Why Islam Needs a Reformation

Mar 25, 2015

Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

By Ayaan Hirsi Ali

“Islam’s borders are bloody,” wrote the late political scientist Samuel Huntington in 1996, “and so are its innards.” Nearly 20 years later, Huntington looks more right than ever before. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, at least 70% of all the fatalities in armed conflicts around the world last year were in wars involving Muslims. In 2013, there were nearly 12,000 terrorist attacks world-wide. The lion’s share were in Muslim-majority countries, and many of the others were carried out by Muslims. By far the most numerous victims of Muslim violence—including executions and lynchings not captured in these statistics—are Muslims themselves.

Not all of this violence is explicitly motivated by religion, but a great deal of it is. I believe that it is foolish to insist, as Western leaders habitually do, that the violent acts committed in the name of Islam can somehow be divorced from the religion itself. For more than a decade, my message has been simple: Islam is not a religion of peace.

When I assert this, I do not mean that Islamic belief makes all Muslims violent. This is manifestly not the case: There are many millions of peaceful Muslims in the world. What I do say is that the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam. Moreover, this theologically sanctioned violence is there to be activated by any number of offenses, including but not limited to apostasy, adultery, blasphemy and even something as vague as threats to family honor or to the honor of Islam itself.

It is not just al Qaeda and Islamic State that show the violent face of Islamic faith and practice. It is Pakistan, where any statement critical of the Prophet or Islam is labeled as blasphemy and punishable by death. It is Saudi Arabia, where churches and synagogues are outlawed and where beheadings are a legitimate form of punishment. It is Iran, where stoning is an acceptable punishment and homosexuals are hanged for their “crime.”

Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

36 comments on “Why Islam Needs a Reformation

  • Comparing holy books, the Bible and the Qur’an, the bible is 100 times more in need of updating. The reason Islam is causing more trouble is that more people take it literally. Like the bible, the Qur’an contradicts itself. Most of it is quite reasonable. There is a rule that anything later trumps anything earlier. Perhaps rigorous use of this rule could be used to reform the Qur’an. There may be some way of detecting tampering. Most of it counsels restraint and rational behaviour. People cherry pick the crazy verses.

    Report abuse

  • They all (religions) need more than a reformation. They need to step gracefully into the 21st century which means that they need to go away and be replaced altogether! The Bronze Age is over folks!

    Report abuse

  • You beat me to it Mombird.

    Reformation only gives the redundant a new lease of life, and moreover, judging by the Christian reformation, 1517 onwards, it can become very violent indeed. France was devastated by the Wars of Religion, and Germany by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48). Even in the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763), a quarter of a millennium later, there was a strong religious element. Of course, it’s still going on in Ireland.

    So I’m not convinced that reformation has much going for it as the basis of a peace process.

    Report abuse

  • The rule you describe is called the principle of abrogation. I learned about it from Sam Harris. He noted that later rules are actually more violent, so abrogation has pernicious effects in practice. Maybe the exact opposite is true, but if that were so I’d imagine Harris would have egg on his face by now for what he said. He went on to explain that the reason rules became gradually more violent was because of changes in the methods to which Mohamed was eager to resort to continue spreading Islam. I’m no expert on the relative ages of Koranic verses, but that seems plausible.

    Report abuse

  • From the original website answer’s section:

    Karim Taoube

    William Burbage this is an answer for your third to last line. definitely not, all humans are a creation of god. It is written in the quran.

    Now hold on ! I distinctly remember reading “Clapton is God” written in white paint, no less, on a brick wall underneath a London railway bridge. It is written therefore it must be true !

    (Of course I dismissed similar claims about various footballers written on brick walls, because they obviously contradicted each other ! I mean e.g Glen Hoddle as God? Sorry stuff ! ) Clapton is far closer to the divine IMO.

    Report abuse

  • How wonderful to read an article by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’m going to buy her new book as soon as it is released.

    I like the idea that she presents in this article about describing Muslims as:

    Medina Muslims (fundamentalists)

    Mecca Muslims (moderate conservatives)

    Dissident Muslims (ex-Muslims, and believers who are agitating for reforms)

    I think it’s an important distinction and I’d like to know what Muslim believers think of this, but I think I can work with it in discussions.

