Sunday, August 14, 2016
Heretic by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Book Review #36 of 2016)
Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now - Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I recently reviewed a host of books on the history and development of Islam and Middle Eastern history (list at bottom of this post). I also read several which included some critiques along with views to the future and reform. I then worked through a list of books by Muslim women, most of which bring light to and critique inhumane practices found in their home countries. Included in this list was Nick Kristof's Half the Sky which looks at women's rights globally, and I'm also including another by someone who left Islam after an extensive intellectual and spiritual search. This book review is in the context of all of those books as a whole. The list (reviews forthcoming):
Heretic - Ayan Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (3.5 stars)
The Land of Invisible Women - Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced - Nujood Ali (4.5 stars)
City of Lies - Ramita Navai (3 stars)
Between Two Worlds - Zainab Salbi
Seeking Allah Finding Jesus - Nabeel Qureshi (4.5 stars)
Half the Sky - Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (4 stars)
In previous years I had read these which were similar to the above:
Desperately Seeking Paradise - Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars)
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (5 stars)
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (4.5 stars)
I've also read books by former Secretaries of State that highlight some of the lives of the women above and the fight for women's rights.
Infidel made a huge impression on me, Ali is a survivor's story. Yet very few survivors have been as highly criticized as she has. I finished this book before I also finished the "dialogue" between Ali's friend Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. People don't like that her message is basically "the Quran and hadiths say what the say, and you can't ignore or re-interpret the parts you don't like just because they contradict your Western notions of what Islam should be." American academics like John Esposito and Muslim reformer Reza Aslan are also critical of Ali's attitude. Ali calls Islam “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” She is no longer a Muslim, has embraced atheism and this book suggests some form of agnositicism, or at least she appeals to some universal truth in her philosophy. Agree or not, I believe Ali should be free to speak her mind and present her evidence without constant fear of death. I found a recent Vox.com piece critical of Ali's (and her cohorts) statements, but just as quickly found a rebuttle finding many factual errors in the Vox piece, for which Vox does not retract or apologize. I would just say to the reader, walk a mile in her shoes. Don't read this without reading what she endured in her lifetime in Infidel. While she repeats some of that autobiography here, it's condensed.
Ali wants a fundamental alteration of Islam's core concepts, to change fundamental Islamic doctrines. She is joined by other scholars, many of whom are atheists, with a common desire to reform Islam and oppose Salafist and Wahhabist extremists. In 2014, such a view got her barred from receiving an honorary degree at Brandeis University. This is odd because her ultimate goal is for everyone to have the freedom to ask questions without fear; and in her experience, people constantly cite a religion to tell her to "shut up." She does not overly disparage Islam in this book, she remains respectful of its billions of adherants. (She is not Robert Spencer.) Like historian-author Tom Holland (The Shadow of the Sword), Ali takes a historical-critical eye to the Quran and its origins. She divides Islam into "Medina" and "Mecca" groups. The "Medina" Islam is that of spreading the faith by the sword, whereast the "Mecca" Islam is where the Prophet lives among Jews and anticipates their support in his cause. "Medina Islam" focuses more on the individual's life after death instead of the life before death we share together.
Ali urges Muslims to reject five central tenets to their faith: The aforementioned focus on the afterlife, the infallibility of Muhammad and literal interpretations of the Quran, the Sharia laws in the Quran (recognizing Sharia as contextual), not enforcing the rigidity of the religion by violence against other Muslims seen as heretical, and not recognizing jihad, holy war, as legitimate. It seems clear from Ali's position that she is referring to Sunni Islam and not Shi'ia or Sufi. For example, she writes that there is no centralization of Islam with a central power that determines orthodoxy, but that is rather how it works in Shi'ia Islam with its clerics. The author is hoping for something in Islam akin to the Protestant Reformation, (similar to how Reza Aslan has phrased it as well) her five tenets are her version of Luther's 99 theses. (She mistakenly claims the Southern Baptist convention is a centralized body with centralized rule making binding on churches, this is incorrect; Southern Baptists churches are independent and convention ordinances are not binding; more like Sunni Islam.)
