Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
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It simply will not do for Muslims to claim that their religion has been “hijacked” by extremists. The killers of IS and Boko Haram cite the same religious texts that every other Muslim in the world considers sacrosanct. And instead of letting them off the hook with bland clichés about Islam as a religion of peace, we in the West need to challenge and debate the very substance of Islamic thought and practice. We need to hold Islam accountable for the acts of its most violent adherents and demand that it reform or disavow the key beliefs that are used to justify those acts.
At the same time, we need to stand up for our own principles as liberals. Specifically, we need to say to offended Western Muslims (and their liberal supporters) that it is not we who must accommodate their beliefs and sensitivities. Rather, it is they who * must learn to live with our commitment to free speech.
The argument in this book is that religious doctrines matter and are in need of reform. Non-doctrinal factors—such as the Saudis’ use of oil revenues to fund Wahhabism and Western support for the Saudi regime—are important, but religious doctrine is more important. Hard as it may be for many Western * academics to believe, when people commit violent acts in the name of religion, they are not trying somehow to dignify their underlying socioeconomic or political grievances.
But ultimately it needs leadership from the dissidents. And they in turn stand no chance without support from the West.
We delude ourselves that our deadliest foes are somehow not actuated by the ideology they openly affirm. And we pin our hopes on a majority that is conspicuously without any credible leadership, and indeed shows more sign of being susceptible to the arguments of the fanatics than to those of the dissidents.
The biggest obstacle to change within the Muslim world is precisely its suppression of the sort of critical thinking I am attempting here. If nothing else comes of it, I will consider this book a success if it helps to spark a serious discussion of these issues among Muslims themselves. *
My journey has gone from Mecca to Medina to Manhattan, and to the idea of a Modified Islam. The absence of a Muslim Reformation is what ultimately drove me to become an infidel, a nomad, and now a heretic.
If the Medina Muslims win and the hope for a Muslim Reformation dies, the rest of the world will pay an enormous price. And, with all the freedoms we take for granted, Westerners may have the most to lose.
You who call yourselves liberals must understand that it is your way of life that is under threat. Withdraw my right to speak freely, and you jeopardize your own in the future. Ally yourselves with the Islamists at your peril. Tolerate their intolerance at your peril.
People like me—some of us apostates, most of us dissident Muslims—need your support, not your antagonism. We who have known what it is to live without freedom watch with incredulity as you who call yourselves liberals—who claim to believe so fervently in individual liberty and minority rights—make common cause with the forces in the world that manifestly pose the greatest threats to that very freedom and those very minorities.
We must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islam is inherently “racist.” Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought. *
In short, we who have the luxury of living in the West have an obligation to stand up for liberal principles. Multiculturalism should not mean that we tolerate another culture’s intolerance. *
Indeed, one highly desirable outcome of a Muslim Reformation would be to redefine the meaning of the word “heretic” itself. Religious reformations always shift the meaning of this term: today’s heretic becomes tomorrow’s reformer, while today’s defender of religious orthodoxy becomes tomorrow’s Torquemada. A Muslim Reformation would have the happy effect of turning the tables on those I am threatened by—rendering them the heretics, not me.
I was raised a practicing Muslim and remained one for almost half my life. I attended madrassas and memorized large parts of the Qur’an. As a child, I lived in Mecca for a time and frequently visited the Grand Mosque. As a teenager, I joined the Muslim Brotherhood. In short, I am old enough to have seen Islam’s bifurcation in the latter half of the twentieth century between the everyday faith of my parents and the intolerant, militant jihadism preached by the people I call the Medina Muslims.
I am far from being the first person to call for a Reformation of the religion of my birth. Why have all previous attempts at a Muslim Reformation come to nothing? The answer lies in a fundamental conflict within Islam itself.
These changes, I believe, can be the basis of a true Islamic Reformation, one that progresses to the twenty-first century rather than regresses to the seventh.