    The author then goes on to suggest five ideas for reform of Islam. The first idea is a very important starting place and I think it is possible to make some progress with this. From the article above:

    Muhammad’s semi-divine status, along with the literalist reading of the Quran.
    Muhammad should not be seen as infallible, let alone as a source of divine writ. He should be seen as a historical figure who united the Arab tribes in a premodern context that cannot be replicated in the 21st century. And although Islam maintains that the Quran is the literal word of Allah, it is, in historical reality, a book that was shaped by human hands. Large parts of the Quran simply reflect the tribal values of the 7th-century Arabian context from which it emerged. The Quran’s eternal spiritual values must be separated from the cultural accidents of the place and time of its birth.

    It seems to be common knowledge amongst Muslims that prophet Mo was not divine but just a man like anyone of them alive today. As far as I know, he performed no miracles, dealt with many of the same earthly problems that any man alive does today like hassles with other guys and disagreements with his wife/wives and he had an ordinary burial in a simple unadorned grave. I’ve been told that even though he was just a man, he was a model that should be emulated by every Muslim man for all time.

    So what interests me as a discussion question is if the Christians consider Jesus to be the divine son of God and in fact he is the human form of God himself, then shouldn’t they imitate every detail of Jesus’s life right down to the last tiny detail? But Christians don’t do that. They are mostly interested in his ideas, maybe in a cherry picking way, but at least they don’t go around trashing the furniture of our present day money lenders and setting out for work wearing a toga, sandals and a crown of thorns.

    Jesus is the human form of God yet Christians don’t imitate his appearance and behavior.

    Mohammed is only a man yet Muslims imitate every possible thing about him.

    I’m hoping that the two lines above, if accepted as truth, can lead to a realization that If Christians can let Jesus exist in their imaginations with a two thousand year old Middle Eastern context that doesn’t translate well into this present time, then why can’t they do the same thing and mean no disrespect to their prophet?

    Report abuse

  • So I’m not convinced that reformation has much going for it as the basis of a peace process.

    Even though I’d be pleased as punch if all religions either disappeared from the face of the earth or were so watered down that they became a happy-clappy, peace-love kumbaya version of themselves, this is highly unlikely to happen in my lifetime or probably never at all. Instead, in an effort to be pragmatic and realistic, I would at this point be happy to see any of Ayaan’s five reforms come to fruition. The world would be a happier, safer, more humane place for many millions of people if this could somehow come to pass.

    As an American anti-theist feminist atheist with 13 generations between me and my fundamentalist protestant ancestors who stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, I say that this reform can be accomplished!

    Report abuse

  • 8
    Miserablegit says:

    One thing I have struggled to understand is how it’s apologists insist that Islam is a peaceful religion and yet is currently spawning so many groups who are murdering in its name.

    Report abuse

  • I found this an interesting article, and I’ll get the book.

    I think it pays to know your enemy; if only our elected representatives would make a real effort to do so, and stop their unedifying scrabble for votes at any cost.

    Report abuse

  • Nice and comfy for you, but not so good for the millions of poor sods who lost their lives in the wars of religion, or for the millions more who had their lives, comfort and prosperity ruined, in a brutalised European civilisation.

    Report abuse

  • eejit,

    I hope you can forgive me for engaging in a little wishful thinking from time to time. Perhaps it was the topic of this article that led me in that direction. However, I don’t think it’s fair for you to suggest that I am ignorant of the consequences of the wars of religion or of the misery brought on by current religiously driven atrocities. Even here in the States we do actually study some European history in high school and I hope that is still the case now.

    Perhaps I engage in some wishful thinking because I know how bad religious wars and oppression can be from reading on European history of the last five hundred years and then I think about what probably lies in the future for the Muslim communities in this world and this is a very depressing future for them if the situation progresses on the trajectory that I see before them. This will have a terrible effect on all of us, not just on Muslim majority countries.

    As I’ve mentioned here before, my in-laws are Algerian and have lived through a civil war that raged through the 1990’s and early 2000’s between the secular government forces and the Muslim Brotherhood there. This war has had a devastating effect on life in that place and I feel some sense of hopelessness now that they will ever recover from it. I hope I’m wrong about that.

