Reza Aslan, religious scholar, author and host of CNN's upcoming series "Believer," wants to make the world of religion a little more accessible. That's why he has been traveling the globe, from India to Hawaii, exploring different communities of faith and seeing what makes them unique. He's a little Anthony Bourdain, but instead of getting a taste of yellowfin tuna, Aslan is sampling voodoo and Scientology.
The father of three boys—5-year-old twin boys plus a 2-year-old son—has his own blended-faith family. While Aslan, whose family immigrated to the US from Iran in the late '70s, is Muslim, his wife, Jessica Jackley, is Christian.
Aslan talks to Mom.me about how he experiences God, what makes him judgy and the one quality he wants as a parent.
"Believer" premieres Sunday, March 5, on CNN.
What quality makes for a good dad?
The most important quality is patience, which is something that I severely lack and which I had to be taught little by little by my wife. She said something that I think is so important and has changed the way that I father my children, which is that their brains don’t work the way that my brain works. Biologically, their brains don’t work the same way. So, what seems logical and sensical to me just doesn’t seem that way to them, so losing my patience with them doesn’t make any sense. She often says that it’s better to just assume that our kids are aliens from another planet and to communicate with them in that fashion. It definitely helps to maintain patience.
What is your favorite quality in a mom?
My favorite quality in a mom is the overwhelming sense of love. All moms love their children, but there are certain moms that you look at and you can just see that love just exuding from their pores. It’s within their cells. It’s not the things that they do or the things that they say; it’s just the way that they move through the world. You can just sense that notion of love, dripping off of them onto their children.
What did you think you'd be when you grew up?
I always knew that I was going to be a writer, and I always knew that I was going to be a dad. In fact, my greatest goal—even when I was like 13, 14 years old—was to be a dad. It was the thing I thought about most.
What trait do you hope your kids inherit from you?
I hope that my kids inherit my sense of adventure. It’s something that we foster in them. [My older sons] are 5 years old, they’ve been all around the world already. They’ve been to London and Paris and Australia and New Zealand and Abu Dhabi and Ireland. We want to make sure that they’re aware of how small the world is and that they’re global citizens. So that’s something that I really hope that they inherit from me.
What do you appreciate most in your friends?
I am old enough now where, quite honestly, I judge everyone, including my friends based on their relationship with their kids. It’s terrible, but I can’t help it. If I feel like you don’t have a good relationship with your kids, I can’t really be your friend anymore.
What is your idea of misery?
Misery is not being with my family. As a person of faith and as a scholar of religions, people always ask me, “Well, where do you worship?” “What is your church?” And my answer is always the same: My family is my church. I experience God through my family. My spirituality filters through my family. So when I’m not with my family, when I’m on a book tour or a media tour, and I’m gone from them for weeks at a time, it’s not just that I miss them. It’s that my soul feels empty.
If you could switch lives with anyone, who would you switch with?
It’s so funny because I know this sounds lame and insincere, but trust me when I say it. I am the luckiest person on Earth. I sometimes think about how fun it would be to have a time machine and go back in time and do some things differently and fix mistakes that I made. But then I immediately think what if I unravel something and don’t end up where I am right now? Where I am right now, with the best job in the world, the best wife in the world, the best kids in the world—the idea that I would want to do or be anything else is absurd. I guess the answer is no one.
What's the one quality you want to have as a parent?
For me, it’s empathy. So often, I interpret my children’s reactions through my own experience. And I think, that doesn’t make any sense. Stop crying. It’s not a big deal. It didn’t hurt that much. Here’s another one. I filter their experience through my mind. I try to present father logic upon it. What I wish I could do better is to just clear myself of that and to just meet them exactly where they are. Empathize with their experience.
When I’m not with my family, when I’m on a book tour or a media tour, and I’m gone from them for weeks at a time, it’s not just that I miss them. It’s that my soul feels empty.
What is the social media platform you can't live without?
My wife will answer that question. It’s Twitter. Oftentimes she gets very mad at me because I’m in the middle of tweeting things while she’s talking to me, and a couple of times she’s even embarrassed me by communicating with me through Twitter even though we’re in the same room.
Who is your favorite fictional hero/heroine?
My favorite fictional heroine is Matilda from the Roald Dahl books. I love how she’s so smart, she’s so much smarter than her family and her family just continually subverts her intelligence and she comes up with these hilarious, ingenious ways of exacting revenge on them. I think that is just awesome.
What is your favorite children's book?
If you’re talking young adult, “A Wrinkle in Time” is my favorite kid’s book. That book changed me.
The baby name(s) that didn't make the final cut?
We never had any other names. We never came up with an alternative name. The names that we have for our children are literally the only names that we have come up with. We just kind of knew it. I’ve always wanted to name one of my sons Cyrus. I knew I was going to do that after Cyrus the Great, the Persian hero, and then Jessica literally out of the blue was like, "What about Jasper for our other kid?" I was like, "Yup, that works." Then when we had a third boy, Asa was the first name that came to our minds. We never had alternative names.
What song do you never want to hear again?
I never ever want to hear “The Macarena” again.
What was the last thing you binge-watched?
The last thing I binge-watched was “Stranger Things” on Netflix. I just ripped through that.
What talent do you wish you had?
I wish that I were a better surfer. I love surfing, and for a while there I was surfing pretty regularly and started to get pretty good at it. But to be the kind of surfer I want to be means you've just gotta move to the ocean and surf all day. Maybe when I retire, I’ll do that. There is nothing more exhilarating. It’s the closest that I’ve ever come to flying.
What is your greatest wish for your children?
For them to have the kind of marriage I have with my wife. I want them to grow up, and I want them to find someone to love and who loves them the way that my wife and I love each other.
Who are your heroes in real life?
My biggest hero is my wife. I basically take my cues for how to live in the world through her. She’s my social justice warrior. She’s the one who teaches me how to put my values into practice.
What word or phrase do you never want to hear again?
President Donald Trump. Never want to hear that phrase ever again.
What is your greatest indulgence?
My greatest indulgence is late-night television. I know that I’m going to have to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to take care of a screaming 2-year-old. I know that I’m so tired that I could probably just die and wouldn’t even realize it, and yet I’ve got to watch just one more episode of something before I go down to bed, and I always without exception regret it the next morning. But then I do it again.
What is your favorite motto?
My favorite motto is my own motto, which is: “Have a mission, not a job.”
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Top image via Shayan Asgharnia; bottom image via Jessica Jackley