The Reformation of Islam: A Response to Ayaan Hirsi Ali

By Ceylan Gül

I remember when I was a kid all my cousins envied me and my sister. As children of a formerly Christian mother from Poland and a Muslim father from Turkey, living and growing up in Germany, we enjoyed more holidays and advantages than they did. We celebrated Easter and Christmas but also all Muslim holidays. We went on vacation in Poland and Turkey. We always had three countries to call home and three cultures to which we felt connected. We experienced and still experience the best of both worlds. Nevertheless, my nuclear family and I consider ourselves Muslims and believers in Islam. Not because we are forced to believe in something our paternal grandparents believe in or because we were not allowed to believe in something else, but because we ourselves believe in it. This is how religion works: it is something you believe in, a superpower, a magical, unexplainable force of strength that makes you do and go through everything, something you cannot see, feel, touch, hear and certainly cannot describe, but most important it is a personally very intimate thing. And the first rule that defines every religion, every faith, every belief is that you actually need to believe. There is no religion without believing, there is no God without believing, there is no hell or heaven without believing. There is no compulsion to have faith because faith remains a personal matter between you and your God.

So, I was very disturbed to read the description of Islam in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Nomad. I had difficulties understanding how someone who believes that Islam is passed down through fear and anxiety, that Muslims only go through life with reverence and most Muslims are forced to believe in Islam anyway, so someone who does not even understand how religion “works” and what it actually means, claims that this religion needs a reformation. How can someone plead for a reinterpretation of the Quran without knowing the actual interpretation, only referring to the mere reading of the book? How can an atheist – which Ayaan Hirsi Aliclaims to be – speak of an image of God and condemn it if he himself does not believe in any God? And how can someone who claims to be without any religion make a judgment about which religion you should best identify with? From my point of view not at all, but this is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali mainly – maybe unconsciously at some points, but very deliberately at other points – does in Nomad.

Ayaan Hirsi Aliis a formerly Muslim woman, who grew up in Somalia and is now known for her criticism of Islam and her activism in relation to women’s rights along with her fight against genital mutilation. She is also a Dutch-American politician and political scientist. Nomad is a sequel to her book Infidel and describes her ‘personal journey through the clash of civilizations‘.

In Nomad she describes Mohammed as an ‘infallible Prophet’ and of the ‘oppressive dictates of the Quran‘ (Hirsi Ali 2010, xxi). She also claims that ‘Islam is built on sexual inequality and on the surrender of individual responsibility and choice’, and all of this is in her opinion ‘not just ugly, [but] monstrous’. She asserts that ‘many Muslims are instinctively appalled by the violence committed in the name of their faith’ and that their ‘concept of God’ – a peaceful and compassionate God – only exists because they do not know any other concepts of God or do not know that their concept is ‘wrong’. She criticizes the Muslim attitude towards credit and debt, the ‘denial’ of access to education and the notion that public education and public institutions present Islam as a ‘peaceful religion’ whereas the Muslim belief should be ‘challenged’ to indicate critical thinking, especially towards Islam. Several times she indicates a connection between honor killing, genital mutilation and child marriage with Islam. Several times she compares Islam to ‘modern’ Christianity and the Christian churches and calls the Christian community to action for ‘the battle against Islamic fanaticism’. The Christian concept of God according to Ayaan Hirsi Ali is of a being who is ‘synonymous’ with love, who does not ‘preach hatred, intolerance, and discord’, who is ‘merciful’, who is uninterested in ‘state power’ and who ‘sees no competition with science’. The Bible does not include direct commands that ‘need to be obeyed’, it is only ‘a book full of parables’. Last but not least she calls Mohammed ‘the founder of Islam’ numerous times. 

Throughout Nomad Ayaan Hirsi Ali openly propagandizes against Islam hidden behind personal experiences. She talks about her childhood and early adult life, about her parents and siblings, her grandmother and other situations that changed her life and her way of thinking. In the final chapters then she draws the conclusion that modern Christianity in comparison to Islam offers a ‘better’ alternative for everyone who needs faith or religion in their life. And in the very same breath, she says she is an atheist. I am not sure, how someone, who does not believe in any religion or any God at all, can make an assumption about which religion may be the best for me or anyone else. I think she is not aware of the fact that religion is much more than just a shadow that follows you around. For religious people, their faith is a very big part of their life and also of their identity – you do not change your identity that easy, from one day to the next. 