    Given all of this historical and current day context and given that somehow I was lucky enough (or just downright stubborn and oppositional) to think my way out of a childhood indoctrination, I can only hope that our atheist and even our theist public intellectual dissidents can present material such as what is contained in the article above, that will provide some idea of how we could produce even a hint of change. If we can just introduce a molecule of cognitive dissonance in the minds of religiously deluded individuals, at this point, I want to grab onto that and drive it forward because what is the alternative? I guess we could just say to ourselves that those primitive people in those screwed up locations are just stupid and fucked up and it’s just really not my problem. I can see how it’s an attractive option though, especially when I get overwhelmed with the senseless horrific suffering that goes on there.

    As someone who self labels as an American anti-theist feminist atheist as I said in my last paragraph above, is there any way to live in this mindset, in this place, and also be “nice and comfy” too? I doubt that. I take shit on a daily basis for any one of these perspectives. All well worth it though. In fact, this is exactly why I am happy to see an article show up here by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other women like her, because they are role models that demonstrate a formidable resilience that I could only hope to emulate.

    Report abuse

  • Sorry LaurieB that I was a little bitchy, it’s not my usual style.

    I’m afraid that it’s a poor prognosis for a smooth transition from fundamentalism to enlightenment. Without the slightest sign of a reformation in Islam, fundamentalist revanchism is already running wild. What would happen if they had any serious reformist threats to deal with? Loads of well educated scientifically minded people seem to be unable to resist the allure of religious belief – the more bizarre the better – and young medical students and many other bright young things from the UK are chucking it all in and going to join the IS. As a former teenaged Trotskyite and philosophy student, I know all about susceptibility to irrational belief and cultism, even when your fine education and common sense tell you it’s all baloney.

    I even have friends who were excellent students, alluringly immoral, and living on the wild side (drugs, sex, rock ‘n roll), who have found God in later life, much to my sorrow. You can’t even have a pint with them without having to swallow a sermon.

    Report abuse

  • eejit,

    I even have friends who were excellent students, alluringly immoral, and living on the wild side (drugs, sex, rock ‘n roll), who have found God in later life, much to my sorrow. You can’t even have a pint with them without having to swallow a sermon.

    The same thing happened to us here. I would guess that about half of our friends became devout in a similar pattern to what you described. So discouraging.

    Report abuse

  • This article is very interesting though I think what it’s lacking is the history of the Middle East and the Muslim world. A little context would go a long way. For instance I don’t hear Muslim critics talk about the Mongol sacking of Baghdad which essentially ended the golden age of Islam and had a profound effect on the region and the religion. Also the Ottoman Empire and the post WW1 era when the west was essentially dividing up the Middle East and preventing the creation of an Arab state. Much of the Muslim world has been kept in the 3rd world because of the intervention of other world powers. And as we know Fundamentalists tend to pop up where poverty and war is rampant. Christianity was able to go through its growing pains and is much more prevalent In the western and 1st world. It would seem that if you want to understand violence in the Muslim world you have to delve into the history of the Middle East. To say the Islam is a religion of violence is a very simplistic way to see a very complex problem.

    Report abuse

  • As men created religion, it is not the cause of violent acts. It’s just the justification for it.

    Updating Islam will just mean that the updating group will separate itself from the group that thinks that Islam doesn’t need an update. Those who think it needs an update probably don’t use Islam to justify the same sort of behavior.

    Report abuse

  • 22
    richard says:

    The abandonment of religious and other super natural beliefs is a natural result of personal maturation. Education helps. Real education, in schools, where bullying faith driven RE teachers are not allowed to call the shots. Sorry folks, just letting off a bit of personal steam…….

    Report abuse

  • Christianity’s reducing risk to humanity and the planet through the Enlightenment came not from the fact that it had had an earlier reformation, but, that in doing so once, it further shattered into thousands of pieces, many of which absorbed the more kindly intellectual zeitgeist of the time.

    To those on the anxious, visceral, right wing this “free thinking” has been a squandering of conservative control, and in reaction, a return to Christian fundamentalism has come thundering back to secure their moral control and the rightful ownership of those tax dollars stolen from their wallets. Free of intellectual content, though, this stuff nestled within an increasingly educated society is ultimately doomed. Those not bright enough to leave the nonsense in a single bound can find descending steps amongst the thousands of increasingly innocuous faith positions until free.

