With numerous media appearances, two best-selling books and two major network shows in the works, the UCR creative writing professor says first and foremost, he is a storyteller. But he’s also become a social media darling and a pop culture spokesman for Islam.
Reza Aslan has gone viral.
In 2013, the professor of creative writing and religious scholar stood his ground on Fox News when correspondent Lauren Green repeatedly asked how a Muslim could write “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Calmly yet politely, Aslan stated his academic credentials, his fluency in biblical Greek, and his two-decade-long study of the origins of Christianity. “Ma’am, may I just finish my sentence for a moment please? I think the fundamental problem here is that you’re assuming I have a faith-based bias.”
When she accused him of masking his Islamic faith, he noted, “The second page of my book says I’m a Muslim. Every single interview I have ever done on television or print says I’m a Muslim.”
Quickly, the 10-minute interview zipped around the Internet; and “Zealot,” which had debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times and No. 2 on Amazon’s best-seller list, rocketed to the top, unseating J.K. Rowling’s crime fiction novel. (“Zealot” has since been translated into almost 30 languages.)
“There’s no question that interview shot it into the stratosphere and allowed it to become a global phenomenon,” said Aslan, 43, who says he uses popular media as a platform to educate and shape perception. “When you look at the major trends and the major societal shifts that have occurred in the United States, none of them have come as a result of laws being passed. On the contrary, those laws are always far behind the changing of popular sentiment. What changes popular sentiment? TV does.”
The clip sparked important conversations in the media, online and in public, Aslan said, the kind of “conversations that I and my colleagues have all the time in our dusty library. Yet there it was, out in the open. That was an enormously satisfying thing.”
Taking TV By Storm
Next spring, Aslan will unveil two new shows, a documentary series and a biblical drama. On CNN’s “Believer,” he’ll travel the world and immerse himself in religious rituals and practices as a means of opening a window to other world views and cultures.
“The easiest way to describe it is to imagine Anthony Bourdain, but with faith instead of food,” said Aslan, referring to the celebrity chef with the adventurous appetite. “I’m not there to investigate. I’m there to experience. I myself am a believer and I value their beliefs.”
He’s planning to visit Pakistan and take part in Muharram, ritual mourning of the martyr Husayn ibn Ali who was killed at the Battle of Karbala. The rituals include self-flagellation, feats of strength and passion plays.
“I think of myself first and foremost as a storyteller.”
He is also an executive producer on the ABC series “Of Kings and Prophets,” a one-hour drama that retells the story of King David’s rise and fall. The series began filming this fall in South Africa, with its varied landscape reflecting the Holy Land as it existed thousands of years ago, verdant and flowing with milk and honey, not the deserts of the present-day.
Initially, the show was a hard sell. “The King David story is full of sex, violence and intrigue, perfect for a television drama,” Aslan said. “When we would go pitch, they would say, ‘This is too much. We can’t show this. People will be offended.’ We would have to remind them that it was literally word for word from the Bible.”
Aslan developed the series with Mahyad Tousi, his partner at BoomGen Studios, and Robin Russin, a professor of screenwriting and playwriting at UCR who showed Aslan a script he’d been working on since 2004.
Collaborating at UCR
Russin and Aslan taught together in UCR’s creative writing department, whose interdisciplinary nature brings together faculty and students alike: poets, screenwriters, fiction and narrative nonfiction writers and playwrights.
“Departments tend to segregate and have little interaction, unless faculty members are forced to be on academic committees together,” Russin said. “One of the great pleasures of teaching at UCR are the opportunities to teach classes together, to go to each other’s readings. We are aware of each other’s successes and agonies. It’s a community that UCR has fostered that I think is rather rare and precious.”
He called Aslan a “remarkable and unique presence on campus and in the media, a wonderful combination of a telegenic personality and a generous, honest and fearless spirit that comes through in his writing and how he approaches the combat of media.”
Carly Kimmel, a lecturer in creative writing at UCR, was also once his student, too. “He scared the hell out of us,” she said, recalling his nonfiction workshop. “People regularly cried in his class, but it was also the first time I actually bought a grammar book and made sure every word I wrote was perfect before I submitted. Reza demands that of you and his students are better for it,” she said. “I’m not sure all of his students even realize how famous he is. That’s sort of the beauty of Riverside. We are a bit protected from Hollywood here. Perhaps Reza likes that, too. He can just be ‘a great professor’ when he’s here and he doesn’t have to be a celebrity.”
A Typical Grad Student
Born in Iran, Aslan immigrated to the United States when he was 7, raised in a “motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists,” he writes in “Zealot.” “[I]n the America of the 1980s, being Muslim was like being from Mars. My faith … was the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.”
As a teenager, after attending an evangelical youth camp, he converted to Christianity. In college, when he began to study the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history, his doubts grew and he began to rethink the faith and culture of his forefathers.
Mark Juergensmeyer, Aslan’s thesis adviser at UC Santa Barbara, remembers him as a typical grad student in blue jeans and a sweatshirt, a lively but not pushy presence in seminar. “Reza in person is just like the guy you see on television — likable, articulate, with an easy self-confidence that earns him instant respect. He’s perfect for the new CNN series since he has a great store of knowledge about comparative religion and a sociologist’s keen eye for the significance of religious beliefs and acts.”
Aslan has three young sons with his wife, Jessica Jackley, who co-founded Kiva, which crowd-sources loans to people around the world. Her first book, “Clay Water Brick: Finding Inspiration from Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most with the Least,” was published in June. Though they’ve discussed working on projects together, for now they’re focused on their children and their individual careers, Aslan said.
People are always amazed that he works in many different realms, fiction and nonfiction, television, movies and academia. “The truth is that I don’t do so many different things.” Aslan said. “I think of myself first and foremost as a storyteller. Everything else are various platforms through which stories are told. I truly believe that stories have the power to change people’s perception of the world, of other people, of themselves.”
—Writer Vanessa Hua ‘09 is a former student and teaching assistant for Reza Aslan.