On the Reformation of Islam

Since 9/11, our world outlook has been significantly challenged. But 9/11 was only the largest in a series of terrorist attacks stretching back before and after (the World Trade Towers were hit by a truck bomb in 1993, fortunately without major damage). As we hear about the disruptions “Islamists” have been engaged in, all around the world now, we wonder: when is this going to stop, so we all can lead normal civilized lives again?

Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, raised that precise question in January, 2015, at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, before a major assembly of Muslim scholars:

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible! Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now. . . .I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. . . .The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move.

The Obama administration – and many who think like it – keeps telling us that these horrific acts have “nothing to do with Islam.” No reform necessary. Just prevent a few “junior varsity” fundamentalists from “hijacking” a great religion.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre on January 7 last year, the White House press secretary went to great lengths to distinguish between “the violent extremist messaging that ISIL and other extremist organizations are using, trying to radicalize individuals around the globe,” and a “peaceful religion.”

But even Muslims sense extreme naiveté in this wholesale exoneration of Islamic religious tenets. Hearing Obama’s claim that the Islamic State was “not Islamic,” a young Morrocan recently responded on YouTube:

Mr. President, I must tell you that you are wrong about ISIL. You said ISIL speaks for no religion. I am a former Muslim. My dad is an imam. I have spent more than 20 years studying Islam. . . .I can tell you with confidence that ISIL speaks for Islam. . . .ISIL’s 10,000 members are all Muslims. . . .They come from different countries and have one common denominator: Islam. They are following Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in every detail. . . .call things by their names. ISIL, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Taliban, and their sister brand names, are all made in Islam. Unless the Muslim world deals with Islam and separates religion from state, we will never end this cycle.

That last sentence identifies a major obstacle: Islam is not just a religion but an intrinsically political entity.

Alexis de Tocqueville, commending separation of church and state, contrasted the American constitution with Islam, a religion that “has most completely confounded and intermixed the two powers. . .so that all the acts of civil and political life are regulated more or less by religious law.”

Therefore, as in most armies, desertion (“apostasy”) is a crime deserving of execution. This is an essential aspect of the religion, enforced in countries where Islamists rule.

Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has said of the apostasy death-sentence: “If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment Islam would not exist today. Islam would have ended with the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Opposing apostasy is what kept Islam to this day.”

Many of today’s Sunni and Shiite militants believe they are participating in battles foretold in seventh-century prophecies from the Muslim hadiths that refer to the ultimate confrontation of two massive armies in Syria.

Some differences concerning this apocalypse exist, however, between the majority (Sunnis) and the minority (Shiites). Whereas Shiite doctrine looks forward to the return of the Twelfth Imam and the global triumph of Islam, Sunni zealots are more likely to aspire to the forcible creation of a new caliphate.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Such aspirations seem fanciful and even comical to most modern people, especially those with no knowledge of the Islam’s history. But these beliefs have given rise to the “Islamic State,” terror in Iraq and Syria, and confusion among world powers.

There are no more Crusades, and the United Nations is not about to get involved in what amounts to a religious war. Some people are mistakenly confident that military action by the United States, Russia, France and other nations will solve the problem.

But Aayan Hirsi Ali, in Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now has no such confidence. She sees ISIS as just the “tip of the iceberg,” destined to be reincarnated in other forms even if this version is destroyed; she has no confidence in military solutions.

Hirsi Ali lived as an observant Muslim in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, until in her early twenties she was brokered into an arranged marriage in Canada by her father. On the way to Canada, she decided to flee to Holland, where she was accepted as a refugee, then began to work, acquire an education, and even participate in politics, while her religious roots weakened. The 9/11 attack precipitated her abandonment of Islam and eventual turn to atheism. Her critiques of Islamic discrimination against women, and her participation in Theo van Gogh’s movie, Submission, resulted in van Gogh’s assassination and death threats against Hirsi. In the aftermath, she emigrated to the United States.

In an earlier book, Nomad, she held no hope for a possible “reformation” of Islam. But in Heretic she offers proposals worthy of consideration.

First, she rejects categorizing Muslims as “moderate” and “fundamentalist,” and offers what she considers a more accurate analysis. There are: 1) a small minority of Dissenters, such as herself; 2) a larger minority of Medina Muslims, whose inspiration derives from the later chapters of the Qur’an dictated in Medina and threatening hellfire for unbelievers; and 3) Mecca Muslims, inspired by the earlier chapters dictated in Mecca, when a more tolerant Muhammad sought acceptance as a prophet.

Her reform proposals are geared to tame the threatening behavior of the Medina Muslims and allow Mecca Muslims to make the often-difficult adaptation to Western civilization and modernity:

  • Use the principle of “abrogation,” which has been widely accepted by Muslim scholars to prioritize the numerous later (Medinan) “Verses of the Sword” in the Qur’an, which demand conversion or death (or taxes and subservience from compliant Christians and Jews). But reverse the “abrogation” and emphasize the more moderate and often inspiring Meccan verses.
  • Save the children. Don’t dress up kindergartners as suicide bombers, as in Gaza; or extol “the love of martyrdom,” as on Egyptian television; or castigate Jews and Christians as “enemies of the believers,” or as Apes and Swine, as textbooks in Saudi Arabia instruct sixth-graders and eighth-graders.
  • Renounce sharia law, which prescribes death for apostasy (Qur’an 4:89) and the possibility of death for blasphemy (9:47, 6:93); beheadings and crucifixions for unbelievers (47:4; 5:33); amputations for stealing (5:38); as well as the killing of homosexuals, and the stoning of adulterers (recommended in the hadiths).
  • Overcome the endemic inequality of women in Islam, which has led to male guardianship, marital rape, child marriage, legal disinheritance, the near impossibility of proving rape, or divorcing and gaining custody of children.
  • Abolish Islamic “apartheid,” whereby “people are targeted not for their skin color, but for gender, sexual orientation, religion, or, among Muslims, the form of their personal faith.”
  • Use contemporary print and electronic media to turn people away from “Medina” Islam. “Imagine a platform for Muslim dissidents that communicated their message through YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Imagine ten reformist magazines for every one issue of ISIS’s Dibaq or Al-Qaeda’s Inspire.

Personally, I am doubtful that these efforts would succeed: Rejection of sharia? Hirsi Ali herself quotes statistics showing that the vast majority of Muslims in Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nigeria support imposition of sharia law. Separation of mosque and state, so that Muslims everywhere would have freedom to change their religion? Hardly conceivable. “Abrogation” of the Medinan ‘Verses of the Sword’ in the Qur’an? How, when Muslims believe these are literally the final words of Allah, dictated to Muhammad?

Two of her proposals hold promise, however, and may even lead to major change during the next few decades – namely, 1) to spread justified outrage against the inequality of women in Islam (where are the feminists when you need them?), and 2) to utilize the massive educational potentials of new electronic and print media.

Since half of Muslims are women, and “closed societies” are now almost impossible to keep closed, it may be that Muslim women (see Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s website) can be the catalyst for the “revolution” Egyptian President Sisi called for so passionately.

You may purchase Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic through The Catholic Thing Store at Amazon.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.