    Islam has already gone to schism several times, starting a similar process off. The problem is it is recognised by conservative forces within to be weakened in like manner to the Christian experience and that the illusion of a monolithic solidarity be insisted upon as it is by the major schisms.

    Our need is to not support the Imams in this insistence of a monolithic identity, even a kindly identity (which will not happen anyway), but to facilitate the continuing and increasing validity of schisms as they approach better the needs of twenty first century individuals. For cultures which celebrate particularly tight family and community modes of living this ability to claim the same (that they are Muslim) but feel and think differently allows people to move more swiftly generation upon generation towards reason, without sacrificing their life to a religion thrust upon them unbidden.

    At every turn we must say that it is too late to create a singular thing of Islam, for good or ill. The thing lies in pieces already. Stop trying to put it back together. Rather encourage the view that it can be many things and that a religion as lived is what its adherents say it is.

    Report abuse

  • Destructive sectarian civil wars are still being promoted by foreign political manipulators, who seem incapable of recognising that outside interference is escalating long term problems, and generating the sort of hatred which spawns terrorism in repressed populations!

    SANAA, Yemen — Iran’s foreign ministry called Saudi-led airstrikes against Shiite Muslim rebels in Yemen a “dangerous step” Thursday, and said they would only worsen the crisis in the country.

    The statement from Tehran came after Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes, along with Jordan and possibly other predominantly-Sunni states, targeting military installations in Yemen held by the Houthi rebels who are storming south in a bid to secure their hold on the country.

    Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif called for an immediate stop to the airstrikes, according to the Al Jazeera television network.

    Iran, the world’s Shiite Muslim powerhouse, is seen as backing the Houthis, who are also allied with former Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh.

    Tension between Tehran and Sunni Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, has flared amid the ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria.

    In addition to the Houthis, Iran provides support — and in some cases, direct military aid — to Shiite militias fighting against ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups in both of those countries and others in the region.

    The two main sects of Islam split hundreds of years ago, but animosity between them still fuels much of the violence threatening to ignite the Middle East in a large-scale sectarian war today.

    Some of the airstrikes hit positions in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.

    The initial statement from Iran Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham did not name Saudi Arabia but called the airstrikes an “invasion.”

    Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan were also taking part in the operation in Yemen, the Saudi Press Agency reported Thursday. According to the Saudi official who announced the action Wednesday, there was a coalition of “over 10 countries” taking part.

    The White House said in a statement late Wednesday that the U.S. was coordinating military and intelligence support with the Saudis but not taking part directly in the strikes.

    Yemen is on the brink of violent collapse. On Wednesday, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a close U.S. ally, fled the country by sea after the rebels started taking over the southern port city of Aden where he had sought refuge.

    They also briefly seized the airport in Aden, but were later fought off at that site by forces loyal to Hadi.

    The collapse of the government already spelled bad news for the U.S., which benefited from the fact that Hadi allowed the American military to conduct drone strikes there against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). With Hadi gone, the last vestiges of his power also vanish and leave an uncertain future for U.S. security.

    Report abuse

  • @OP – Why Islam Needs a Reformation

    The problem has been, that western countries have attacked the Islamic countries which had made moves towards reform, while keeping their fundamentalist fanatics repressed – under the wishful thinking, that if the likes of Saddam and Assad are removed some western democracy will miraculously emerge!

    What is actually emerging is militant Wahabi fundamentalism – and US support for Wahabi Saudi-Arabia is far from helping solve this problem.


    **Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism **

    As the so-called Islamic State demolishes nation states set up by the Europeans almost a century ago, IS’s obscene savagery seems to epitomise the violence that many believe to be inherent in religion in general and Islam in particular. It also suggests that the neoconservative ideology that inspired the Iraq war was delusory, since it assumed that the liberal nation state was an inevitable outcome of modernity and that, once Saddam’s dictatorship had gone, Iraq could not fail to become a western-style democracy. Instead, IS, which was born in the Iraq war and is intent on restoring the premodern autocracy of the caliphate, seems to be reverting to barbarism. On 16 November, the militants released a video showing that they had beheaded a fifth western hostage, the American aid worker Peter Kassig, as well as several captured Syrian soldiers. Some will see the group’s ferocious irredentism as proof of Islam’s chronic inability to embrace modern values.

