virtuous or beautiful in Wahhabism? Or is that a view you’re opposed to? Or are Westerners understanding it correctly? Can you steel-man Wahhabism for me?
ASLAN: Yes, that’s good, okay. I pride myself in being a scholar of religions, and so I should be able to talk about the beauty of all religious traditions. What Wahhabism has in common with a lot of these religious revivalist movements of the 19th century — remember, Wahhabism arose at the same time as the Second Great Awakening was happening in the United States.
What they all have in common is this desire to return to the pure form of the religion. This is a time of modernization, and societies look different, and mores are different. It’s funny because we are talking about the middle of the 19th century, but we’re talking about a time of great technological advances. We’re talking about coming out of a period of the Enlightenment, in which some of our most basic assumptions about the workings of the universe are being openly questioned.
All around the world, there are religious groups that are reacting to this movement by reverting. “Let’s revert to the fundamentals of our faith.” This is where the term fundamentalism came from. “Let’s purify our religion of all of these innovations that have crept inside of it.” The same sense that gives you the puritanical version of Christianity gave birth to the puritanical version of Islam.
This puritanical version of Islam, however, had one very big advantage, which is that it became the state religion of what very quickly became the richest nation on Earth, the Saudi clan and, of course, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi clan was able to take control over the Arabian Peninsula and defeat all of the other clans by marrying itself to this puritanical form of Islam called Wahhabism.
Then, that clan learned the lesson that everyone eventually learns, which is, there’s no such thing as controlling fundamentalism. You may think that you are in charge of it, but you’re not. Just look at the last 60, 70 years of history, and that will tell you what Wahhabism with Saudi funding and control and power has done, not just to Islam but to the world. So, I said one nice thing about it. [laughs]
COWEN: Is it a motivational problem for Islam that it has a kind of final, once-and-for-all revelation? It’s not as clear what you’re waiting for. How do you process that? If you’re a Jew, if you’re a Christian — the stories are different, but it’s clear what you’re waiting for, right?
ASLAN: Again, we have to differentiate between Sunni Islam and Shi’a Islam.
COWEN: Sunni Islam, let’s say.
ASLAN: Islam does have, obviously, a conception of an end of time. Obviously, a notion that there will be a moment in which all of creation will come to an end, and a perfected society will arise. Islam does have a messianic figure that they called the Mahdi, although that figure, to be perfectly frank, plays a much larger role in Shi’a Islam than it does in Sunni Islam.
Sunnis will say, “Yes, sure, I believe in the Mahdi.” Shi’a Islam begins with belief in the Mahdi, that the end times and the Messiah to come. In fact, many Sunnis would say the Messiah is Jesus. Jesus will come back as the Messiah, and then the Mahdi will maybe come before or after him. It’s very confused, the traditions.
But I think you have this really interesting point because the way that Muslims understand their scripture is quite different than the way that Christians understand their scripture. It has actually much more in common with the ways that Jews understand their scripture. For Muslims and Jews, the scripture itself is holy and divine. I don’t mean to say the meaning of it, the interpretation of it. I mean, literally, the words on the page.
COWEN: The Quran itself can be a divine body of sorts, right?
ASLAN: Correct. The actual physical pages, the physical words themselves are endowed with divine authority. Jews — obviously more conservative Jews — believe the exact same thing, which is why you have to maintain the Torah in a box. You have to be careful who can touch it and who can’t touch it, and you can’t touch it with your hands. You get a lot of that with Islam as well.
You can’t destroy the Torah, like you have to burn it. You can’t throw it in the garbage. It can’t touch the ground — all of those things. I think Christians look at that and think, “Wait a minute, it sounds like you’re focusing on the physical scripture instead of what the scripture itself says.” That’s not incorrect, actually. It has a lot to do with the way that both Jews and Muslims understand the speech of God.
The theory is this, that if the Torah, if the Quran is the word of God, then the word of God can’t be separated from the self of God. That means the word of God is God in some form. That’s why, no matter what language you speak, you have to learn to read the Torah in Hebrew. Same with Islam — doesn’t matter what language you speak. You have to learn to recite the scripture in Arabic, even if you don’t understand it. It’s the words themselves, the sound of the words, the recitation of the words that gives you divine power.
Obviously, Christians don’t believe that. For Christians, it’s just words on the page, and who cares what language it is. It’s the meaning behind it that matters. The words themselves don’t have any power. It’s what the words mean that have power. You can really see this divide between Judaism and Islam on one side and Christianity on the other.
