Revisiting the ‘Islamic Reformation’: Why Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s approach will not work

By Samar Batrawi and Bradley Lineker:

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation NowNew York, USA: Harper Collins., 2015. Pages: 288. $14.99 (hardback). ISBN: 9780062333957

Recent discourse on Islamic radicalisation and extremism has placed increased emphasis on the role of violence supposedly inherent within Islamic scripture. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation can be seen as a continuation of this modality of thought. Contrary to claims that the ideas and methods of groups like the Islamic State or Boko Haram are ‘un-Islamic’,

Hirsi Ali argues that Islamic scripture itself contains the core justification for radical action, rather than a wider plurality of explanations that other commentators have emphasised. [i] Consequently, in the book, Hirsi Ali puts forward the conditions by which she thinks an ‘Islamic Reformation’ should occur. This review will critically evaluate her diagnosis of radicalisation and violence as stemming directly from Islamic scripture, while situating her work within the wider discourse on radicalisation, violence and Islam. 

The Five Points of Hirsi Ali’s Islamic Reformation

The core part of Hirsi Ali’s argument consists of the identification of five theological principles that should be the subject of an Islamic Reformation. The first is ‘Muhammad’s semi-divine and infallible status along with the literalist reading of the Qur’an, particularly those parts that were revealed in Medina.’[ii] The second principle is ‘[t]he investment in life after death instead of life before death’[iii], which Hirsi Ali strongly associates with violent jihad.

The third principle focuses on Islamic jurisprudence, Sharia, which she approaches from two different directions. On the one hand, she argues that Sharia problematically institutionalises legal norms found within the religious texts, which were designed as part of the initial political project of the Prophet Muhammad amid the rapid expansion of the original Caliphate. On the other hand, these norms are depicted as building into an informal process of social censorship and self-regulation. Thus, Hirsi Ali particularly notes how concepts like honour reinforce power dynamics, which are built to ensure compliance with specific norms. This taps into Hirsi Ali’s fourth point of reform: ‘[t]he practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law by commanding right and forbidding wrong.’[iv]

Finally, in her fifth area of needed reform, Hirsi Ali addresses ‘[t]he imperative to wage jihad, or holy war’[v], an area that perhaps represents the culmination of the preceding four principles, which she unconstructively says must simply be ‘take[n] … off the table’[vi].

Scripture Alone is an Insufficient Explanation

The core thematic argument that suffuses Hirsi Ali’s book is that Islamic scripture is the root problem in the Islamic world; a process which finds expression in the repression of women and religio-ethnic minorities, social conservatism, radicalisation and religious violence.

This is a problematic position since, as William McCants argues, scripture is a constant feature of the history of Islam, and yet radicalisation and violence are not. Scripture itself informs the basic framework which a variety of diffuse Islamic groups around the world use to order their respective worlds. Though Islamic scripture may build into a general explanation, on its own it is not sufficient to account for modern extremism in the way that Hirsi Ali contends. Contextual factors, like socio-economic grievances, and – possibly even more important according to Shiraz Maher – the search for identity and belonging .

Hirsi Ali argues that Islam’s preoccupation with the afterlife inevitably leads to violence and other negative outcomes. However, investing one’s life for the purposes of life after death is itself a positive constant in many strands of moderate and conservative strand of religions, including Islam. Indeed, life before death is not, as Hirsi Ali insists, meaningless to Muslims; it is regulated by cultural-religious norms that are often institutionalised, and cannot be logically developed into ready-made extremism.

This is also the case with her fourth principle of reform, ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’, which may be unique in view of its comprehensiveness within modern Islam, yet it is undeniable that most religions have been constructed along these lines. Hirsi Ali’s emphasis on Islamic scripture and jurisprudence, at the expense of more fluid contextual variables, threatens to not only overlook much of the complexity that underpins the desirability of rigid structures of social control, but also to relegate this social model as a type of barbarianism that is somehow unique to Islam.

Islam against the West

Bearing this in mind, Hirsi Ali’s arguments on scripture are themselves – much like the book in general – situated within a wider Western intellectual trend that, as Edward Said famously argued, approaches Islam from a position of ‘dominance[,] … confrontation [and] cultural antipathy’.[vii] The analogy that Hirsi Ali uses throughout the book, the comparison between West and East in the Cold War – itself recently used, for example, by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in response to the Tunisia attacks in July 2015[viii] – are symptomatic of Said’s general diagnosis.

There are two consequences of this position: the Islamic Reformation is framed as a zero-sum ‘war of ideas’[ix], between a newly reformulated East and West; and the liberal capitalism of which Hirsi Ali speaks is presented as a superior Western commodity which Muslims can only humbly aspire to one day import. This intellectual structure permeates many of the book’s examples, which are in fact an accumulation of sensationalist, out-of-context events that – owing to their diversity – are difficult to generalise into broader narratives.