Many of Ali's comments remind me of Ziauddin Sardar's Desperately Seeking Paradise, where he travels widely and interacts when many different types of Islam, all of them leaving him somewhat dissatisfied but some more than others. The events of 9/11 solidified her views and isolation from Islam. (Orthodox Islam officially rejected Greek ideas of logic, reason and rhetoric in the days of ibn Hanbal during the Abbasid reign. Therefore, no historical-critical textual analysis of the Quran is allowed in Sunni Islam; the Quran is an uncreated document that existed before creation.) While (Sunni) Islam is not "centralized," in its authority on doctrine is also no free (read: safe) forum for discussion.
Like Tom Holland and others, Ali looks to the historical context of Muhammad, explaining how much is unknown about his life and how our knowledge relies upon Hadith written even hundreds of years later. There are tribal issues and matters of clan, honor, bloodlines, etc. There are various modern hypotheses about the origins and development of the Quran and hadiths but those are often silenced. The gates of ijtihad were closed centuries ago. Debates about doctrine ended mostly during the Abbasid period. (Again, Ali's main critique is of Sunni Islam and not other strains).
In dealing with the afterlife, Christians put much emphasis on the latter rather than current life as well. But Ali writes that Christians' view is not a self-serving of pleasures denied here on earth, but rather reunification with loved ones and comfort and peace. Christian preachers do not encourage martyrdom, reminding their flocks that martyrdom is better than life. (Instead, Christians recognize they have a mission to pray and work for God's Kingdom here on earth and when one gets to heaven is not usually his own choice.) While the Reformation caused upheaval and cost many lives in violent struggle, that was relatively brief in the scheme of centuries. The Reformation helped Europe embrace a theology of work and find reasons for living such as in serving ones neighbor; in Islam, however, it's more about death being more valuable than an ultimately futile life. Ali asks: Why are executions spectator events in Islam, but not the West now? (She ignores that public executions were indeed entertainment in much of the West until the 20th century.)
The author notes that all the attention payed to religion in Islam tends to stagnate innovation and economic growth. Who can think about economics or science or larger issues when you are beaten for not having your head scarf tied correctly? By taking women out of the workforce and schools, you reduce overall productivity and human capital. Yet, despite all the hardship of Sharia law, Ali notes that surveys in many Muslim countries suggest the population want more of it, or feel they would be better off with even harsher laws. This differs from the West where the value is on the individual's liberty since male and female are made in the image of God and have value. Islam does not have the Western notion of liberty-- instead, tradition is enforced by the family and other structures (this is true in the "East" and not just Islam, which she does not note).
Ali cites examples in America and Europe where crimes are committed according to Western laws but prosecutors are hesitant to punish because they are religiously-related in Islam. She cites several instances of honor killings of women, for example. In this sense, she echoes Rand Paul's recent memoir as he writes about meeting with Ali and others who have been abused under Sharia. Ali notes that in many Middle Eastern countries (such as Saudi Arabia) the state-produced textbooks state that Jews are the enemy, public officials call America the "Great Satan," and they still see themselves at war with Christianity. Ali's main question for the West is the same as in John Locke's day: What exactly will we not tolerate? Ali then lists dissident political reformers such as Alexander Solzheneitsyen who called out political and religious oppression in the Soviet Union and elsewhere and were praised for it; she is begging the question as to why she is not likewise praised. Do we give credence to the rule of law, or sacred texts?
Interestingly enough, she does not mention Reza Aslan, which I find somewhat similar given their goals would be the same. Perhaps due to the enmity, which is sad.
In the end, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. She makes some minor factual errors, but moreover seems to be talking about Sunni Islam as "Islam," without differentiating for the reader. She is speaking of her experience, and it is impossible to criticize one's experience. I would recommend this book as part of a wider conversation.
The following is the list of books I've reviewed dealing with Islam and its development, the history of Arabs and the Middle East, and modern-day reformers.
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In God's Path - The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Robert G. Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito
Roxana Saberi - Between Two Worlds
Jared Cohen - Children of Jihad
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)
Tamim Ansary: Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (4.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)