COWEN: What do you think of the Kenneth Cragg argument that, at least in many branches of Sunni Islam, the distance between man and God is simply too great, and there’s something cold or alienating about it?
ASLAN: I love Kenneth Craig a lot, by the way. I’ve got to be honest, it appeals to me.
COWEN: The distance appeals to you.
ASLAN: The distance appeals to me. I’m getting a little bit personal here, but when I was in high school, I became an evangelical Christian for a brief while, and it was a very real and emotionally resonant conversion for me. I heard the gospel story, and I thought it was great, and I believed it.
But I will say that when I look back on that time, the one thing that I always had a hard time with was this idea that Jesus was my best friend, that God is my buddy. It’s a joke that my friends and I do all the time, but they gave us this little card with Jesus’s picture on it, and it said, “Jesus in my pocket,” and you were supposed to keep it in your pocket all the time. I remember thinking to myself, “Do I want Jesus in my pocket? There’s something that doesn’t feel right about that.”
When I went to college, I happened to go to a Catholic university, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t know anything about Catholicism. I’ll go and check out this mass.” There, Jesus wasn’t in your pocket. Jesus was way up there on the cross, and you went to him with fear and trembling and distance.
I’ve got to say I liked it. It appealed to me. Maybe it’s because of the fact that I was raised Muslim, even though at the time, I wouldn’t have really understood what that meant. But there’s something about that notion of the distance between man and God that I like. I want to approach God with that level of reverence, that makes God other, in a sense. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s just my personal opinion on it.
COWEN: If I look at the historical data, what seems to me to be the regularities is that Islam can be quite good for commerce and being a merchant, but not nearly so good for having a stable democracy. Is that a view you would try to talk me out of?
ASLAN: I wouldn’t try to talk you out of it. I would say that I disagree with that, first of all.
COWEN: Tell me why you disagree because Indonesia is a democracy, but not for long. It’s somewhat weak. You could say Malaysia, but there just aren’t many examples, right? Turkey’s falling apart, democratically speaking.
ASLAN: Tell me a Christian country that’s doing well with democracy.
COWEN: Western Europe, Canada.
ASLAN: Canada’s a pretty good one, but I don’t know if I would say that in Canada.
Here’s what I would say to the first point of that, which is that all religion is good for commerce. Capitalism is the opposite of literally everything Jesus ever said about the topic of money or profit or anything. Yet capitalism is almost a religion in Christian countries. Whereas Islam and Judaism both forbid the charging of interest and usury, yet both of them have been used very, very easily in order to promote business, and in some cases — certainly when you’re talking about the UAE — have created the wealthiest societies in the world. That’s one thing.
The second thing is, I think there’s a mistake in trying to see a moral code or a moral foundation to a political philosophy like democracy. The political philosophy of democracy is that the majority vote gets to basically make the decisions. If the majority of the people are Muslims, then obviously the democracy itself, and the laws that they pass and the principles that they espouse, are going to be tinged with the majority morality, if you will, of the population itself. There are countless examples.
You talk about Turkey. Yes, okay, Turkey is having difficulty with authoritarianism. I will take Turkey today to America under Trump any day of the week. At least, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has autocratic tendencies, just like Trump did, but wasn’t a megalomaniac, possibly narcissistic sociopath. Yes, Indonesia is having difficulty. Indonesia has a billion people. It’s one of the most diverse nations on Earth.
COWEN: No, it’s not a billion people. It’s what? 250 million, right?
ASLAN: [laughs] Yes, I’m exaggerating. Okay, we can talk about India. I guess Hinduism isn’t conducive to democracy because India has a billion people, 900 million of them Hindus. And their democratic situation, even right now, is completely unstable under the leadership of the BJP.
Again, I think we can look at political stability or instability around the world, including here in the United States, where almost half of us now, according to most polls, seem to be no longer all that much in favor of democracy. To then tie that instantly to whatever the majority religion happens to be, I think is a false connection.
COWEN: Let’s go to early 20th century Iran, which is covered in your book, An American Martyr in Persia. There’s a Constitutional Revolution in Iran, 1906 to 1911. What was that motivated by?
ASLAN: This was an era of the early 20th century in which, all around the world, there were these protests and uprisings by people demanding what everyone was referring to as constitutionalism. They had different ideas of what that actually meant. For some people, it meant lower prices. For some people, it meant popular sovereignty. For some people, it meant the freedom to do or say whatever you wanted to. Constitutionalism as a movement was aflame in Russia, in Turkey, in Mexico, in China.