Ensure that Muhammad and the Qur’an are open to interpretation and criticism. 2. Give priority to this life, not the afterlife. 3. Shackle sharia and end its supremacy over secular law. 4. End the practice of “commanding right, forbidding wrong.” 5. Abandon the call to jihad.
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.
It is not fashionable today in academic circles to discuss the legacy of Arab clan structures in the development of Islam. It is considered ethnocentric, if not downright orientalist, even to bring it up. But today the Middle East and the wider world are increasingly at the mercy of a combination of the worst traits of a patriarchal tribal society and unreformed Islam. And because of the taboos over what can and cannot be said—taboos backed up by the threat of violent reprisals—we are unable to have an open discussion of these issues.
If Muhammad ioften justified by the Qur’an, Muslims must be challenged to engage in critical reflection about their most sacred text. This process necessarily begins by acknowledging both its human composition and its numerous internal inconsistencies. s unique among the prophets, the Qur’an is unprecedented among religious texts. Muslims today are taught that the Qur’an is a complete and final revelation that cannot be changed: it is literally God’s last word.
Until Islam can do what Judaism and Christianity have done—question, critique, interpret, and ultimately modernize its holy scripture—it cannot free Muslims from a host of anachronistic and at times deadly beliefs and practices.
Islamic orthodoxy—not radical Islam, but mainstream Islamic doctrine—thus insists that the Qur’an is God’s own word. Questioning any part of the Qur’an therefore becomes an act of heresy.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the Qur’an’s unique status is the fact that the most violent Medina Muslims can find in holy writ justifications for everything they do.
As the violence committed in the name of Islam is so often justified by the Qur’an, Muslims must be challenged to engage in critical reflection about their most sacred text. This process necessarily begins by acknowledging both its human composition and its numerous internal inconsistencies.
It is, to say the least, difficult in the face of all this evidence to deny that there was a human influence involved in composing what is now known as the Qur’an. Yet Islamic thinkers such as the late Pakistani Abul A’la Mawdudi have declared without hesitation that the Qur’an “exists exactly as it had been revealed to the Prophet; not a word—nay, not a dot of it—has been changed.”
The next step in dismantling the ideological foundation of Islamist violence will be to persuade Muslims raised on an alluring vision of the afterlife to embrace life in this world, rather than actively seeking death as a path to the next.
Until 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 get on with the business of living in this world.
If imams started talking about making this world a paradise, rather than preaching that the only life that matters is the one that begins at death, we might begin to see economic dynamism in more Muslim-majority economies.
In Sudan a twenty-seven-year-old woman, Meriam Ibrahim, who was at the time eight months pregnant, was sentenced to suffer one hundred lashes and death by hanging for the crimes of adultery and apostasy. This sentence was not passed in 714 or 1414. It happened in 2014.
Meriam chose to follow the faith of her mother, an Ethiopian Christian, rather than her father, a Sudanese Muslim, and married a Christian man.
Under Sudan’s Islamic law code, and sharia in general, a father’s religion is automatically the religion of his children. And Muslim women are prohibited from marrying outside their faith, although that prohibition does not apply to Muslim men. Thus, to the Sudanese sharia court, it did not matter that Meriam Ibrahim was raised as an Orthodox Christian by her mother. It did not matter that her father was absent for most of her childhood.It did not matter that she was married to an American citizen.
In Pakistan, blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad is punishable by death.8 More than thirty countries around the world have similar antiblasphemy laws, including some Christian ones. But it is in Muslim countries that such laws are enforced. In 2014, a Pakistani court sentenced a twenty-six-year-old Christian man to death on the ground that he had spoken ill of the Prophet.
It is of course tempting for the Western reader to assume that these are antiquated practices that, like witch-burning in Massachusetts, will eventually die out. But the trend in the Muslim world is in the other direction. In supposedly advanced Brunei, the ruling sultan is currently phasing in an “updated” body of sharia criminal law, making adultery punishable by stoning, theft punishable by amputation, and homosexual intercourse punishable by death.
