‘There is hunger for discussion on religion’

Dr Reza Aslan discusses his bestseller Zealot

There is something of an irony in the choice of quote Dr Reza Aslan utilises in introducing his bestselling Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Offering his thesis on Jesus “as a complex character” from the outset, Dr Aslan presents us with Jesus’ own quotation in Matthew’s Gospel: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”

That sword, it appears, to judge by some of the critical response to his 2013 book, is double-edged, with Dr Aslan viewed by more than a handful of critics as presenting a deeply flawed historical analysis of the life of Jesus, and some even taking issue with his credentials in writing on so significant a figure, both in historical and religious terms.

When he speaks to The Irish Catholic, however, the academic with the University of California, an Iranian-American writer and Muslim scholar of religions, seems unruffled by the storm his engagement with Christ has, perhaps inevitably, caused.

“The book has taken on a life of its own I couldn’t have imagined,” he acknowledges, both of the criticism levelled and the eagerness of people to engage with the subject matter. It is an unavoidable fact that, for all the negativity, Zealot shot up both The New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists on its publication.

This success, it must also be pointed out, came ahead of the flurry of publicity that followed Dr Aslan’s appearance on US broadcaster Fox News, wherein the presenter repeatedly questioned the scholar’s reasons, as a Muslim, for penning a book on Jesus. The interview became a Youtube sensation covered by international media, pushing Zealot higher up the charts.

“Jesus plays a hugely significant role in Islam, the Virgin birth is in the Koran, as is Jesus’ ascension into Heaven,” Dr Aslan says in passing reference to the infamous interview, before lighting on what he sees as the more important issue arising from Zealot’s success.

“There is a hunger for discussion on religion,” he says, adding that research figures consistently show that “religion is far more an integral part of people’s lives than 100 years ago”. From this, he insists that “the most important thing we can teach students in the 21st Century is ‘religious literacy’.”

Is this, then, the aim of Zealot, and indeed, the speaking engagements which see Dr Aslan in Dublin. (He presented to both the Trinity Theological Society and the Blessed John Paul II Theological Society at Maynooth in March.)

“I wanted to use the book as an opportunity to see Jesus as ‘a man’,” he explains. “Often the God part subsumes the man, who was a man in a particular time and place. The book seeks to put him into a context.”

His subject, then, is the Jesus of history versus the Jesus of faith.

He concurs, pointing out, that in working to set Jesus into the particular political reality of first-century Palestine, the figure of Jesus himself does not turn up in Zealot until at least 100 pages have been turned.

The purpose, the author states, is to offer his thesis to two audiences simultaneously, one of faith, one of non-faith.

“Jesus remains the most significant figure of the last 2,000 years,” Dr Aslan says. “He is worth knowing.”

Drifting precariously into Fox territory, the question must nevertheless be posed: has Dr Aslan himself, as a Muslim, benefited from ‘knowing Jesus’?

“Most definitely,” he answers at once. “When I try to express my faith to others, the symbols of Islam are used. But as a model of behaviour in confronting powers or social injustice, it’s Jesus who I think of.”

It’s a message he is now spreading at multiple speaking engagements on the back of Zealot – Dr Aslan is quick to point out that he has spoken to gatherings in churches, synagogues and mosques in addition to more ‘secular surroundings’.

For a scholar whose own personal journey to know Jesus better over the last 20 years this is a particularly pleasing juncture on that journey.

Whether to engage or to challenge his take on that most significant of figures, he says happily “people have taken to the material, they have ‘adopted’ it”.