In 1906, where it really began was in Iran in what’s now referred to as the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. This involved a band of young, zealous revolutionaries who, together with the business and merchant class and the clerical class, the clergy — especially the low-level, mid-level clergy — began to clamor for the creation of a constitution that would outline the rights and privileges of all the citizens and, just as importantly, the creation of a parliament with an elected body, a legislature that would have the ability to curtail the absolute authority of the king.
COWEN: Was the influence British or from elsewhere? What fed into this?
ASLAN: It was French and British, but what’s really fascinating is the way in which it so seamlessly integrated traditional Persian political thought and Islamic ideas into the Western conception of constitutionalism. It was heavily influenced by the British model because what they were actually asking for was a constitutional monarchy. They weren’t saying, “We want to get rid of the shah. We want to get rid of the throne altogether.”
There were some more radical elements, social democrats, who were actually asking that. But in general, what the call was, was to have something akin to what the UK is: a monarchy that is limited by a constitution and an elected body that can curtail the absolute power of the throne.
COWEN: The current Iranian protests — how aware are they of this heritage? Is there a direct link? Or it’s something from the distant past, like talking to Americans about an 18th-century Shays’ Rebellion or something?
ASLAN: Iran has had three major revolutions of the 20th century: the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the Nationalist Revolution in 1953, and of course, the revolution of 1979. Those three moments are part of the history of the country. It’s what you learn in school. Now, of course, depending on the time, what you learn about it sometimes changes. The heroes change.
For instance, there was a time in which Howard Baskerville, who fought in the Constitutional Revolution, was taught in schools. There were schools named after Howard Baskerville, streets named after Howard Baskerville. He was part of the traditional teaching of 20th-century history for most Iranian schoolchildren, myself included when I was there, but not anymore.
Really, since 1979, that part of 20th-century history has diminished to the point where it’s really hard to find anyone under the age of 50 in Iran who could tell you who Howard Baskerville was anymore. Even the Constitutional Revolution itself hasn’t been taught with the same rigor since the ’79 revolution as it used to be.
Primarily, for a while, it was because these are people fighting against the shah. I think post ’79, there was this idea that, hey look, in the same way that our ancestors fought against the shah, we are fighting against the shah, too. Over the years, the teaching of it has actually become a little bit less robust, primarily because it’s hard to argue that you’re following in the footsteps of a revolution, the purpose of which was to bring equal rights to each citizen, when you live in the current Islamic Republic.
COWEN: Why did the Constitutional Revolution fail?
ASLAN: It didn’t fail. It actually ended up succeeding, and in 1909, the revolutionaries were able to remove the shah into exile. The shah who was fighting against the constitution put his son on the throne instead. The constitution became part of law. An elected parliament began making laws, and for a very brief while, Iran was a constitutional monarchy.
COWEN: But that failed, right? Why did that end?
ASLAN: It was a couple of factors. First of all was the First World War. The First World War broke out very soon afterwards, and Iran became the principal staging ground for Russian and British troops. Russia occupied the entirety of the north, and Britain occupied the entirety of the south. The war was a devastation for humanity across the board, but in Iran, it led to famine and devastation. The Spanish flu killed nearly 20 percent of the population. The economy collapsed.
By the time you get to 1921, you have a constitutional monarchy, but an absolutely unstable one. In 1921, a military commander by the name of Reza Khan, with the backing of the British Empire, declared a military coup. He tore up the constitution, got rid of parliament, and then, really surprising everyone, declared himself the next shah, creating what we now know as the Pahlavi dynasty. He became Reza Shah, and Iran went right back to absolute monarchy after a decade of a somewhat successful, but definitely unstable, constitutional monarchy.
Then, of course, the Pahlavi regime that Reza Shah created — ultimately, he gets thrown out at the run-up to the Second World War because he made some friendly overtures to Nazi Germany, and so the Allies removed him and put his son on the throne. That son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, is the man who was overthrown in the 1979 revolution.
COWEN: Many outsiders have the impression that Iran is very long human capital, very long cultural excellence, but never has done so well in terms of political outcomes, or not for a long time. That’s a puzzle to them. How do you resolve that puzzle in your mind?
ASLAN: You know, it’s a tragedy.
COWEN: Sure, but why?
