by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Why Has There Been No Muslim Reformation?
Speaking about a class-room setting
…….I had not designed the course to be a seminar on my personal vision of Islam. I had been careful not to assign my own writings. Instead, I had drawn up a balanced list of scholarly articles and academic books, points and counterpoints around the nature of political theory in Islam. This material was what I had intended to discuss in class. Yet it was as if the objectionable students had not even looked at the syllabus. For them, simply to ask a question about Islam was a grave offense.
So, to start with, we need simply to ask: Why is it so hard to question anything about Islam?
The obvious answer is that there is now an internationally organized "honor brigade" that exists to prevent such questioning. The deeper historical answer may lie in the fear of many Muslim clerics that allowing critical thought might lead many to leave Islam.
Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a staunch Medina Muslim and a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has said: "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."1
The clerics fear that even the smallest of questions will lead to doubt, doubt will lead to more questions, and ultimately the questioning mind will demand not only answers but also innovations.
An innovation in turn will create a precedent. Other minds that question will build on these precedents and more concessions will be demanded. Soon people will be innovating themselves out of their faith altogether.
Innovation of faith is one of the gravest sins in Islam, on a par with murder and apostasy.
Thus it is perfectly intelligible why the leading Muslim clerics (the ulema) have come to the consensus that Islam is more than a mere religion, but rather the one and only comprehensive system that embraces, explains, integrates, and dictates all aspects of human life: personal, cultural, political, as well as religious. In short, Islam handles everything.
Any cleric who advocates the separation of mosque and state is instantly anathematized. He is declared a heretic and his work is removed from the bookshelves.
This is what makes Islam fundamentally different from other twenty-first-century monotheistic religions.
It is important to grasp the extent to which religion is intertwined with politics and political systems in Islamic societies. It is not simply that the boundaries between religion and politics are porous. There scarcely are any boundaries.
Seventeen Muslim-majority nations declare Islam the state religion and require the head of state to be a practicing Muslim, while in the Christian world only two nations require a Christian head of state (although the British monarch is required to be the "Defender of the Faith," the heir to the throne intends to be "Defender of Faith").2
In countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, or within mounting insurgent movements such as IS and Boko Haram, the boundaries between religion and politics do not exist at all.
This fusion of the spiritual and the temporal offers an initial clue as to why a Muslim Reformation has yet to happen. For it was in large measure the separateness of church and state in early modern Europe that made the Christian Reformation viable……
Ali Abdel Raziq, an Oxford-educated Egyptian scholar and a professor at Al-Azhar University, was a devout Muslim and religious judge who argued that Islam should be completely separated from politics so as to protect it from political corruption.
In his 1925 book, Islam and the Foundations of Governance, Abdel Raziq argued that Muslims could use their innate powers of reason to devise the political and civil laws best suited for their times and circumstances. What is more, he specifically rejected the idea of restoring a Muslim caliphate, so dear to modern radicals. "In truth," he wrote:
This institution which Muslims generally know as the caliphate has nothing to do with religion. It has. . . more to do with . . . the lust for power and the exercise of intimidation that has been associated with this institution. The caliphate is not among the tenets of the faith. . . . There is not a single principle of the faith that forbids Muslims to co-operate with other nations in the total enterprise of the social and political sciences. There is no principle that prevents them from dismantling this obsolete system, a system which has demeaned and subjugated them, crushing them in its iron grip. Nothing stops them from building their state and their system of government on the basis of past constructions of human reason, of systems whose sturdiness has stood the test of time, which the experience of nations has shown to be effective.
For positing these ideas, Abdel Raziq was dismissed from Al-Azhar. The university's Supreme Council condemned and denounced his book, and expelled him from the circle of the ulema. He lost his title of dim, or learned man, and was forced into domestic exile, escaping a worse fate thanks only to his family's prominence……
Who Speaks for Islam?
