In Defence of Reza Aslan

For Fox News correspondent Lauren Green, author Reza Aslan’s Muslim faith overshadows his critical and objective capabilities as a scholar of religious studies.

aslan-rezaLast Friday, Fox News Channel aired the now viral interview with scholar Reza Aslan. Aslan appeared on to discuss his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Lauren Green, the Fox News religion correspondent made the focus of the interview Aslan’s scholarly credentials and not the content of his book.

Green challenged Aslan’s scholarly authority and ability, as a Muslim scholar, to accurately discuss the life and times of Jesus. For Green, Aslan’s Muslim faith (faith she accuses Aslan of hiding) overshadows his critical and objective capabilities as a scholar of religious studies.

Since this controversial Fox interview writers and analysts have criticized Green and deemed the interview an embarrassment. While this critical stance has been the trend, there are some who challenge statements made by Aslan in the interview, further scrutinizing his legitimacy as a scholar.

In his article “Reza Aslan Misrepresents His Scholarly Credentials” Matthew J Franck attacks Aslan’s academic credentials. During the Fox interview Aslan states that he is a scholar of religions and “does this for a living.” Franck calls Aslan a liar.

Aslan teaches Creative Writing (not religious studies) at the University of California, Riverside. Franck does not consider the research, publications, or lectures by Aslan representative of his knowledge. Franck also critiques Aslan’s reference to himself as a “PhD in the history of religions” as Aslan’s PhD is in sociology and not history or religious studies.

Mark Juergensmeyer, a scholar of religious studies, has come to Aslan’s defense.

Jurgensmeyer, who was Aslan’s advisor at the University of California Santa-Barbra, writes,

“Though Reza’s PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a ‘historian of religion’ in the way that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek.”

As any student or scholar of the humanities/social sciences knows, and as Juergensmeyer points out, these scholarly fields are incredibly interdisciplinary, constantly bleeding into and overlapping with one another.

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To use another example, Sam Harris is a prominent writer in the field of religious studies, discussion all major traditions in his many publications on belief, though he holds no graduate degrees in the subject itself.

Harris has undergraduate education in philosophy and a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. Reza Aslan’s PhD may be in sociology, but this does not discredit his ability to contribute as a specialist in the field of religious studies. His body of research speaks to his proficiency in this subject area.

After receive some negative attention for his comments, Franck wrote a second piece, “Is Reza Aslan Off the Hook?” saying it was not his intention to entirely discredit Aslan’s authority as a scholar, but still holds to the argument that Aslan was misleading in describing his qualifications.

Rather than addressing the content of Zealot, Green and Franck split hairs over the religious affiliation and academic credentials of the author. Both Lauren Green and Matthew J Franck are sloppy in their criticism of Reza Aslan.

Emma Sturgeon holds a Master’s in Religion and Modernity from Queen’s University, Kingston. She is a researcher, writer, and political analyst living in Toronto Canada. Read other articles by Emma.

  • Lev Raphael

    I am looking forward to the book, but I find it curious he described his PhD incorrectly. I have a PhD in English. While I earned it in the American Studies program within the English Department at my university, it would not be accurate for me to say I had a PhD in American History or anything *other* than English. Perhaps Aslan was flustered and defensive and got his credentials wrong, in which case I’m sorry he gave fodder to the rightwingers trying to discredit him.

    • Emma Sturgeon

      It is indeed too bad that the discussion has become about Aslan’s qualifications. I think he was trying to articulate his qualifications in a way that would move Green’s questioning away from his credentials back to, where the focus should have been all along, the content of the book itself.

      • Albert8184

        I think it was a good starting point, but Green blew it by not having the knowledge to specifically attack his qualifications to write this book. The fact that he chose to publish this book with Random House is a telling point in and of itself. She missed a good chance to expose him as another “Critical Theory” expositor whose primary interest is in reinventing history to match his political ideology.