Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Ayaan Hirsi’s controversial call for an Islamic Reformation





Somali born Ayaan Hirsi Ali must be a very brave woman indeed. Ever since she run away on her way to meet the man who had been arranged for her to marry and discarded her veil and left her Islamic faith, she has been telling her story of oppression within Islam to the rest of the world. Muslims have not been amused. She has long been a marked woman!


But she continues to tell her story. In her latest book: HERETIC – WHY ISLAM NEEDS REFORMATION NOW (Harper Collins, 2015) she states categorically that the root cause of violence in Islam is to be found in the faith’s Holy Scriptures – the Qur’an and the Hadith. Violence is among the very foundational stones of the faith, sanctioned by the scriptures and actively encouraged! 

Her way out is for Islam to reform. Instead of the five pillars of Islam, Ayaan proposes five areas that must be critically examined and changed:

One: Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Qur’an, particularly those parts that were revealed in Medina. Muslims need to understand Muhammad as a real man, in the context of his times, and the Qur’an as a historically constructed text, not as a divine instruction manual for life today. Muslim clerics need to acknowledge that the Qur’an is not the ultimate repository of revealed truth and that it must be open to interpretation and criticism.
Two: The investment in life after death instead of life before death. Muslims must stop fixating on the afterlife and actively choose life on earth and stop valuing death. This is the only way they can get on with the business of living in this world.
Three: Sharia, the body of legislation derived from the Qur’an, the hadith, and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence. The supremacy of sharia over secular law must be ended.
Four: The practice of empowering certain individuals to enforce Islamic law by commanding what is right to be done and forbidding wrong must be ended.
Five: Jihad should be declared “haram” by Muslim clerics around the world and all call to a holy war abandoned.

Ayaan devotes a chapter to each of these. The most controversial of her reforms is the very first one - questioning Muhammad’s semi-divine status and the infallibility of the Qur’an. This means that the very basis of Islam (what really makes a person a Muslim), the Shehada, must be questioned. The Shehada is the oath every Muslim must take to be a true Muslim: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is His messenger” or in the better known version “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger”. Much of the flak Ayaan gets in reviews and online discussions of her suggestions is on this first reform. What will Islam be if it is not predicated on the belief that there is only one god and Muhammad is the Messenger of that god? 





Her exposition of her other points is interesting too, sometimes bordering on the tragicomic. For instance she says many Muslims believe in paradise as “an actual place with water and date trees heavy with fruit”. She says the list of things that Islam allows is “very small, while the list of what cannot be done overwhelms everything else – except for the list of punishments, which is even longer”. And she describes Saudi men who would leave the Mosque on Fridays and head straight to the town square to witness grisly beheadings and the cutting off of limbs of people who go against Islam’s edicts. And this happens in modern day Arabia!

She takes a strong stand for women’s rights within Islam. She states categorically that no matter which way you look at Islam, and no matter what Muslims say about the Qur’an talking of the benign handling of women, Islam does NOT accept that women are equal to men! The inequality of the sexes, Ayaan argues, is central to sharia.

Ayaan divides Muslims into three groups. The first group she calls the Medina Muslims – those who follow Muhammed’s teachings as revealed in the messages he received in Medina. They are the fundamentalists of today who see the forcible imposition of sharia as their religious duty. The second group, the Mecca Muslims, consists of those who are loyal to the core creed, worship devoutly but are not inclined to practise violence since they give priority to the revelations made in Mecca. They outnumber the Medina Muslims. The third group she calls Muslim dissidents or Modifying Muslims. These are the people born into Islam who have sought to think critically of the faith they were raised in. She regards herself as belonging to this group. (She has a long appendix on prominent members of this group). 

Ayaan has given up on the Medina Muslims but appeals to the Mecca Muslims to accept change and reject the call of the Medina Muslims to intolerance and war. According to her, all attempts in the past at Islamic reformation failed because a certain subgroup of the faith with a different theology has consistently defeated all reformist attempts. The victorious subgroup has always been the one driving a harder line of Islam. An interesting example she gives of one such failed attempt is that of the Mu’tazilite School of Islamic thought which flourished in Basra and Baghdad during the 8th–10th centuries. They argued that since Allah cannot be conceived of as having a human larynx, the Qur’an can, therefore, not be Allah’s “speech.”

