Bitter Truths, Difficult Questions

Hari Ravi Kumar reviews Ayaan Hrisi Ali’s latest book, Heretic:Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2015)

Morgan Freeman’s character in Now You See Me (2013) tells Mark Ruffalo’s character, “When a magician waves his hand and says, ‘This is where the magic is happening,’ the real trick is happening somewhere else. Misdirection. A basic concept of magic.” This could well be said of the mainstream media and the so-called left-liberals who take every opportunity to dissociate violent acts of radical Islamists from the fundamentals of Islam. They spout, in unequivocal terms, that the problem is not with Islam but with a few Muslims who have gone astray.

hereticThe truth is almost exactly the opposite. The problem is with the fundamentals of the religion itself, which in turn explains the stance of the radical Islamists. It’s not surprising that hashtags like #TerrorismHasNoReligion and #ReligionOfPeace are increasingly used satirically rather than literally. And for those who might disagree, the Introduction of Ayaan Hrisi Ali’s book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now brings up a counterpoint: “…when a murderer quotes the Qur’an in justification of his crime, we should at least discuss the possibility that he means what he says.”

The most striking feature of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book is her articulate statement of the problem plaguing the Islamic world and its ramifications on the world at large. She provides pertinent answers to the basic question she raises:  “Why does Islam need a reformation now?”


It is a courageous work that is critical of Islam but is also compassionate. She genuinely cares for the future of the millions of Muslims who are opposed to violence as well as the non-Muslims who are being targeted by jihadis. In her own words, “If…the hope for a Muslim Reformation dies, the rest of the world will pay an enormous price.”

Ali has much to lose by writing such a book – severe criticism from her own people, slander from the left-liberals, disdain from so-called progressive academics, and even a threat to her life – but has little to gain, except a small chance of transformation in the religiously stagnant world of Islam. This is reason enough to laud her undertaking, but when we examine the book at face value, we find many other reasons to appreciate her efforts.

The most valuable portions of Heretic are those in which Ali connects the fundamental precepts of Islam with the seemingly incomprehensible behaviour of radical Islamists: suicide bombings, genital mutilation, honour killings, terror attacks, and beheadings. In the Introduction, she says,

“…the fundamental problem is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts.”

However, this book is valuable as much to the average non-Muslim as it is to the average Muslim. While there are several groups in Islam based on historical divisions, Ali prefers to classify Muslims into three groups in such a way that they are relevant for modern-day discourse:

  • Medina Muslims – the fundamentalist minority who want to implement the sharia and wage jihad against infidels


  • Mecca Muslims – the peaceful majority who are loyal to the faith and are devout, but are not inclined to practice violence


  • Modifying Muslims – those seeking reform in Islam or have disconnected from the faith; they are insignificant in number.


Ali mentions that her target audience comprises the Mecca Muslims, who, she observes, sadly seem to gravitate to the first group rather than the third. For example, in a prominent survey conducted by Pew Research Center, in Pakistan, 75 per cent favour the death penalty for leaving Islam, 81 per cent say that sharia is the revealed word of God, and 85 per cent agree that converting others is a religious duty.

hizbutIn a 2008 survey of European Muslims, researcher Ruud Koopmans found that 75 per cent of them think that there is only one interpretation of the Qur’an possible, to which every Muslim should adhere to and 65 per cent said that religious rules are more important to them than laws of the country in which they live.

Ali goes on to say, “The problem is that, right now, too many young Muslims are at risk of being seduced by the preaching of the Medina Muslims.” We see this in the news ever so often that young men and women run away to join ISIS or similar outfits.

The word islam itself means “submission” and “…in Islam, you are either a believer or a disbeliever. There is no cognitive room to be an agnostic.” “Reform” is not a legitimate concept in Islamic doctrine. Yet Ali gives a strong reason to the Mecca Muslims as well as the average non-Muslim as to why discussion and debate is essential in Islam today: 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.”

Compare this with the words of Sri Aurobindo, spoken in 1924 to his disciples: “What is wanted is some new religious movement among the Mahomedans [sic] which would remodel their religion and change the stamp of their temperament. For instance, Bahaism in Persia which has given quite a different stamp to their temperament.” In The Story of Civilization, Will Durant begins Part I (Our Oriental Heritage) by writing about the factors that constitute a civilization and the conditions that influence its development.