Luther's Reformation was launched against a hierarchical ecclesiastical establishment. When the pope sought to anathematize him, Luther could retort: "I am called a heretic by those whose purses will suffer from my truths." Islam is different. Unlike Catholicism, Islam is almost entirely decentralized. There is no pope, no College of Cardinals, nothing like the Southern Baptist Convention—no hierarchical structure, no centrally controlled system of ordination. Any man can become an imam; all it takes is a self-professed knowledge of the Quran and followers.
I am always intrigued when on college campuses there are heated demands that an imam or scholar of Islam be present when I speak to offer the "correct" interpretation of Islam.
That was the demand of Yale's Muslim Student Association in September 2014, when I was invited to the university's campus to give the Buckley Lecture. But whom did they have in mind for this role? A Saudi cleric? An American convert? An Indonesian? An Egyptian? A Sunni? A Shiite? A representative of Islamic State, perhaps? Or how about Zeba Khan, an American Muslim of Indian descent, who was educated at a Jewish day school while also attending a mosque in Toledo, Ohio, where men and women prayed side by side, and who in 2008 started the group Muslims for Obama? Or perhaps they would prefer the British-born lawyer turned imam, Anjem Choudary, who favors the imposition of sharia in Britain and has looked forward to seeing the black flag of IS flying over Parliament? All can legitimately claim to speak for Islam. There is no Muslim pope to say which of them is right.
In my own Harvard seminar room, a Muslim woman from Egypt became very argumentative.
She came to some sessions of my study group and not to others, but was always ready to contradict whatever I was saying. Finally, I asked her about a point that had been made in the assigned reading. She replied: "I haven't done the assigned reading. I don't need to. I already know everything." This goes to the heart of the matter. Paradoxically, Islam is the most decentralized and yet, at the same time, the most rigid religion in the world. Everyone feels entitled to rule out free discussion.
One of the fiercest critics of my course was a female Sudanese student. Despite never actually attending a single session of the study group, she was completely convinced that everything being said in the classroom was a serious affront to Islam. She was one of a number of Muslim students who lobbied the Kennedy School authorities to have my study group terminated.
When one of my colleagues made the point that academic freedom—the freedom to teach and learn about viewpoints and ideas that are fundamentally at odds with others' beliefs—is the cornerstone of the Western university, she reacted with perplexed hostility. Academic freedom was a concept that seemed to her deplorable if it permitted any questioning of her faith.
To understand this hostility, it is important to recognize that the long traditions in Judaism and Christianity of passionate debate and agonizing doubt are largely absent in Islam. There are no great schisms within the Sunni or Shia branches (a division that was not originally theological in nature, but was essentially a dispute over succession). Instead, there is conformity. There is no Reform or Reconstructionist Islam, as there is in Judaism. Rather, like the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, Islam is still persecuting heretics.
Consider this admonition from a Roman Catholic professor of theology, David Bonagura, who notes that Catholic worship is often considered more "stoic" compared with the "energy" of Protestant services, but who goes on to say that these "different styles are pathways to faith," adding that "we need not think our preferred religious experience should be shared by everyone else."9 How many Muslim clerics today would dare say such a thing?
In no other modern religion is dissent still a crime, punishable by death. When a conservative Jewish rabbi said in a Modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Washington, D.C., that Orthodox Judaism needs female rabbis, he was not denounced. A few people in the audience even applauded. When Pope Francis broached the idea of toleration for homosexuals within the Catholic Church, there was heated disagreement, but no violence, and no one called for his overthrow or death.
By contrast, consider the case of Hamza Kashgari, a twenty-three-year-old Saudi man, who in 2013 was accused of blasphemy and threatened with death for having openly challenged the authority of the Prophet Muhammad. What did Kashgari do that was so reprehensible? On the eve of the Prophet's birthday, he addressed a series of tweets directly to Muhammad. In an almost immediate response, Saudi sheiks took to YouTube to demand his execution; a Face-book group demanding his death had ten thousand "friends" within one week—not surprising perhaps when one considers that Saudi Arabia's homegrown Twitter heroes are clerics such as Muhammad al-Arifi, who cannot enter any European nation because of his unabashed support for wife-beating and his hatred of Jews. (Al-Arifi has 10.7 million Twitter followers.)
