Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes a compelling case for why Islam is incompatible with 21st Century realities in her new book, Heretic – Why Islam Needs Reformation Now. Her identification of the five principal Islamic flaws is well-documented and is also supported by her own personal journey as a former Muslim. Her book deserves to be read by both Muslims and non-Muslims because of her clear articulation of the failures of Islam.
Her “five theses” against Islam include 1) holding the Quran as God’s immutable word and Muhammad’s deeds as infallible; 2) placing more importance on the afterlife than the here-and-now; 3) holding Sharia Law superior to man-made laws; 4) the obligation of Muslims to command the right and forbid the wrong among their own family and community; and 5) the primacy of jihad (holy war) as a religious obligation. However, by her own admission, these principles are the glue that has held the community of Muslims together for 1,400 years. “Until Islam can do what Judaism and Christianity have done – question, critique, interpret, and ultimately modernize its holy scripture – it cannot free Muslims from a host of anachronistic and at times deadly beliefs and practices.”(p. 90)
According to Ms. Ali, Islam’s failures have become more and more obvious in recent years. New information technology is allowing Muslims to share the truth about their dire situations which had previously been suppressed by government censorship; there is still no example anywhere of Islam delivering on the ideological promises of justice and equality; and the reformists are becoming more effective in using political power to sway the masses and even the governments. Ali cites the women’s campaign in Jordan against a ludicrous law that allows a rapist to avoid prison if he marries his victim.
Ali’s hope is that dissidents and reformers will align themselves with moderate Muslims to identify and repudiate the intolerant and violent aspects of Islamic ideology and, by force of numbers and logic, reform the core teachings of Islam. In her view, this process has already started, as evidenced by the Arab Spring and the calls by more and more Muslims to re-examine the teachings of Islam. A recent example was Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, speaking to the clergy at Al-Azhar University and calling for a “religious revolution.”
Ms. Ali could have added one more major flaw in Islam (which she alluded to in her condemnation of Sharia Law): Death for apostasy. Sharia Law (Reliance of the Traveler) lists 20 specific acts that could result in death, and then adds, “There are others, for the subject is nearly limitless.” (Para. o8.7) Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Spiritual Guide to the Muslim Brotherhood, said recently, “If [Muslims] had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment, Islam wouldn’t exist today.” When apologists for Islam claim that Islam is a great religion because there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today, they overlook the fact that most Muslims did not voluntarily embrace Islam out of faith or conviction. They were told they were Muslim from the time of birth. They are Muslims without choice, and they cannot leave Islam without the risk of death. The large number of Muslims is actually evidence of their futile situation.
While Ali admits that an Islamic reformation would be nothing like the reformations experienced by Christians and Jews, she fails to grasp the impossibility of restoring a more perfect ideology in Islam. Christian and Jewish reform involved abandoning extra-Biblical practices and returning to the sacred texts alone. Sola scriptura was the mantra of the reformers. The situation is just the opposite with regard to Islam. The “radical” or “puritan” or “Medina” Muslims are reading the Quran in its proper context – increasingly militant over time – and they are taking the draconian commands quite literally. No “reformation” is going to get Muslims around the final major Surah which promises Paradise to those who “kill and are killed” for the cause of Allah. (Surah 9:111)
Since the demise of the pre-ISIS caliphate in 1924, the leading Islamic scholars have reasoned that the failure of Islam, if any, has been that Muslims have not been Islamic enough, and they have urged Muslims to adhere more closely to the dictates of the Quran and the traditions (hadith) of Muhammad. That is why the wearing of hijabs and burqas is a relatively recent phenomenon. The reformation that Ayaan Hirsi Ali envisions would move Muslims in the opposite direction – toward less primitive and more modern interpretations. While Ms. Ali correctly recognizes that Muslims in the West are increasingly conflicted about their ideology, a theologically-based re-interpretation is just not in the cards.
It is easy to distinguish between the moderate “Meccan” Muslims who eschew violence and intolerance and the militant “Medina” Muslims who embrace it, there is no way to surgically remove that cancer from the Quran or other sacred texts. The chapters (surahs) of the Quran are not in chronological order, nor are they arranged by topic. There are even mixtures of peaceful and belligerent verses within the same Surah. In the mindsets of most Muslims, all of the commands of the Quran are valid – though under different circumstances.
Fortunately, Ali doesn’t leave her readers without options:
...It was through a process of repeated blasphemy that Christians and Jews evolved and grew into modernity. That is what art did. That is what science did. And yes, that is what irreverent satire did.
The Muslim Reformation is not going to come from Al-Azar. It is more likely to come from a relentless campaign of blasphemy... [It’s time for Muslims to go through this process of critical examination of their ideology.] In that sense – in the sense that I passionately believe in the world-changing power of blasphemy – je suis Charlie. (p. 234)