If we look at the history of Islam in light of these factors, we will understand why its’ religious texts have many passages that we deem violent today. According to Durant, four factors constitute civilization – “economic provision, political organization, moral traditions, and the pursuit of knowledge and the arts” and certain conditions encourage or impede civilization, like geological conditions, geographical conditions, economic conditions, culture, politics, language, education, faith, etc. It is noteworthy that he mentions that “There are no racial conditions to civilization.” Given the harsh conditions in 7th century Arabia, survival itself was of the highest importance. In fact, the three Abrahamic religions seem to have originated under rather troubled circumstances as opposed to the traditions that flourished along the banks of rivers or amid green forests.

desertIn the desert, life was war – a war with nature, a war with other tribes, and a war with people of your own tribe who didn’t fall in line. A small example to show the adversity of those times: in Islamic history, the land controlled by Muslims is called dar al-islam (the land of Islam) while the land controlled by non-Muslims is called dar al-harb (the land of war).

Looking at the history of Islamic tradition through lens offered by Durant, we find that moral traditions were created in order to bring in political organization and the economic provisions only served to strengthen it further. With such constant strife, where is the opportunity for the pursuit of knowledge and the arts?

Speaking about formalism in worship, Swami Vivekananda said in a lecture in San Francisco in April 1900 – “It is a curious phenomenon that there never was a religion started in this world with more antagonism… [to the worship of forms] than Mohammedanism… The Mohammedans can have neither painting, nor sculpture, nor music… That would lead to formalism.” In the initial years, Islam couldn’t afford formalism and as time passed by, they couldn’t bear the thought of change. Qur’an 2:256 says that there is no compulsion in religion and 18:29 suggests that one is free to believe or to disbelieve. But later on, in several passages – 3:32, 3:143, 8:39, 9:5, 9:14, 9:29, etc. – the rigidity and intolerance becomes evident.

Almost every other religion has undergone reformation and many of the older ideas have become obsolete. No Hindu today calls for a wholesale replacement of Indian Law with Manusmṛti or Vasiṣṭha Dharmasūtra or Āśvalāyāna Gṛhyasūtra or Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra. No Judeo-Christian body seeks to repeal secular laws and instead derive their morality from Leviticus or Deuteronomy. On the other hand, more and more Muslims favour sharia and this is not restricted to the Islamic world.Just to give a glimpse into the nature of sharia, let us look at some of the punishments it prescribes – behead the unbelievers (Qur’an 8:12), crucify or amputate those who oppose the Qur’an and the Prophet (Qur’an 5:33), chop off the hands of thieves (Qur’an 5:38), a hundred lashes for premarital or extramarital sex (Qur’an 24:2) and stoning (Hadith Sunan Abu Dawud 38:4413).

Nasr Abu ZaydFor Muslims, the Qur’an is the revealed word of God that has been brought to them through the Prophets, the last of whom is Muhammad. In the Hindu tradition, there is a similar notion that the Vedas are revealed wisdom that has been brought to us through the seers. In the mid-1990s, Nasr Abu Zayd, an Egyptian thinker, argued that “human language had at least some role in shaping the Qur’an, thus making it not completely the uncorrupted word of Allah.” He was declared as apostate by an Egyptian court in 1995, forcibly separated from his wife, and received death threats, following which he fled to the Netherlands.


Compare this with the words of the 4th century CE grammarian and scholar Pāṇini, who said that only the words of the Vedas are uttered by the seers while their truths are eternal. He suggests that the failings of language come into play and therefore sufficient latitude must be given to interpretation. Some of the Upaniṣads go to the extent of saying that the highest truths cannot be spoken in words but must be experienced by the consciousness. With this attitude, it becomes rather straightforward to resolve contradictions that are inherent in the text.

But in Islam, every word of the Qur’an is sacred and thus the internal contradictions are left untouched by reason. As an ex-Muslim and an ex-Fundamentalist, Ayaan Hrisi Ali makes an important observation:

“It is almost always the immediate family that starts the persecution of freethinkers, of those who would ask questions or propose something new.” Right from the homes, there is little or no scope for discussion about religion. Further, there is a strong tendency towards “commanding right and forbidding wrong.”