Her choice of words and her tone are inappropriate to the topic for religious readers, words like ‘monstrous’ and ‘merciless’ are disrespectful. She limits herself by examining only Somali Muslims in her own family – by referring only to her own reading and interpretation of the Quran and her own observations in the Netherlands and America. How much has she really talked to Imams and to people who could show her another version of Islam? Her only clues are two controversial Quran verses and Mohammed, who had more than one wife and presumably married a nine-year-old girl. How can I not feel offended, when she in reverse says that I believe in a God who preaches hatred, intolerance and discord? Because according to her this is exactly the Muslim concept of God. That I fear the God in whom I believe and for whom I must go to holy war. That this God is not gracious and does not forgive. That I cannot and have not adapted to Western life because of my faith. And that I cannot be a feminist either, because I am a Muslim and Islam and the Quran oppresses women. She definitely generalizes too much and does not state that her version of Islam is a cultic version, a version which is influenced by obsolete cultural value concepts. Therefore, her pleading for a reformation within Islam and that the West ‘urgently needs to compete with the jihads’ is misplaced on this foundation. Not only because of her flawed and stereotypical explanations – Mohammed is not the founder of Islam, he is a prophet, the prophet who was chosen by God to transmit God’s words to us and why was Amina, in the imagined conversation in Nomad, a Muslim girl who clearly could not explain her own faith and Jane someone who is highly educated and interested in other religions confronting Amina with the stereotypical, controversial verses of the Quran? – but also because of her blurred lines between radical Islamists who kill paradoxically in the name of God and those who practice religion as a faith and value it rather than abuse it for power. This essay’s aim is to show that Islam does not need a reformation or reinterpretation, that from a theological point of view Islam is the reformation of Christianity and that from a religious point of view a reinterpretation would be contradictory. 

Islam does not need enlightenment and reformation in the western sense. It had these western achievements from the very beginning. Developments in the Islamic world cannot be equated with those in Central Europe. The Enlightenment did not arise out of Christianity, but in a hard struggle with this religion. In Islam this confrontation was not so necessary. Statements according to which Islam did not have a phase of Enlightenment like Europe and therefore did not develop to the same extent can therefore only be made if one looks through very gloomy Christian occidental glasses without any background knowledge of Islamic studies.  According to Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment is ‘man’s exit from his self-inflicted immaturity’. In this sense Enlightenment is already contained in the Quran or at least does not contradict it. The Quran is always about people learning to be mature and to behave rationally, even if someone does them wrong: ‘… And let them pardon and overlook. Would you not like that Allah should forgive you? And Allah is forgiving and merciful.‘ [Quran 24:22]. So, if God can forgive you, how could you not forgive someone else? The emancipation of mankind from the Church was a central event of the European Enlightenment. Martin Luther laid the foundation with his Bible translation. Meanwhile nobody had to translate the Quran, it was already written in the language of the people. The church positioned itself between God and man. In Islam there is no such mediator level. Every human being stands directly in front of God. 

From a historical and theological perspective all three great world religions have the same origin and Islam came as the third and last of them. Islam and the Quran should be treated as the reformation of Christianity, just as Christianity was seen as the reformation of Judaism, but as already known, not everyone was willing to adapt another religion and so we have three – meanwhile many more – different religions and believers. From a religious perspective it would create conflict to say that the word of God, which the Quran is to Muslims, needs a reinterpretation and to believe that a human being could presumably ‘translate’ or reinterpret the word of God.

