Heretic: A Call for Reformation

I am reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. A prominent activist for victims of Islamic violence, Ali is a fellow at the Harvard’s John f. Kennedy School of Government.  Although I have not read any of her other books and have not followed her career I know she is considered controversial by many people.  (Brandeis invited her to receive an honorary degree in 2014 and subsequently revoked the invitation.)

Calls for reform of Islam are not new.  What Ali claims as original are her precise suggestions of what needs to be reformed.  She argues five things must be “recognized as inherently harmful” and “repudiated and nullified.”  The five are

1.  Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Qu-an, particularly those parts that were revealed in Medina;

2. The investment in life after death instead of life before death;

3.  Sharia, the body of legislation derived from the Qu’an, the hadith, and the rest of Islamic jurisprudence;

4. The practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law by commanding right and forbidding wrong;

5.  The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.

I was struck as I read her chapter on the second of those of how much difference in practice a small difference in emphasis can make.

Christianity is certainly concerned with life after this human existence.  Measured against eternity, our human lives (even for those who live to 90 or 100) is a very small blip.  Our goal, as Ignatian put it in his Principle and Foundation, is to live with God forever and Jesus told his disciples to have no fear of those who could harm the body, only those who could destroy the soul.   Life is not less transitory for Christians than it is for Muslims.

Yet, the fact that our ultimate goal is union with God does not make this life unimportant.  We are called to be God’s love in the world and to work to secure a just society and work on behalf of the least of our brothers and sisters.

As described by Ali, Islam’s focus on the afterlife leads to a different view.  Many of the words are the same as ones we might hear preached to Christians: Our life on this earth is short and temporary…everything in this world is transitory; only Allah is permanent.  But the conclusion they lead to, she argues is a cult of martyrdom and fatalism.  She relates stories of parents raising their children to be martyrs because it more quickly leads them to “eternal bliss.”   And while “islam is not unusual in having a tradition of martyrs [what] is unique to Islam is the tradition of murderous-martyrdom, in which the individual martyr simultaneously commits suicide and kills others for religious reasons.

Ali argues that “[u]ntil Islam stops fixating on the afterlife, until it is liberated from the seductive story of life after death, until it actively chooses life on earth and stops valuing death, Muslims themselves cannot go on with the business of living in this world.”

I am in no position to judge the merits of Ali’s reform suggestions.  But from what I’ve read thus far, there is a lot here worth discussing as we seek to discover how to live in peace with those who do not share our faith and may not share our values.



2 thoughts on “Heretic: A Call for Reformation

  1. You’ve nailed it, Susan. You last line left me reeling… How do we live in peace when we do not share faith or values. I’ve been big on interfaith dialogue and mutual acceptance of other religious convictions. But, I’ve been missing the foundational element of sharing values! Thanks for catapulting me forward a notch or two in this urgently needed conversation/converstion.

  2. Lest there be any confusion, the last word in my comment above is CONVERSION. Yes, that calls for a thorough reformation of my way of engaging this dialogue — not just a reform within Islam. Seems like an urgent call for social scientists as well as theologians to engage in interfaith dialogue.

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