Perhaps the most compelling reason for why there is no scope for debate or reform in Islam was put forth by a radical Islamist. In the chapter that discusses why Islam has not had any reform yet, Ali quotes Yusuf-Al-Qaradawi, “a staunch Medina Muslim and prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood…” :

“If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment Islam would not exist today. Islam would have ended with the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Opposing apostasy is what kept Islam to this day.”

A natural outcome of this rigidity is the incompatibility Muslims face in the modern world, especially with Western ideals and culture. Ali says, “The ferment we see in the Muslim world today…is due to Islam itself and the incompatibility of certain key facets of the Muslim faith with modernity.”

gitaSome immature critics of Hinduism try to compare the Bhagavad-Gītā with the Qur’an and clamour against Krishna’s call to Arjuna to fight. Even if one is not able to convince them about their misunderstanding, it is possible for a Hindu to give a non-violent interpretation of the text, or tell them to let go of the Gītā and read another text, like the Chāndogya Upaniṣad or the Nyāya Sūtras.

If reading is hard, then just chant a prayer like the gāyatrī or the mahāmṛtyuṃjaya mantras. If chanting makes it sectarian, then just meditate without words. If meditation is boring, then forget everything else and just lead an honourable life. There are several options for a Hindu, starting from firm belief to complete agnosticism. In fact, every religion when removed of its vestiges leaves us with just a few pages of a good moral code and some spiritual ideas. It is only in Islam that you have to hold onto the ancient structure without any change or scrutiny.


It is not only inefficient to hold onto the past but in this case, it is also proving to be harmful. Since Islam was born under extreme conditions, its texts are aligned to those situations. In Hindu terms, Islam can be seen as an āpaddharma, a set of rules that are used in times of emergency. Clearly they get outdated the moment the critical period passes. But that has not happened with the Qur’an and with jihad. This puts the Mecca Muslims in a dilemma. Violence is a part of human life and nobody should enjoy inflicting it. Intuitively, we know violence is wrong and perpetuating it is shameful. But what does one do when it’s enjoined in your scriptures?

Some liberals go out on a limb to argue that jihad is only metaphorical and refers to an inner struggle between good and evil. But there is nothing in the Qur’an to suggest that jihad is merely metaphorical and should not be taken literally, while there is much to suggest the contrary.

Ali says, “…far from being un-Islamic, the central tenets of the jihadists are supported by centuries-old Islamic doctrine.” In her inimitable style, she concludes her discussion on jihad by saying, “…if Muslims simply refuse to renounce jihad completely—then the next best thing would be to call their bluff about Islam being a religion of peace.”

Speaking about Hindu-Muslim unity, Sri Aurobindo said in 1923, “You can live amicably with a religion whose principle is toleration. But how is it possible to live peacefully with a religion whose principle is ‘I will not tolerate you’? How are you going to have unity with these people?… Perhaps the only way of making the Mahomedans [sic] harmless is to make them lose their fanatic faith in their religion…” Ali calls this intolerance “Islam’s religious apartheid.”

It is because of this religious apartheid that in Islamic countries, minorities are treated like second-rate citizens with little or no rights whereas in many non-Islamic countries like US, India, UK, and France, the law is designed to protect the minorities. The Medina Muslims use this to their advantage. Misogyny, homophobia and religious fanaticism that are inherent in Islam are increasingly seen not just in Islamic countries, but also in other countries with a significant Muslim population. Finally, let us take a look at the shortcomings of Heretic.

First, Ali cites several examples in the Islamic world that underscore the cruelty and intolerance but she uses only the extreme ones. This gives a feeling that peaceful Muslims are not respected in the Islamic world.

Second, the reforms that she proposes are highly idealistic to the extent that if they are implemented, Islam as we know it would not exist. She hits at the very heart of the basic principles of the religion and thus her suggestions border on the impractical, if not the impossible.

jihadThird, Ali does not discuss the malevolent role that the US has played in promoting Islamic terror. Through petro-dollars and arms trade, the US has ensured that West Asia is permanently in a state of war.

Fourth, for an Indian reader, there is an obvious lacuna in this work – not once does Ali discuss the problems created by radical Islamists in India nor does she refer to the peace between Shi’as and Sunnis in India (which is one of the few countries that has such harmony between these two warring factions).

