Book Review: Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now

When someone finds their group, their kind of people, it’s easy to sometimes overdo the joining process. Often, this happens in the teen years and is part of the reason teenage personalities seem so extreme. They are making up for lost time, in a way.

For me, it happened in college. Four years after I was told by my first-ever girlfriend that I would end up in hell because I didn’t believe in her god, the word “atheist” entered my awareness in a big way. This was because of the “New Atheist” movement, defined by writers like Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), books that I devoured amidst all of the other freethinking I was inspired to do in college. As often happens after the initial excitement has passed, I still consider myself part of the group but my embrace of it has loosened. However, one of the authors I read during that time has stayed with me, because her works have been about more than the theory of religion versus the world. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s books have chronicled her own personal journey from Somali Muslim, who at one time lived in Mecca, to hopeful atheist advocating for the salvation of the religion.

Just as my own place on the atheism side of the debate has moderated since college,  so has Hirsi Ali’s from when she first started commenting and writing on the matter. She says in her new book, Heretic, that her own views continue to evolve and that the solution to the issues faced by the Islamic faith, from which she herself emerged, might not be a mass conversion away from Islam, as she has previously advocated, but a reformation within. This evolution, over the course of her four books and many appearances in lectures and debates in between, makes her more than just an advocate and a commentator, but an interesting character in the story. Her previous books—The Caged Virgin (2004), Infidel (2006), and Nomad (2010)—have been very critical of Islam, and instigated death threats against her and accusations of Islamophobia. That might be enough to drive most people back into the corner of their established negative view of the religion, but not a sensitive thinker. Hirsi Ali wants the problem dealt with, not just argued about.

In the struggle for the soul of Islam, she is both a former insider and a well-informed outsider. Thus, when she searches for the solution to what ails Islam, it’s not hard for her to know where to start. First, she divides Muslims into three groups: “Medina Muslims,” the dangerous extremists most talked about on the news who seek to emulate the Prophet Muhammad’s more political, militaristic tactics following his move to the city of Medina (after earlier attempts to talk people into accepting Allah as the one and only god failed); “Mecca Muslims,” who are the majority and who, for the most part, behave the same way observant Jews and Christians do but with more of an “uneasy tension with modernity”; and, lastly, “Modifying Muslims” who, like her, want to work to bring the religion more in line with the modern world and eliminate the tension that, especially recently, has driven Mecca Muslims to the Medina side.

To modernize and moderate,  Heretic suggests five things that need to change within Islam:

  1. Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Qur’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 Qur’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.

Basically, live, let live, and embrace life. Of course, Hirsi Ali doesn’t just state that the above are problems. There are examples galore in her text, as there have been in her previous books, of how, why, and where these things cause problems. Incidentally, the United States is not exempt.

Writing a book like this, as a dissident or heretic, may seem to some like an unnecessary stoking of a fire that has been raging for years. But the fire is the point, the change is the point, and the conversation needs to be had. The advantage of introducing that conversation in a book is that the author gets all of her thoughts organized and in once place. In Heretic, Hirsi Ali cites Ben Affleck’s October 3 appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher in which he wouldn’t let Maher and fellow guest Sam Harris discuss Islam’s problems, as well as her own experiences at seminars when she’s tried to make a point, only to be interrupted by self-appointed defenders of Islam who accuse her of lying. She’s not lying, she’s just saying things those students haven’t been allowed to hear, for one reason or another, that clash with the idea that Islam is the perfect, unchangeable consummation of the monotheistic movement. It’s an attitude Hirsi Ali says has prevented the Muslim world from being as innovative as the rest of the world, where people are allowed to think outside the box.

The last portion of Hirsi Ali’s book is about people like her, Muslims and former Muslims who don’t have her public profile but who engaged in similar work. She’s not alone, and despite calls for her to stop what she’s doing from groups and individuals she feels should be on her side (women’s and LGBTQ rights groups, for example), Hirsi Ali is still spreading her own doctrine, without any presumption that it is the one true way to an Islamic reformation; it is simply one suggestion.

The role of non-Muslims in this conversation is hard to gauge. I don’t know what she wants from someone like me, other than to read her book and suggest it to anyone looking for possible answers to these particular questions. She says she hopes the Internet will be for Islam what the printing press was for Christianity, something that leads to the spread of better understanding of all aspects of the religion, from the faith practices to the history, which is very interesting, and which is recounted in detail throughout Heretic. An Islamic reformation may take centuries, as the Protestant Reformation did, or, in this age when everything is sped up, it may happen a lot quicker. But change can only come if someone is willing to suggest it, and that is precisely what Ayaan Hirsi Ali has done in Heretic.