Where Is Islam’s Martin Luther?

Review: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, ‘Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now’

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali / AP
March 13, 2016

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic, now out in paperback, is a provocative and ambitious book that aims to reform the second largest religion in the world. Hirsi Ali, a Somali born, Dutch raised, naturalized American most famous (or infamous) for the condemnations of Islam in her previous books, Infidel and Nomad, begins her current work with a brash maxim: "Islam is not a religion of peace." By this she does not mean that Islamic belief makes Muslims violent, only that "the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam." This is the fundamental point from which all else in Heretic flows.

But before Hirsi Ali discusses the nature of Islam, she takes pains to identify three groups of Muslims at whom the book is directed: Medina Muslims, the fundamentalists of the faith; Mecca Muslims, the devout, who are not inclined to practice violence, and comprise the majority of Muslims; and Modifying Muslims, or, the dissidents. Heretic, we learn, was conceived as a way to engage with Mecca Muslims, the precarious middle group Hirsi Ali contends is teetering between departing the faith and joining the extremists.

So how does one go about implementing a modern-day doctrinal reformation? Hirsi Ali proposes five emendations to the faith. First, abandon a literalist reading of the Quran, along with the belief in Muhammad’s infallible status; second, reorient Islam in the direction of the life in this world rather than a preoccupation with the life to come; third, subordinate sharia to secular law; fourth, end the "totalitarianism of the hearth," i.e., the social control of the home and community customarily held by the men; finally, jettison the concept of jihad, or holy war. Hirsi Ali devotes a chapter to each of these recommendations, drawing often from her personal history, making for an engaging, if at times (considering the contents of her previous books) redundant read.

Among the rubs, of course, would be how to actuate these reforms without precipitating massive social and political convulsions around the world. And if Islam is as inflexible as Hirsi Ali argues, what do calls for a primarily textual reformation amount to? In a statement that would appear to undercut her contention that the locus of trouble in the Muslim world lies in sacred books, Hirsi Ali notes that:

I believe that a Reformation is not merely imminent; it is now under way…recall the three factors that were crucial to the success of the Protestant Reformation: technological change, urbanization, and the interests of a significant number of European states in backing Luther’s challenge to the status quo. All three are present in the Muslim world today.

Note that these are socio-economic forces, not doctrinal ones. One wonders if, perhaps, Hirsi Ali might have strengthened her approach to taming the more pernicious forces inherent in Islam by more strongly invoking the spirit of Locke than Luther? And though she concentrates—briefly—on Locke’s understanding of natural right and religious toleration as keys to the success of the West, it seems probable that it is Locke’s blueprint for a commercial republic that would be most useful in assisting Mecca Muslims unshackle themselves from more astringent forms of their religion. As Hirsi Ali sums up:

[W]hile Islam’s problems are indeed deep and structural, Muslim people are like everyone else in one important respect: most want a better life for themselves and their children. And increasingly they have good reasons to doubt that the Medina Muslims can deliver it.

I noted at the outset that Heretic is ambitious and provocative. But here, at the end, I might also add that the book is intellectually light given its proposed task of doctrinal reform. To meet the challenges posed by interpretations of a book held to have been revealed by God, what may convince most Mecca Muslims (absent the slow liberalization of markets and mores)—and is most glaringly absent from Hirsi Ali’s argument—are interpretative counterarguments bolstered by Qur’anic evidence. In her Appendix entitled "Muslim Dissidents and Reformers," a pithy list of dissident clerics is given, along with their brief biographical details and current reform projects. This section, spanning a mere four pages, contains the fodder of what might have been the subject of a more interesting book: mapping the current state of doctrinal/textual reform in the Islamic world.

Whatever the case, Hirsi Ali states, "My own sense is that a Muslim Reformation will not come from within the ranks of the Islamic clergy." Very well, but if the central "argument in this book is that religious doctrines matter and are in need of reform," from what quarter—and how—these reforms ought to come, will take another book, at least.

Published under: Book reviews