The history of Islam is a classic example of an exclusive belief system taken to its extreme. And since the basic ideology is dualistic, there will always be a difference in opinion. If the whole world converted to Islam, then Shi’as and Sunnis would continue to fight and if the whole world became one of the two, newer exclusivities would arise and the war will continue to rage.

Gauḍapāda says in his Māṇḍūkya Kārikā (3.17-18) that dualists have firm beliefs in their own systems and are at loggerheads with one another but the non-dualists don’t have a quarrel with them. The dualists may have a problem with non-dualists but not the other way around. Gandhi says the same thing in different words when he says, “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.”

There is little doubt for an unbiased observer of international news that the time has come for concerned citizens of the world to understand the root of the widespread violence and intolerance that is being spread by Islam. The first step is to start a discussion about Islam and to be comfortable with divergent views. Then one might realize in practice what the 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib said:

kufr-o-deen chest juz aalaaish-e-pindaar-e-vujood

Faithlessness and Faith – what are they but the corruptions of existential conceit?

(In preparing this article, I have greatly benefitted from my discussions with Śatāvadhāni Dr. R. Ganesh.)


  1. Ali, Ayaan Hirsi. Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. New York: Harper, 2015. [Heretic] pp. 6-7
  2. pp. 26
  3. pp. 12
  4. Pew Research Center, “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society,” 2013 <>
  5. Koopmans, Ruud. “Fundamentalism and Out-Group Hostility,” 2013 <>
  6. Heretic, pp. 49
  7. In the chapter on jihad (especially pp. 177-90) Ali delves into the psyche of these young men and women, juxtaposing it with the backdrop of global jihad pp. 80, pp. 47, pp. 64, pp. 94
  8. Sri Aurobindo. Out of the Ruins of the West…India’s Rebirth. Paris: Institut de Recherches Évolutives and Mysore: Mira Aditi, 1997. pp. 169
  9. Durant, Will. Our Oriental Heritage (The Story of Civilization: Part 1). New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954. pp. 1,  pp. 2, pp. 191
  10. Even the so-called Islamic Golden Age was a good two centuries after the origin of Islam
  11. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 6
  12. <>
  13. Heretic, pp. 59-62
  14. Omar, Amatul Rahman and Omar, Abdul Mannan. The Holy Qur’an (as explained by Allamah Nooruddin). Hockessin: Noor Foundation International Inc., 2000 [I have used this translation for the Qur’an references throughout; the entire work can be accessed online:]
  15. Pew Research Center, “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society,” 2013 <>
  16. Koopmans, Ruud. “Fundamentalism and Out-Group Hostility,” 2013 <>
  17. This point is raised merely to show the striking similarity of the notion that the wisdom was revealed. It is not a comparison between Hinduism and Islam; for starters, Hindus are free to disagree with the idea that the Vedas are apauruṣeya (not of human origin) without fearing discrimination or death.
  18. Heretic, pp. 63
  19. Aṣṭādhyāyi 4.3.101
  20. For example, Kena Upaniṣad 1.5, 2.3
  22. Heretic, pp. 72
  23. Sreekrishna, Koti and Ravikumar, Hari. “Does the Bhagavad-Gita Advocate War?”<>
  24. Veda Vyāsa—the composer of the Mahābhārata and other works—said after composing a million verses, “I will tell you in half a verse / what has been said in a million books / helping others is good / harming others is bad.” (ślokārdhena pravakṣyāmi yaduktaṃ grantha koṭibhiḥ | paropakāraḥ puṇyāya pāpāya parapīḍanam ||)
  25. Heretic, pp. 205, pp. 206
  26. Sri Aurobindo. Out of the Ruins of the West…India’s Rebirth. Paris: Institut de Recherches Évolutives and Mysore: Mira Aditi, 1997. pp. 167
  27. Heretic, pp. 228
  28. Ali discusses this in detail in the last chapter, ‘The Twilight of Tolerance.’ Heretic, pp. 207-221
  29. India is a major stakeholder when it comes to reforms in Islam. There are more than 180 million Muslims in India and Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the country. <>
  30. Gambhīrānanda, Swāmī. Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad (With the Kārikā of Gauḍapāda and Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya). Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1995. pp. 121-22