Such a ‘translation’ would rather result in something like taking out all ‘misleading’ verses and concentrating on personal preferences. If you believe in a religion, you believe in a certain God, you believe in a certain way of living and you adapt to certain ‘rules’. Normally you neither pick between all the ‘rules’ and ‘laws’, nor choose which appeal to you the most and which you think are odd. There are things that are unchangeable, and for Muslims it is the word of God. Also, from a linguistic point of view a properly translation is nearly impossible. Even with a simple translation from German into English and vice versa, the linguistic and contextual semantic content gets often lost. Then how should the translation of a highly complex language like High Arabic – which is hardly spoken anymore – be correct and correspond to the actual meaning? Even with existing translations there are mistakes that lead to misunderstandings. For example, in sura 4 verse 34, to which Ayaan Hirsi Alialso refers: ‘…As to those women on whose part ye fear ‘Nushooz’ disloyalty and ill-conduct , admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) ‘Idribuhun’ beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all)‘. This verse’s translation indicates that Muslim men are allowed to beat their unfaithful and misbehaving wives. But the truth is that the word ‘nushuz‘ means ‘get up’ or ‘rise up’, something which is clarified in other verses [Quran 58:11], but in the verse above it is translated as ‘disloyalty’ and ‘ill-conduct’. So, the case regarding sura 4 verse 34 has nothing to do with adultery or any other immoral behavior, but rather with a woman rebelling against her husband. In another verse where the man is rebelling against his wife, so in the case of the man’s ‘nushuz‘, the couple should settle the dispute or separate if the man has really shown himself to be rebellious towards the woman. The verse does not state that the woman should beat the man. Instead, they should talk and settle the argument, because this is one thing that requires the two to get along in respect and love [Quran 4:128]. If one then looks at the actual situation [4:34], we see that it concerns a woman who no longer tolerates her husband and therefore rebels against him. As in the example of the man who rebels, the sura is also about calming the situation and restoring a harmonious relationship. Beating the woman rebelling against the husband is not a measure that would serve the cause. The woman would only hate her husband even more. In addition, the word ‘Idribuhun‘ which is translated as ‘beat them’ has a different meaning it is word stem, ‘Idribuhun‘ means ‘to put forth’ and in every other verse it is translated as ‘put forth’ – [24:31], [2:273], [14:24] – and if one now looks at [4:34] again, then by means of the context (rejection of the woman in relation to her husband) we see that only the original meaning of the word ‘to bring forth’, makes sense: ‘… As for those women from whom you fear a desertion, then you shall 1) advise them, and 2) abandon them in the bedchamber, and 3) ‘Idribuhun’ let them go forth; if they obey you, then do not seek a way over them; God is High, Great‘ [4:34]. As a result, sura 4 verse 34 is nothing but a comprehensive list of measures the husband may take if his wife wants to leave him because she can no longer stand living with him, but an incorrect translation like the one used by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, transforms this verse into one of the most controversial verses in the Quran. 

Furthermore, Islam says for example: ‘He who kills one man kills all mankind, he who saves one man saves all mankind‘ [5:32]. This is meant to prevent the human nature from indiscriminate killing like back in time where women were accused of being witches and got killed even though there had already been the reformation of Christianity. But nevertheless, Islam does not say that you have to believe in everything blindly and without questioning. On the contrary the Quran is not ultimate and undoubtable, and Muslims are allowed to question, allowed to think, allowed to doubt. Islam says that you should question everything and Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s belief that education is not compatible with Islam and not granted for Muslims, especially not for girls is a wrong assumption, an incorrect interpretation of Islam. A belief and misinterpretation that has been adapted to a whole culture in this way – a version of Islam accepted in Somalia, Kenya and maybe other countries but not in the actual Islam. In Islam it is said that you should seek for education everywhere and every time, you should travel to the end of the world just to find education. There is a little story my father always told me when I talked to him about cultures failing to understand that women should get access to education: The story begins with two men who are having a conversation. At some point one of the two man claims that he does not see the necessity to grant his daughter or any women access to education, for him, her only aim is to marry and bear children. The other man was clearly irritated by the statement of him and asked him a question: ‘So then tell me, if your wife or daughter gets sick, would you bring her to a male or female doctor?’ The other man confidently answered: ‘Of course female. No other man can examine my wife or daughter.’ Thereupon the man asked a second question: ‘So, if you say that women should not have any access to education – how on earth would there be any female doctors that could examine your wife or daughter?’

There you can see the paradoxical manner of these kinds of cultures, of these kinds of men. These mistaken ideas have nothing to do with religion. You cannot compare a Muslim from Somalia with a Muslim from Turkey. You cannot compare a Muslim from Iraq with a Muslim from Kazakhstan. In the same way you cannot compare a Christian from Germany with a Christian from Poland or Russia. It may seem like all believe in the same God, but culture, education and tolerance have a core role in how we live that certain religion out. 

According to a Hadith, Mohammed sharpens Muslims, both men and women, to acquire knowledge and he attached so much importance to it that he, according to another Hadith, said: ‘Strive for knowledge, even if you would have to go as far as China for this purpose‘ – regarding to former circumstances China was considered as the farthest country from Arabia. In another transmission from Mohammed it is said: ‘According to the teachings of Islam, it is the duty of every Muslim to strive for knowledge‘, a statement which includes men and women. And there is a further transmission which explicitly prescribes the education of women: ‘The one who raises a daughter well and gives her a good education acquires paradise‘ (Tirmidhi). You are promised to get a reward for every step and work you invest in your education, for every gain on an intellectual level and for being inquisitive. Islam is not like in all the ‘horror stories’ of Muslim families where the daughters have to marry at sixteen and need to become a birthing machine. 

Ever since the beginning of Islam there have been many misunderstandings and misleading statements or misinterpretations, Islam has always been seen as threat and as something dangerous, as the ‘Other’ compared to the Occident as amongst others Edward Said explains in his studies of Orientalism. Only a few really dare to openly get information and engage with the scriptures, as mass media creates only fear and superficial knowledge with its reports on the IS – reports which misrepresent the religion and where the IS adherents clearly dissociate themselves from – while there are only two aspects which need to be known about Islam. 

