Aslan began 2013 as an academic teaching creative
writing at UC Riverside. In the summer, he published the
book "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of
Nazareth" and everything changed. Now Aslan is
ending his wild year with a movie deal for
"Zealot" as well as writing a pilot for cable
TV network FX, running the "transmedia"
company Boomgen Studios, working on a novel ó and
trying to craft the next episode in his unorthodox life
as an Internet-era public intellectual.
which portrayed Jesus not as a divine being but as an
angry rebel, had already hit bestseller lists before an
interview Aslan did with Fox News made him a viral video
star. Asked repeatedly by the Fox host why a Muslim
would write a book about Jesus, Aslan sounded like a
reasoned professor: "I am a scholar of religions.
... Itís my job as an academic."
posted a video of the awkward encounter with the
headline, "Is This the Most Embarrassing Interview
Fox News Has Ever Done?" The clip quickly shot
across the Internet.
one of the countryís most prominent Muslim thinkers,
the 41-year-old Aslan is often invited to publicly talk
about religion, politics and cultural identity. But his
ambitions go far beyond the ivory tower.
lives in Hollywood, in a 1,500-square-foot cottage with
hardwood floors in the shadow of the Magic Castle. He
shares his home with his wife, Jessica Jackley, an
Internet crowd-funding pioneer, and their twin toddler
hair pulling!" Aslan tells one of the boys as they
grapple each other in the homey living room.
Aslan was 7, his parents fled Iran in the wake of the
Islamic revolution, settling the family in San Jose. In
the U.S., the Iranian hostage crisis made all things and
people Iranian vastly unpopular. Aslan, with his foreign
sounding name and umber complexion, had a hard time.
15, he was invited to a summer camp hosted by the
evangelical Christian group Young Life and converted to
Christianity. "I burned with the fire of God,"
he says. He even managed to convert his mother.
he arrived at Santa Clara University in 1992, he chose
to study the life of Jesus. "He was not just smart,
there was a great entrepreneurial spirit in him,"
says Father Paul G. Crowley, a professor at Santa Clara,
remembering Aslanís days as an undergraduate at the
had an epiphany, however, when presented with a basic
fact of biblical scholarship: When Jesus called himself
the Messiah, he had a specific Jewish idea in mind. In
Jewish thought, he could never be a divine being.
had a spiritual breakdown," Aslan says, and he
converted back to Islam. "I became angry and
bitter, and felt I had been duped in some way."
earned a masterís degree in theological studies at the
Harvard Divinity School, but he felt he didnít quite
fit in there, ending up next at the prestigious Writersí
Workshop at the University of Iowa.
the novel he wrote there didnít sell, he proposed to
his agent a work that explained Muhammad to American
readers. That book became "No god But God: The
Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam." It made
him a fixture on cable talk shows, asked often to
comment on events in the post-9/11 Muslim world.
went on to get his doctorate at UC Santa Barbaraís
interdisciplinary program in religious studies, earning
a degree in sociology. He arrived at his seminars
"ready for a fight" and "with knives
sharpened" while discussing other scholars and
their work, a professor there remembers. His
dissertation applied notions of "social movement
theory," which seeks to explain how people arrive
at collective actions, to the jihadist movements in the
Muslim world, says his adviser, Mark Juergensmeyer.
movement theory also informs the arguments in
"Zealot." Aslan argues that the New Testament
is "riddled with anticlerical sentiments."
was praised by many critics for its fluid writing. But
some scholars dismissed Aslan as a dilettante. "Had
Reza Aslan not been interviewed in a gauche and silly
fashion on Fox News, I doubt this book would be being
reviewed at all," Stuart Kelly wrote in the
Guardian. "ĎZealotí ... trudges down some very
well-worn paths; its contribution to studies of
Christianity is marginal bordering on negligible."
freely admits the book popularizes scholarship that goes
back to Albert Schweitzer and John P. Meier, who wrote
"A Marginal Jew." At UC Riverside, where Aslan
teaches creative writing, his work was seen as weighty
enough that the religious studies department has
considered inviting him to become part of their faculty.
he doesnít always behave like an earnest academic. A
social media regular with more than 50,000 followers,
Aslan has engaged in some pretty impolite conversation
online. After the Fox News dustup, Buzzfeed posted a
series of earlier Twitter messages in which Aslan
sounded like a guy picking a fight in a bar. "Guess
your assumption makes (a jerk) out of U," Aslan
wrote in January, in response to a tweet. "You donít
know ... about me," he wrote to another.
writers might have issued a mea culpa. Not Aslan, who
instead started a Twitter hashtag called "TwitterJerk."
youíre confronted with Islamophobes and trolls ...
your proper response is to tell them to go ...
themselves," he says, sitting in a library lined
with many books, including foreign translations of his
co-founded the "transmedia company" Boomgen
Studios in 2006 in the hope of subverting stereotypes
about Islam and the Middle East, with digital
storytellers creating interactive content, including a
comic book called "Rostam" that tells the
story of a Persian warrior prince. Thereís also the
online site Aslan Media, described as "a forum
where free thinkers can initiate their own conversations
about the Greater Middle East."
Clara Universityís Crowley believes his old student
has become a source of inspiration to many people:
"He destroys peoplesí stereotypes about
a real American product," Crowley continues.
"He had the freedom to become an Evangelical here
and then he had the freedom to question that. And then
he had the freedom to reclaim the Christian tradition in
his own way."
in the spotlight has its downside, though. Aslan doesnít
like the personal attacks on his interfaith marriage.
(His wife is Christian). Fame has also brought a dispute
with an ex-fiancee, writer Amanda Fortini, into the open
after Aslan launched a civil suit against her in Los
Angeles Superior Court. During their relationship, Aslan
signed a "quitclaim" deed granting Fortini
partial ownership of the Hollywood home he had purchased
in 2007. The suit says he did so "under great
emotional distress and pressure" and seeks to have
Fortiniís claim nullified.
Fortini countersued, a story about the dispute appeared
online at the Atlantic ó complete with a picture of
the house. Aslan said thatís when he knew heíd
entered a new realm of celebrity.
would not comment for this story, but her attorney,
Jonathan Levitan, said she feels she has
"contributed" to his current success and that
Aslan had "taken advantage of her" in their
hasnít let any of the controversy slow him down ó in
fact, he seems to feed on it. This fall, he made an
appearance on the new reality show "Raising
McCain" alongside his wife and brother-in-law.
Aslan says he is writing a novel set in the Middle East
circa 1000 AD; working on the pilot for
"Tyrant," an FX series about Americans in the
Middle East created by the team behind
"Homeland"; and writing and producing assorted
"Zealot" ó a book whose popularity is fed by
a portrayal of Jesus as angry, idealistic and
recognizably human ó stayed on the Los Angeles Timesí
bestseller list into late December, after 16 weeks on
Aslan says, "I have never done anything in my life
at half speed."