Kashgari, a newspaper columnist from the port city of Jeddah on the Red Sea, promptly deleted his tweets and fled to Malaysia, where he was detained in the departure hall of Kuala Lumpur International Airport by police as he tried to board a flight to New Zealand. He was soon thereafter repatriated to Saudi Arabia.
What had he written in 140 characters that was so blasphemous? The answer is this:
On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you've always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity surrounding you. I shall not pray for you.10
He also posted: "On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more."
And finally: "I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more." 11
For these innocent words, clerics rose up to demand Kashgari's death for the crime of apostasy, and King Abdullah ordered a warrant for his arrest. It did not matter that Kashgari had apologized and erased his tweets. He was jailed. And although he was freed some eight months later, he has effectively been silenced.
This is a young man who grew up in a conservative religious home, who was doing no more than testing and feeling about the contours of his faith. He did not reject Islam, Allah, or the Prophet. His words merely sought to humanize a religious icon. And for this he was jailed……
Moreover, Islam is now a global religion with what might even be called a global diaspora. As a result of postwar migrations, there are more than 20 million Muslims living in Western Europe and North America. These Muslims are, as we have seen, confronting the daily challenge of existing in the modern secular West while still remaining Muslim. In short, there is a rapidly growing potential audience for ideas about a new direction for Islam……
In the chapters that follow, I will explore the source of the ideas and doctrines in question and evaluate the prospects for reforming them. For now, we may simply note that they are closely interrelated. The main problem for us is obviously the promotion of jihad. But the appeal of holy war cannot be understood without factoring in the prestige of the Prophet himself as a model for Muslim behavior, the insistence on a literal reading of the Qur'an and the attendant rejection of critical thinking, the primacy of the afterlife in Muslim theology, the power of religious law, and the license bestowed on individual Muslims to enforce its codes and disciplines. These issues overlap to the extent that they are sometimes hard to separate. But all must be addressed.
As readers of my previous books will realize, this represents a new approach. When I wrote my last book, Nomad, I believed that Islam was beyond reform, that perhaps the best thing for religious believers in Islam to do was to pick another god. I was certain of it, not unlike the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, who wrote in 1987 of his absolute certainty that the Berlin Wall would endure. Two years later, the Wall fell. Seven months after I published Nomad came the start of the Arab Spring. I watched four national governments fall—Egypt's twice—and protests or uprisings occur in fourteen other nations, and I thought simply: I was wrong. Ordinary Muslims are ready for change.
The path forward will be hard, even bloody. But unlike previous waves of reform that foundered on the monolith of religious and political power, today it is possible to find a fellowship of people who desire a separation of religion from politics in the Muslim world.
I am not a cleric. I have no weekly congregation. I simply lecture, read, write, think, and teach a small seminar at Harvard. Those who might object that I am not a trained theologian or historian of Islam are correct. But it is not my purpose singlehandedly to engage the Muslim world in a theological debate. Rather, it is my purpose to encourage Muslim reformers and dissidents to confront obstacles to reform—and to encourage the rest of us to support them in whatever way we can.
For me there can be no going back. It is too late to return to the faith of my parents and grandparents. But it is not too late for millions of others to reconcile their Islamic faith with the twenty-first century.
Nor is my dream of a Muslim Reformation a matter for Muslims alone. People of all faiths, or of no faith, have a great interest in a changed Islam: a faith that is more respectful of the basic doctrines of human rights, that universally preaches less violence and more tolerance, that promotes less corrupt and less chaotic governments, that allows for more doubt and more dissent, that encourages more education, more freedom, and more equality before a modern system of law.
I see no other way forward for us—at least no other way that is not strewn with corpses.
Islam and modernity must be reconciled. And that can happen only if Islam itself is modernized. Call it a Muslim Renovation if you prefer. But whatever label you choose …. It is a debate that must begin with a reconsideration of the Prophet and his book as infallible sources of guidance for life in this world.