Reza Aslan on Varanasi, Family Travel, and Spiritual Journeys

Be it for research, holidays or work conferences, the religious scholar is always going places. And the more he sees, the more he believes we are the same.

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Aslan believes that every one should visit Varanasi at least once in their lives. Photo Courtesy: Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American professor and religious commentator, has written extensively about god and religion. His books include No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization, and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. He also hosted Believer, a six-episode television series exploring different radical sects across the world, including India’s Shiva-worshipping ascetics, or the Aghori, ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel, and practitioners of Vodou in Haiti. In October, he will be speaking at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali. Aslan spoke to National Geographic Traveller India on spiritual and physical journeys, educating his children through travel and going around the world in 80 days.


How did you zero in on those places and those sects for Believer?

It was a combination of places I wanted to visit, particular religions I wanted to explore and what was actually feasible. We were keen to do a Muharram episode in Pakistan but unfortunately the insurance never went through. The six we chose were chosen precisely because they were somewhat familiar to people, or certain aspects of the religions were familiar to people, but they represented a lesser-known sect within a larger religion. For instance, we didn’t want to do an episode just on Hinduism, but we wanted to do an episode on the Aghori, one of many radical sects within Hinduism.


To what extent were these places familiar to you? 

I had never been to Haiti although I was quite familiar with Vodou (a syncretic, spirit-based religion). It was new for me, experiencing Vodou in its homeland; that was a stunning and beautiful experience. I’ve been to India many times but never to Varanasi. I think everybody in the world should go there at least once. It’s such a beautiful, sacred and special place.


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When Aslan travelled to Haiti, he was struck by how island life binds its rich and poor. John Seaton Callahan/Moment/Getty images


The places that you hadn’t seen before—were they surprising or unexpected? 

What was surprising about Haiti was that the difference between the very wealthy parts of the city and the very poor parts of the city wasn’t that great. The roads were a bit better, the houses were a bit bigger, but you get the sense you are on an island and everybody experiences the issues and problems that plague the country in one way or another. Certainly if you are wealthier you can be a little more inoculated, but you get the feeling it functions as a single ecosystem that no one can avoid. What was really interesting about Varanasi was, you see a little slice of every part of the country in Varanasi. Everyone is there: every culture, every religion, every ethnicity. The incredible tapestry that is India you see in a kind of microcosm in Varanasi.


But this wasn’t your first time in India, so what brought you here in the past?

Usually it’s for talks or events. I’ve been to the Jaipur Literature Festival a couple of times, hung out in Rajasthan, been to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore. For the past 10 years, the only time I ever travel is when it’s for a talk or some event. I often joke that the only way I go anywhere is if someone else is paying for it.


Have you travelled much while researching your books on religion? 

I had to do a lot of travelling through Israel and Palestine for Zealot. For God I went to Lascaux in Southern France looking at various cave paintings, because that’s a big part of the early part of the book. I don’t travel for fun anymore, mostly for work. My wife and I have a rule, if either of us gets invited to a talk somewhere that could in any way, shape or form be transformed into a vacation, we take it and bring the other one along. That’s how we do vacations now in our family, we extend any kind of work trip.


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Aslan mostly travels for work. Case in point, his many visits to the Middle East or that time he went to France in search of mystical cave paintings. Photo By: DOZIER Marc/ Images Plus/Getty images


What is the idea of travel in the Islamic and Christian religious traditions? 

Christian travel literature tends to be focussed on pilgrimage and involves visiting saint burial grounds, places where there are saint relics. A lot of old travel literature from the Christian world treats the physical journey like a spiritual journey. You are going from A to B but throughout that you are undergoing a spiritual transformation. And that’s what pilgrimage is all about.

In Islamic travel literature, what you have is a quite different history. People like Ibn Batuta or Nasir Khusraw. These were men whose travel was not necessarily a spiritual enterprise but in the search of knowledge. They wanted to go and map the world, see other cultures and religions. The rapid nature of how the Islamic empire expanded really created a thirst for knowledge. Many caliphs and sultans would send scholars, experts, mapmakers around the world to chart it and see what’s out there.

My wife is Christian and I’m Muslim, we decided to combine these two traditions last summer and took our three boys on a journey around the world. We circled the globe in 80 days, 12 countries, 20 cities. It was both an attempt to accumulate knowledge and a spiritual adventure. We immersed ourselves in different cultures and traditions: we went to synagogues in Israel, temples in China and Japan, mosques in Egypt and Turkey, Stonehenge, a leprechaun hunt in Ireland. It was an attempt to show our children the diversity of the world and teach them how much we have
in common.


How did you approach travel when you were younger? 

My wife and I always say in our family travel is a value. It’s not just a thing we do, but a thing we believe in. We want to teach travel as a value the way we teach our kids love, compassion or forgiveness. I came to the US at the age of seven. I had a green card, but for various reasons we lost our legal status and spent a long time undocumented. It wasn’t until I was 23 that I became a US citizen, so until then I couldn’t leave the country. But seeing the world was so important that I instead saw most of the US. I went to 37 of the 50 states. When I became a US citizen at 23, the first thing I did was get my passport. From that moment I have tried to see as much of the world as possible.


Has travel shaped your personal faith in any way? 

I always say when you study world religions like I do, the first thing you notice is what all these religions have in common, they pretty much say the same thing but in different languages. The same is true for travel. When you travel the world, spend time with other people in other countries, you notice the same thing. Yes, there are traditions that are different, customs and rituals that are different. But in the end everyone is the same, they have the same dreams and hopes, and they struggle with the same issues. That experience is key as a scholar and as a person living in a globalised world. To understand how alike we all are.


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Mexico City is one of Aslan’s favourite cities. Photo By: John Cuesta/EyeEm/ EyeEm/Getty images

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The Aslan family took an 80-day world tour that covered important historical sites such as Stonehenge. Photo By: Chris Allan/Shutterstock


What memories do you have of Iran and do you still have links there?

Most of my family is still there except my immediate family. It’s hard to remember much beyond the chaotic final year, the violence and revolution and trying to get out. Unfortunately, that was so dramatic it’s fogged over my other memories of Iran. Those tend to be being with family, being in homes. I returned in 2005 when I was doing research for a book, before I became a public face. Now it wouldn’t be safe for me to go back.


Are there places you haven’t visited but would like to, out of academic interest? 

I’ve never been to Mecca. That’s something I plan to do one day. I’d like for my sons to get a bit older to take them with me. Academically, spiritually, personally, that’s a place I’m very excited to visit one day.


Are there places you enjoy revisiting?

A place I visit often is Israel, I don’t enjoy it any more. I used to. But it has fallen off a cliff, it has become an intolerable right wing ethno-nationalist state. I’ve been going back and forth for more than a decade and every time I return it gets worse and worse. I enjoy Mexico, I love all of it. It’s a beautiful country. Mexico City is one of my favourite cities in the world. And then I would say India. I’ve spent so much time in India but because it’s such a gigantic country and so different in every corner, you can go seven or eight times and still feel you haven’t seen the place.


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  • Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She was previously a beat reporter with the Hindustan Times. She usually writes on criminal justice issues, culture, books and sports.


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