    Yet although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century. In July 2013, the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism, and yet the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning IS in the strongest terms, has insisted that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way”.

    Other members of the Saudi ruling class, however, look more kindly on the movement, applauding its staunch opposition to Shiaism and for its Salafi piety, its adherence to the original practices of Islam. This inconsistency is a salutary reminder of the impossibility of making accurate generalisations about any religious tradition.

    This article also gives background information:-

    You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabiahttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/alastair-crooke/isis-wahhabism-saudi-arabia_b_5717157.html

    US policies based on fundamentalist Xtian “BUSH-DELUSIONS”, have a lot to answer for!

    Report abuse

  • I have always found Karen Armstrong to be highly partial in her use of evidence and her grafting of IS onto Wahabism is I believe entirely wrong-headed and mostly evidence free. She is trying to rebuild a true Islam and is actually part of the problem.

    IS is properly fundamentalist in its thinking. Any number of fundamentalists, though, have taken the Wahabi shilling, er, Riyal. They may be mad but they are not fools.

    IS thinking is more nearly this-


    Report abuse

  • The problem has been, that western countries have attacked the Islamic countries which had made moves towards reform

    This, though is certainly true. Reading his CIA reports too late, George Dubya realised (too late) that Massoud in the north of Afghanistan was the successful moral lynch pin he needed to support. At least we have recognised the Sunni Kurds as the good guys and gals, though the commy roots to their civilised thinking make them still a hard swallow for many Americans. The good folk of Tunisia should give us heart too.

    Compromised economic thinking has displaced moral thinking and this has to stop.

    Report abuse

  • LaurieB Mar 25, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Jesus is the human form of God yet Christians don’t imitate his appearance and behavior.

    I think they would struggle to copy his appearance, given that most of the images were made centuries later, and seem to be white Caucasian (or in some cases, some other local ethnicity), which is strange for a local Middle-Eastern preacher.

    They have an even greater difficulty with the various conflicting stories of his behaviour which archaeologists have been discovering. (Not to mention the fake accounts and conflicts in regular Bible versions.)

    Report abuse

  • phil rimmer Mar 30, 2015 at 8:53 am

    At least we have recognised the Sunni Kurds as the good guys and gals,

    The problem was, that because of past history, the Kurds did not fit the Bush agenda of currying favour with Turkey, because of the activities of the PPK and the discontent among the Kurds in Turkey.
    The lack of any post first Iraq-war plan, and the abandoning of the Kurds to Saddam, after fermenting revolt, was a disgraceful act which has led to many of the past and present problems.

    Report abuse

  • The PKK. The PPK were the splitters….that or Bond’s second favourite….

    The problem was….


    The Kurds/PKK learn and are politically astute. No longer do they pursue an independent statehood but rather a series of accomodations for their people. Not only that but they champion free and fair rights for all. No wonder Hitch was proud to be called brother Kurd.

    Report abuse

  • “Jesus is the human form of God yet Christians don’t imitate his appearance and behaviour.”

    Usually the opposite. Jesus was (portrayed as) pacifist, all for turning the other cheek and the golden rule, and did not care for organised religion, or moneylending. But his name is invoked by self-described Christians to justify everything from warfare and genocide to capitalism and religion-as-megabusiness.

    Report abuse

  • Usually the opposite. Jesus was (portrayed as) pacifist, all for turning the other cheek and the golden rule, and did not care for organised religion, or moneylending.

    Jesus was the first socialist. So much for Republican’s embracing him as their mascot.

    Report abuse

  • “Jesus…did not care for organised religion”

    I’m not sure that I would agree with that. He certainly had criticisms to make about some aspects of organised religion – particularly about religious people who missed the point. But the very first thing he did in his ministry was to gather 12 random people and organise them into a group of his followers; he taught fairly specific doctrines that people were expected to live by, and he made no secret of his intention to build a church.

    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.