ASLAN: I’d say there are two factors, and we’ve touched upon them. The first factor is external interference. The Russian Empire brutally fought against the Constitutional Revolution. Despite the fact that the Constitutional Revolution did end up succeeding, the Russians nevertheless made sure that until the run-up to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the constitutional government would fail. I outline this in the book. There’s the occupation of northern parts of Iran, the demand for concessions, et cetera, et cetera.
Then in 1953, the Iranians rose up again and created a democratic country, very briefly, in the Nationalist Revolution with the prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and kicked the shah out of the country. I’m sure you remember what happened then. The CIA showed up and put the shah back on the throne.
COWEN: The CIA has limited power, right? We can’t rule Afghanistan. That was a disaster. It’s not that five people from Langley can parachute into Tehran and take control of the whole country —
ASLAN: Oh, your listeners — if they are interested in this, please google Operation Ajax because it literally was five people from Langley, literally led by Kermit Roosevelt.
COWEN: And everyone just went along with this? Ukraine didn’t go along with Russia coming in right now.
ASLAN: This was, first of all, 1953. Kermit Roosevelt and four others showed up in Tehran with a suitcase full of cash and, in a very, very brief amount of time, with the help of the allies that they had in Iran who wanted the shah back, created a fake counter-revolution that brought Mohammad Mosaddegh down and brought the shah back in power. It was the most extraordinary success. It actually gave birth to the CIA as we know it. Operation Ajax, if anybody is interested in that, it’s a crazy story.
Then of course, in ’79, you had post-revolutionary chaos that was essentially hijacked by the clerics and Khomeini itself. It’s a combination of things. It’s a combination of the internal structure and the conflicts in Iranian society, the inability to come together and unify under a common cause, and frankly, the interference of external forces.
Those two things, I think, for the last 100 years, have spelled a situation in which here we are — women and children and men on the streets in Iran right now, clamoring for the exact same rights that they were clamoring for in 1906. It’s like wow, here we are 116 years later, and Iranians are asking for the same thing, and they still don’t have it. As an Iranian, it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
COWEN: What’s your favorite Iranian movie?
ASLAN: There’s so much. Okay, it’s —
COWEN: I would say A Separation, but I’m curious to hear your take.
COWEN: Those are very good, yes.
ASLAN: Yes. The White Balloon.
COWEN: I love that one, yes.
ASLAN: Those are some of my favorite classic ones, but yes, A Separation is phenomenal.
COWEN: Where’s the best Iranian food in Westwood, Los Angeles?
ASLAN: [laughter] Okay, I love this question because my answer is, it depends on what you want.
COWEN: Fesenjan. That’s what I want.
ASLAN: If you want fesenjan, then you probably go to Shamshiri or Sholeh. If you want really great lamb, I would say maybe Javan. If you want great tahdig, maybe Darya. See, this is the thing — when you’re talking about Tehrangeles, there are dozens of restaurants to choose from. You get to decide which one, depending on what you’re in the mood for. [laughs]
COWEN: How much do you think one can still feel the influence of Zoroastrianism in contemporary Iran? Or is that just done and gone?
ASLAN: No, I love that question. While it is true that Zoroastrianism, as a religion, is dying, and there’s every reason to think that, maybe a century from now, there probably won’t be any Zoroastrians left. I think currently right now, if you’re talking about the entire globe, there are probably about 200,000 Zoroastrians left in the world, which is horrifying because this is one of the primal religions. There would be no Christianity if it wasn’t for Zoroastrianism.
But Zoroastrianism is so deeply embedded in Persian culture that the vast majority of Iranians probably don’t even know that the things they’re doing are Zoroastrian. It’s like Americans, when you celebrate Christmas and you don’t realize that you’re doing these pagan Germanic rituals. It’s the same thing — our New Year’s ceremonies, the various holidays that we have in Iran. Then, just the way the Iranian consciousness is still deeply affected almost at the gene level by Zoroastrianism.
COWEN: How did Iranian Judaism turn out special and different?
ASLAN: People might be surprised to learn that even today, right now, the second-largest Jewish community in the Middle East is in Iran. It’s not gigantic. It’s probably about 25,000 Jews, but they have been there for centuries. I think there are some historians that say you can go all the way back to the Babylonian exile. And now we have to go back into ancient history, but for people who remember, at a certain point, the Babylonians destroyed Israel and scattered the Jews across the Near East.
Then, in the sixth century, Cyrus the Great, the first king of the Persian Empire, destroyed Babylon and sent the Jews back to their homeland with treasure in order to rebuild their temple. And so Judaism has always seen Cyrus — in fact, Cyrus is the only non-Jew in the Bible who was called Messiah — has always seen Cyrus in this elevated light, and many, many Jews stayed in the Persian Empire.