First, the Quran is written in a metaphoric way; it should not be read literally. It tells stories and creates references. Every verse should be put in its historical context. There is a certain interpretation to every verse and unfortunately not everyone is able to interpret them correctly, but everyone could learn to. This is important regarding verses like ‘kill all infidels‘ which Ayaan Hirsi Ali also uses in her imagined conversation between the two teenage girls. This verse in particular is telling a story, a story from thousands of years in the past. In the early years of Islam, the religion was always in battles because it was not accepted as a religion by everyone right away. And although there was this fight against Islam Mohammed did not defend himself or was counterattacking until God allowed him to defend himself and resist against the given circumstances in order to save his religion. And it is precisely this situation that the verse is related to. A story where Mohammed did nothing against other human beings who tried to harm him and his adherents until God gave him permission. No Muslim is walking around and killing humans of other cultures or religions because Islam says you cannot take a life God gave, including your own. Therefore, murder and suicide are deadly sins. There are even more verses in the Quran which say that you should respect other religions and the ‘people of the book‘ who include Christians and Jews: ‘God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in the religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just‘ [Quran 60:8]. The Quran explicitly states that the existence of people from different faiths and opinions is something that should be acknowledged and welcomed, for this is how God created and predestined humankind in this world: ‘We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So, compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed‘ [Quran 5:48]. Violence in general is against Islam; any harm against a living creature is a sin, that is why in Islam there are also certain rituals on how to slaughter an animal and which animal are allowed to be eaten and which are not. 

Second, neither Islam nor the Quran oppress women or children. Any physical or psychological harm gets penalized in the hereafter. In Islam children are entrusted to your care by God, the commission of parents is to care for their children, to protect them, to grant them access to education, to love and respect them. They are not the property of their parents or anyone else. There is also no ‘sexual inequality’ in Islam or the Quran, everything that is considered to be fulfilled is regarded to men and women equally. Women even have a higher importance in Islam, it says among other things ‘paradise lies underneath the feet of your mother‘. Most of the Islamic critics are claiming that children and women do not have any rights in Islam and this because they have this superficial knowledge of Mohammed marrying more than one woman and also marrying a nine-year old. 

But marriages at that time had a different purpose. You did not marry someone because you fell in love, not even because your parents wanted you to, they married because of societal reasons, a practice which was strengthened by the fact that all of Mohammed’s wives were divorcees or widows except his first wife. Back then in Mohammed’s time women had no rights, were treated as inferiors and were only socially accepted when they were married. It took a measure where unmarried women were murdered and punished, Mohammed took care of those women who were left alone without any man who could take care of them, one Hadith even says: ‘The best of you in character is he who is best to this wife‘. He did not marry more than once to be able to fully live out sexual needs since these multiple marriages were also bound to many rules which you could never observe in today’s life – you had to love every woman equally, you were not allowed to prefer someone over another, you could only spend the day with one women, you could not kiss wife A in the morning and sleep with wife B at night. But multiple marriages are not an ‘invention’ of Islam, if one has a look at the bible, Abraham, who is a prophet of Islam too, had also two wives [Genesis 16:6]. Still, regarding this subject one needs to take into consideration the fact that it was a different time and place, women were considered to be mature much earlier than it is usual nowadays. So, naturally the age of being able to marry or the socially accepted age for getting married varies from time to time. Even in the United States the age for getting married legally still varies from state to state. Nevertheless, Islam is the only religion that prohibits consummation of marriage with prepubescent persons [Quran 24:59; 4:6]. 

I just want to make clear that Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s points about why Islam in her opinion needs a reformation have another origin – they are of cultural nature and not of a religious one. When you understand what the verses really mean, when the translation is accurate and the historic context clear, Islam does not oppress anyone, it does not force women to submit, it is against abuse of any kind and there is not such a thing like a holy war or a war in the name of God. There was not only one war that was proactively led by Islam. And the Quran does not dictate anything. At the end religion is a choice. You decide what and in whom you believe. No one can force you to believe anything. Belief happens in your heart, and if you only believe because of fear, you are lying to yourself. And I think it is disrespectful to give someone the feeling that the religion one is believing in is ‘monstrous’. There is no need for a reformation, there is a need for tolerance, a need for enlightenment, but not the way Ayaan Hirsi Ali tried to do it, in a way of showing how cultural and personal attributes influence the practice of a religion and differ around the world and how superficial knowledge, the spread of lies, hatred and intolerance leads to incomprehension and human failure.