The book also falls down in respect to its lack of engagement with Salafism in any meaningful way – despite it being the broad ideological inspiration for many of the groups that Hirsi Ali assesses. For example, she claims that ‘[t]he IS agenda is in some respects not so different from that of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Saudi Wahhabist teachings; it is just that their methods are more exposed.’[x]

Yet these groups cannot be reduced to points on a scale that only measures brutality, as both doctrine and method have been acknowledged to differ substantially among Salafists. For example, on the one hand, Muslim Brotherhood affiliated groups have often operated within existing (un-Islamic) political systems – such as Hamas’ participation in the Palestinian elections in 2006. On the other hand, IS deems these systems as heretical and illegitimate, and aims to dismantle and replace them. As has been noted elsewhere, [xi] attitudes towards political participation reflect just one of many ongoing intra-Salafist debates[xii]; a complexity that is swept aside by Hirsi Ali’s narrow focus upon the primacy of Islamic scripture and simplistic logical pathway to extremism that this supposedly engenders.

As noted above, this intellectual trend regarding Islam is not new, but seems to be intricately linked to the process that Edward Said once described in his book ‘Covering Islam’. Said’s observations help describe the deeper historical problems within Western understandings of Islam. Perhaps Said’s most important lesson is one the West still has not learned more than 30 years after he wrote it, and which is painfully embedded in Hirsi Ali’s liberal capitalist case for an ‘Islamic Reformation’: that the Islamic World is defined negatively as that with which the West is radically at odds, and this tension establishes a framework limiting knowledge of Islam.’[xiii] Hirsi Ali’s book is undoubtedly situated within the most radical fringes of this paradigm, as her approach expresses deep cultural antipathy towards the Islamic world. 


Ultimately, then, Hirsi Ali’s attempt to demarcate an ‘Islamic Reformation’ has merely vocalised a troubled Western conception of Islam that will do little to actually germinate the process that she is ostensibly trying to create.

This dichotomy itself is found in her choice of the first part of her title – ‘Heretic’ – and her project – of developing the principles for an ‘Islamic Reformation’ – the former involves polarisation, whilst the latter infers a process of amelioration. This depiction of Islam in zero-sum terms – much like Bernard Lewis in his essay ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’, which would inspire Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’, between the civilising liberal-capitalist ‘West’ and the barbarous traditional ‘East’ – threatens to over-simplify and divide discourse and opinion on Islam in terms reminiscent to the fear and mistrust of the Cold War. While, for example, the literal and uncritical enforcement of the Sharia system of jurisprudence – itself clearly designed for past social structures – is indeed problematic for human rights discourse in the modern age, polarisation and division will never be the solution to untying this particular Gordian knot.

Moreover, simply escaping Islam, as Hirsi Ali advocates for those ‘trapped between their conscience and the commands of Muhammad’[xiv], is also neither practical nor desired for many Muslims.

These issues are part of the wider debate – touched on briefly in this piece – of the West’s relationship with Islam, and, in the face of Hirsi Ali’s book, it is clearer than ever that more people, other than just self-proclaimed ‘heretics’, need to be involved in this discussion to avoid the monopolisation of the ‘Muslim voice’ in the West.

Samar Batrawi is a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where she studies Salafism in Lebanon. She has worked for the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling in Palestine, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in London, and the Clingendael Institute for International Relations in The Hague. Follow her at @SamarBatrawi. 

Bradley Lineker is currently a fully-funded ESRC doctoral candidate in the War Studies Department, King’s College London. He has extensive experience working as a consulting research analyst with the UN and the private sector on contexts like Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia and Syria. Follow him @BradleyLineker. 


[i] Hirsi Ali, A. (2015), Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (New York: HarperCollins), p. 22

[ii] Hirsi Ali, A. (2015), Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (New York: HarperCollins), p. 24

[iii] Hirsi Ali, A. (2015), Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (New York: HarperCollins), p. 24

[iv] Hirsi Ali, A. (2015), Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (New York: HarperCollins), p. 24

[v] Hirsi Ali, A. (2015), Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (New York: HarperCollins), p. 24

[vi] Hirsi Ali, A. (2015), Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (New York: HarperCollins), p. 206

[vii] Said, E. (1981), Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (London: Vintage Books), p. xvii


[ix] Hirsi Ali, A. (2015), Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (New York: HarperCollins), p.220

[x] Hirsi Ali, A. (2015), Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (New York: HarperCollins), pp. 163-164

[xi] See Hegghammer (2009), Jihadi-Salafis or Revolutionaries? On Religion and Politics in the Study of Militant Islamism, in Meijer (ed.), Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (London: Hurst & Co), pp.258-262

[xii] For an excellent collection of perspectives on global Salafism and the different intra-Salafi debates, see Meijer, R. (ed.) (2009), Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (London: Hurts & Co)

[xiii] Said, E. (1981), Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (London: Vintage Books), p. 163

[xiv] Hirsi Ali maintains that she believes that leaving Islam as she did is still the best choice for Muslims ‘who feel trapped between their conscience and the commands of Muhammad’, Hirsi Ali, A. (2015), Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (New York: HarperCollins), p. 51

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