The Jews in Iran will tell you, whether this is factually correct or not, that their presence in the land predates Islam, that they were there before there was any such thing as Islam. They’re deeply rooted in the culture and tradition there, though, as I say, it is a small community now, and definitely a diminishing community.
COWEN: Are you optimistic about modern-day Iran?
ASLAN: I’m optimistic about the current — I would only call it a revolution — that’s happening right now. You can’t really call it an uprising anymore or demonstrations anymore. What we’re seeing right now is a revolution, and I’m optimistic for a couple of reasons. One, because of who is leading it, because it’s women-led and it’s youth-led and it’s Gen Z. And this is a generation that, unlike the millennial generation in Iran, has no tolerance for the usual answers — “Go back home. You can wear jeans. Everything will be fine” — which is what the regime would say every time the youth rose up.
This generation has had it. What I think is remarkable is the way in which these protests have managed to bring in all these other sectors of Iranian society. You’re seeing old people and young people, conservatives and progressives.
You’re seeing women dressed head to toe in chador, the traditional, conservative Islamic dress, chanting slogans against the government, standing next to young women in jeans and t-shirts and who are unveiled. Now we’re seeing strikes being called. The oil industry is going under strike. The bazaar merchants are going under strike. This morning we saw protests break out in the city of Qom, which is the Vatican of Iran, the religious city of Iran. There were thousands of people on the streets, calling for an end to the regime.
I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like this since the revolution that I fled, and where it’ll go, it’s hard to say. But it’s hard to imagine that this isn’t going to lead to some profound and perhaps fundamental change in Iran.
COWEN: But most popular revolutions, on their own, fail. You need a subsegment of the elite to truly flip and take over and perform the final step. Do you see that in the cards for Iran?
ASLAN: The elite that you’re talking about —
COWEN: The governing elite.
ASLAN: — yes, is different. The elite there is what I would refer to as the mid-level clerics, the seminary students, et cetera. Iran is a country under clerical rules, so the clerics are the political leaders, but that is a very new, and frankly, a heretical idea in Shi’a Islam. There’s no history in 1400 years of Islamic and Shi’a thought about direct clerical rule. That just doesn’t exist. This was something that Khomeini thought up out of whole cloth. It’s a complete really new innovation.
What people, I think, don’t understand is that it’s not a very popular theology in Shi’ism. For the most part, the upper echelon of the clerical regime — those in power, those enjoying the benefits of power — they’re entrenched in that ideology. But the younger clerics, the seminary students, the mid-level clerics, the soapbox preachers, the imams at your mosque — there is an enormous amount of frustration, and I would even say rejection of the theology behind clerical rule.
COWEN: And the generals?
ASLAN: The generals are like generals everywhere in the world: utterly pragmatic. They will pretend to be pious if that’s what is needed. They will give up on piety if that’s what is needed. I’m really glad that you said that because I think most Iran watchers will tell you that the real power in Iran isn’t the ayatollahs. It seems that way from the outside, but that’s not where the real power is. The real power is the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guards who prop up that regime.
For better or worse, they can be the biggest influence in what happens next. It’s not impossible to think that the Revolutionary Guard, which craves stability above all else, would say at a certain point, “We agree with the protestors. It’s time for the clerics to go back to their mosques. In the name of stability, we’re going to declare martial law, and we’ll be in charge for a little while.”
Suddenly Iran looks like Pakistan in the ’80s. It looks a little bit like Egypt for a while, and you go from religious rule to military rule. That could happen. I’m not saying that’s a good thing. I’m just saying it is not an unlikely scenario in Iran.
COWEN: To wrap up, the very last question. Your new book is just out, An American Martyr in Persia. What will you do next?
ASLAN: I am moving on towards fiction now.
COWEN: What kind of novel or other form of fiction?
ASLAN: I’ll tell you. There is a thousand-year-old Persian epic called the Shahnameh or The Book of Kings, and it’s essentially the Central Asian Iliad, Odyssey. It’s 100,000 rhyming couplets written by a poet named Ferdowsi more than a thousand years ago. I would like to tackle that in some way, perhaps.
COWEN: You mean write a prose version, write an updated version in English?
ASLAN: I’m still dealing with it, but yes, possibly a novelization of it is what I’m dancing around right now.
COWEN: Reza Aslan, thank you very much.
ASLAN: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Tyler.