Today, sharia has spread to a point where it has found near-universal acceptance across the Muslim world.
Moreover, sharia is no longer restricted to Muslim-majority countries. It is increasingly being referenced in family law and inheritance cases involving Muslims in the West. Several sharia courts are now operational in Britain.
We must also address and reform Islam’s most powerful social tool: the informal grassroots enforcement of its strictest religious principles in the name of commanding right and forbidding wrong.
Today, as much as in medieval times, the concepts of commanding right and forbidding wrong entail telling individual Muslims how to live, down to the most intimate aspects of their lives.
The concept of commanding right and forbidding wrong provides the justification for fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins who carry out honor killings of female relatives.
What does honor violence look like in practice? In Lahore, Pakistan, a twenty-five-year-old woman who married against her father’s wishes was stoned to death outside a courthouse.
A Pakistani father and mother doused their fifteen-year-old daughter with acid because she had looked twice at a boy who passed by on a motorcycle, and from that they “feared dishonor.”
A young mother of two in Punjab province was stoned to death by her uncle and cousins, using stones and bricks, on the order of a Pakistani tribal court simply because she had a cell phone.
In the theory of commanding right and forbidding wrong, every small act, every minor infraction has the potential to become a major religious crime. Who can think about rights or education or economics when a trivial sartorial lapse can have such monumental consequences?
Commanding right and forbidding wrong are fundamentally at odds with the core Western principle of individual freedom.
When trying to explain the violent path of some Islamists, Western commentators sometimes blame harsh economic conditions, dysfunctional family circumstances, confused identity, the generic alienation of young males, a failure to integrate into the larger society, mental illness, and so on. Some on the Left insist that the real fault lies with the mistakes of American foreign policy.
We must move beyond such facile explanations. The imperative for jihad is embedded in Islam itself. It is a religious obligation.
The scale of the jihadist problem is growing much faster than most people in the West want to face.
On an intellectual level, we may accept that we should be concerned about jihadists abroad, but on an emotional level, most people in the West are still disengaged.
It is no longer plausible to argue that organizations such as Boko Haram—or, for that matter, Islamic State—have nothing to do with Islam. It is no longer credible to define “extremism” as some disembodied threat, meting out death without any ideological foundation, a problem to be dealt with by purely military methods, preferably drone strikes. We need to tackle the root problem of the violence that is plaguing our world today, and that must be the doctrine of Islam itself.
Today there is a war within Islam—a war between those who wish to reform (the Modifying Muslims or the dissidents) and those who wish to turn back to the time of the Prophet (the Medina Muslims). The prize over which they fight is the hearts and minds of the largely passive Mecca Muslims.
It is no accident that some of the most vocal critics of Islam today are, like me, women. For there is no more obvious incompatibility between Islam and modernity than the subordinate role assigned to women in sharia law.
As I have argued, there are five core concepts in Islam that are fundamentally incompatible with modernity: 1. the status of the Qur’an as the last and immutable word of God and the infallibility of Muhammad as the last divinely inspired messenger; 2. Islam’s emphasis on the afterlife over the here-and-now; 3. the claims of sharia to be a comprehensive system of law governing both the spiritual and temporal realms; 4. the obligation on ordinary Muslims to command right and forbid wrong; 5. the concept of jihad, or holy war. My “five theses” are simply that these concepts must be amended in ways that make being a Muslim more readily compatible with the twenty-first-century world.
Muslim clerics need to acknowledge that the Qur’an is not the ultimate repository of revealed truth.They need to make explicit that what we do in this life is more important than anything that could conceivably happen to us after we die.They need to make clear that sharia law occupies a circumscribed role and is clearly subordinate to the laws of the nation-states where Muslims live. They need to put an end to the practice of delegated coercion that inflicts conformity at the expense of creativity. And they need to disavow completely the concept of jihad as a literal call to arms against non-Muslims and those Muslims they deem apostates or heretics.
The dawn of a Muslim Reformation is the right moment to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.