Islam, Ali, and Reformation by Kile Jones

Kile JonesDoes Islam need a reformation? The ever-controversial Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now argues that it does. Do you agree with her? Or do you find problems with the way Ayaan Ali frames the discussion?

I ask these questions a few weeks after the first all-women’s mosque was opened. It has also only been a short time since Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), headed by Ani Zonneveld, sent an open letter to Salman bin Abdul Aziz, King of Saudi Arabia. These, and the innumerable condemnations of the Charlie Hedbo shootings, remind us that this “reformation” Ali is looking for is not entirely absent.

If you are like me, you find the whole notion of an “Islamic Reformation” troublesome. Not only does it assume a European Christian model of social change and progress as its barometer, but the view of history it forwards is nothing short of obtuse. As a former student of “Church History,” a clever designation used by theology schools and seminaries to cover up their deliberately Western focus, I understand the Protestant Reformation to be multifarious and complicated.

For those hoping the reformation rubric is applied to Islam, remember that although its merits are numerous, this historical movement was nothing like its pristine depiction in the movie “Luther.” Calvin voted to have Servetus burned at the stake, Luther persuaded the German princes to join his cause (not exactly a separation of powers), peasants revolted and became riotous mobs, and let’s not begin talking about some of the anti-Catholic evils committed by the Huguenots.

On top of Max Blumenthal’s scathing critique, Ed Simon says something similar:

But if historical parallels are at all useful, it indeed seems that a reformation is precisely what we are getting right now. Our political pundits, as inheritors of a triumphalist Anglo-American Protestant historiography, often embrace a fallacy that conflates the tremendously complicated reformation (and I am using this word to mean both the various Protestant reformations as well as the Catholic Counter-Reformation) with the likewise tremendously complicated Enlightenment.

I’m not saying that I don’t agree with Ali’s condemnation of Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and the group that calls itself the “Islamic State,” but to assume these groups are representative of “true Islam” is a stretch. What constitutes Islam’s “essence,” “core,” or “normative center” has been hotly debated by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but Ali’s almost entirely negative portrayal of Islam is Procrustean. You have to lob off “there is no compulsion in religion” (Suran 2:256) and other pacifistic and liberal teaching in Islam, to make her picture fit her frame.

“Not “reformation” in the sense that Luther used the term—to “go back to scripture,” Ali says, “what I mean is an innovation, a renovation of the faith.” The reformation she has in mind is one where Muslims give up some central tenets of Islam: the sanctity of Muhammed and the infallibility of the Qur’an. In this sense, she uses “reformation” in a different way, one that I still consider problematic. It’s problematic because it assumes a direct connection between believing these tenets and acting violently.

What Ali wants is what Ian Barbour refers to as “doctrinal reformulation.” In my humble opinion, a better method of approach would not be about changing beliefs, but harnessing positive actions and collaborations (see Ahmadis and Atheists for Freedom of Conscience). Sure, I don’t find many Islamic beliefs tenable, but there is a time when challenging ideas is surpassed by accepting that people will always believe different things. Even if you place stock in the ideas Ayaan Ali is trying to change, I still think we can find ways of working with each other to better the world.


Kile Jones is an atheist involved in inter-faith dialogue who works towards building bridges between non-believers and religious persons. He is also the founder of “Interview an Atheist at Church Day” and Claremont Journal of Religion. His twitter is @KileBJones

7 thoughts on “Islam, Ali, and Reformation by Kile Jones”

  1. Thanks for writing this! I’ve been walking around and muttering about history repeating itself but in another part of the world: the conquests and murders being committed by Boko Haram and Da’esh (did I spell that right?) and other extremists are the same as but more modern than, say, the episodes of war and genocide during the European Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the dissolution of the monasteries in Henry VIII’s England, the French Revolution and the Terror, the Spanish conquest of South and Central America, and Manifest Destiny here in the U.S. Plus a lot more that I’m not even remembering right now.

    I think you’re right that “harnessing positive actions and collaborations” would be a better idea that reformation. But this harnessing needs to be done all over the world. Perhaps if people remembered that the Goddess is the grandmother of God and that mothers love and nurture their children…………


  2. Kile, I am moved that you define your background as “an atheist involved in inter-faith dialogue who works towards building bridges between non-believers and religious persons.”

    We do need a radical “renovation of faith,” as you say, to bring peace to our world. A single godhead, whether male or female, dictating the fate of all from above, no matter what the religion, to me is the forerunner of patriarchy, dictatorship, and oppression of all kinds. There are other ways to understand deity, far more loving and nurturing, especially in nature religions, where all of nature is itself replete with spirituality, including every bird, every leaf, every sunrise. And I’m looking forward to Carol’s book on eco-spirituality also — there is so much we need to open ourselves to and expand within that “other” field of eco-understanding. I’m off-topic, somewhat, I know, but your comprehensive sense of embracing inter-faith ideas is exceedingly important.


  3. As someone else said, Islam already had a reformation and its Air Force is bombing Yemen.

    Expanding on that, I’d say that in the colonial/post-colonial period Islam has become thoroughly Protestantised in most of the Sunni world at least. By this I mean an emphasis on discursive knowledge obtained from text as the central and only legitimate form and source of knowledge of God and God’ will. Added to that a populism, which doesn’t see intellectual refinement and a high level of education, as necessary qualifiers for scriptural interpretation.


  4. “Does Islam need a reformation? The ever-controversial Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now argues that it does. Do you agree with her? Or do you find problems with the way Ayaan Ali frames the discussion?”

    I’ve heard Ayaan speak in my hometown. She noted that the U. S. Constitution is a couple hundred years old and has been amended a good number of times whereas the Qur’an (1400 years old) has not been amended once. I do believe Ayaan has a tendency to oversimplify issues, however, what I think is at the heart of much of her rhetoric is her belief that Islam has not “kept pace” with the times–hence, one hears about “Shari’a Law,” conceived as THE ultimate way to restore justice to societies. What is known as Shari’a Law is actually a misnomer. Shari’a is not a law. It is a path. Fiqh is “law” or Islamic jurisprudence. Nonetheless, Shari’a Law is understood (both by many Muslims and others) as this one, ultimate, and fixed way of shaping society. (And in reality there are many Shari’as.) I think Ayaan saying that Islam needs a reformation doesn’t get at the heart of things (I’ve heard her say that Christians had a reformation and now they have a “cuddly God–Jesus Christ.” Really?!). I can appreciate her impatience with her traditional heritage inasmuch as they insisted (many times) in attempting to clothe her with garments which just did not suit.


  5. To me, the problem with AHA is that she does not speak to nor write for Muslims. As NMR pointed out, who is paying her? Who is reading her? Whose agenda does she serve? Any of her writings set out to inspire us to reform are entirely useless because she is speaking for the benefit of non-Muslims only. The we, Muslims, are forced to waste our time and energy talking to Non-Muslims about whether or not we can live up to AHA’s expectations. When we share the news of our long-standing work transforming and living Islam with honesty and love to those non-Muslims, they accept nothing from us unless it agrees with her or any of the others like her. So as far as I can see the agenda she serves is actually anti-“reform” and thus part of a larger effort that thrives on keeping Muslims the enemy.


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