Ayaan makes a pertinent observation. She says that many of her Muslim critics argue that she is not qualified to talk on such issues because she is not an Imam or a cleric. We often hear this argument in Ghana also, especially from Muslims with little education who say non Muslim critics of Islam are ignorant of the true nature of Islam – “they just don’t get it”. But I think Ayaan has read all the books that matter including the sacred ones. She seems to know as much as the imams and clerics and more than some of them. Her being brought up as a Muslim also enables her to know the daily practices of the faith. Ayaan, the Desert Nomad, is not, today, a fellow of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government for nothing. It is a poor argument that says she is ignorant because she did not attend a school for clerics. Besides, why should criticism of Islam be the sole preserve of the so called “learned” of a faith brought to the world by a medieval desert merchant who could hardly read or write? 

She doesn’t see change coming from within. To the question: “[w]hy is it so hard to question anything about Islam?”, she says that there is now an internationally organized “honor brigade” that exists to prevent such questioning and there is also the deeper historical answer of the fear of many Muslim clerics that allowing critical thought might lead many to leave Islam.

For all her dislike of Islam, Ayaan is not arguing that the religion is going to disappear from the earth. She knows better than that. She is only calling for reform, some of it along the lines that Christianity took in the West especially during the Enlightenment. Voltaire supported the rights of people to utter dissenting views, even those that he (Voltaire) did not agree with. John Locke not only gave us the notion of a natural right to life, liberty and property but also made a strong case for religious toleration. It was Locke who said that no one person should “desire to impose” his or her view of salvation on others. Ayaan’s argument is that Islam needs a few Voltaires and Lockes.

Her message to the West is that it should concentrate on fighting jihadist violence at the level of ideas, not of military might, just us it did during the Cold War against leftist totalitarian regimes. She states that a war of ideas cannot be fought by military means. She says the world must respond to Islam the way it did to apartheid insisting that today’s radical Islam is more violent than apartheid ever was because in Islam “people are targeted not for their skin colour but for their gender, their sexual orientation, their religion, or, among Muslims, the form of their personal faith.”

She rails against Western liberals and cultural relativists who argue that we should not judge the religious practices of others. The West, Ayaan argues, must insist that Muslims living in their societies abide by their (the West’s) rules. She says there is far greater hatred of Christians in Muslim-majority countries than there is of Islam in Christian majority countries. She cites Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as examples of countries with strong doses of what she calls “Christianophobia”. 

Ayaan, who now includes herself as part of the West, insists that it is “not we in the West who must accommodate ourselves to Muslim sensitivities; it is Muslims who must accommodate themselves to Western liberal ideals”.

Ayaan concludes her book on an optimistic note. She believes a Muslim Reformation is coming and thinks it may already be here: 

“I think it is plausible that the Internet will be for the Islamic world in the twenty-first century what the printing press was for Christendom in the sixteenth. Three factors are combining today to enable real religious reform: 
The impact of new information technology in creating an unprecedented communication network across the Muslim world. 
The fundamental inability of Islamists to deliver when they come to power and the impact of Western norms on Muslim immigrants are creating a new and growing constituency for a Muslim Reformation. 
The emergence of a political constituency for religious reform emerging in key Middle Eastern states.”

Whether Ayaan’s optimism will be borne out is yet to be seen. 

One thing I found useful after reading the book are the discussion on the more serious websites. The argument (from both sides) about reformation in Islam and the current state of the faith is much more nuanced than Ayaan’s account even if I must say she does give it a good try. Those who read the book can google those sites for further analyses. 

On a personal basis, Ayaan’s call which appeals to me most is the one that asks Muslims to give precedence to life on earth rather than the one in the hereafter. I think this injunction can coexist with all that is positive in Islam. One can believe in a paradise and still enjoy life on earth. But no matter how much Ayaan wishes it, she will never get her wish that Muslims discard the Shehada or even question it. Most commentators are agreed on this. I fully share that view.


Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. HarperCollins, 2015; 272 pages; $27.99 and £18.99 (Hardback edition), $14.99 (Kindle Edition).

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