If all publicity is good publicity, then Iranian-American author Reza Aslan could not have asked for anything better. Soon after an interview with American news network, Fox News — on which the anchor questioned his right as a Muslim writing about Jesus — went viral, the sales of his latest book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth shot up.
The book’s publisher Random House had to order more copies soon after the interview was televised in July last year. So, it was no surprise that Aslan was the rockstar at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival. Dressed in a blue sweater and sporting sunshades, the writer could not hide his joy while signing autographs for enthusiastic readers at the terrace of Diggi Palace, Jaipur. “It is great to know more people are reading it (book) across the world,” he says.
The book may have been denounced by some but Aslan clarifies that Zealot is not out to denounce the Christian faith. “When you write about religion for a living, you have to expect that people are going to respond with passion. I don’t have a problem with that at all. But I think when people read my work they realise that whether I am writing about Jesus, Prophet Mohammed or Moses, I treat these subjects with respect. I, myself, am a man of faith. I have no interest in denigrating faith,” adds the 41- year-old scholar and writer.
The book, his fourth so far, which made it to the “The New York Times No. 1 Bestseller” list, looks at Jesus of Nazareth, not as a god, but as a common man rife with contradictions. He attempts to present a new perspective to the idea of Jesus through historic data and interpreting ancient texts.
Aslan fled Iran with his parents at the age of seven, and turned to Christianity at the age of 15, but soon grew disenchanted with it. “Most of what I knew about Jesus was incorrect. So I became more interested in the historic man rather than the man of faith. The central tenet of Christianity is that Jesus is God and that is something I could not hold,” explains Aslan, who currently lives in Hollywood with his wife and two sons.
Though the book was well received the world over, it attracted its share of brickbats as well. “What bothers me is the criticism from people who haven’t read the book and reject it for the fact that a Muslim is writing it,” he says. A PhD in religious studies from University of California, Santa Barbara, Aslan specialises in interpreting the history of religions. His first book, No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, translated into 13 languages, dealt with the evolution of Islam and its complexities.
“Whether I am writing about Judaism, Islam or Christianity, I want to talk about the historical aspects. I want to dig through the legend, mythology and theology and try to get to the actual human beings behind it, not who the religion says they were,” says Aslan, who is working with screenwriters for a film adaptation of his book, acquired by Lionsgate Films. There is also a TV show in the pipeline called Tyrant for American network, FX.
Aslan is also now working on his next—a book on the history of god, which questions the origins of our beliefs about god. “In many ways the sequel to Zealot will be the book about god,” he says.