Leading PostsMarch April 2007

Why is the west listening to Hirsi Ali?

Mahmood Delkhasteh

Recently, a review of Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel in The Economist (‘A critic of Islam’, 8 February) described her as a “chameleon of a woman”, who has been “happy to exploit” the West’s “tendency to seek simplistic explanations”.  Indeed, many western intellectuals are championing her ideas and demanding they be given greater exposure. She says what they love to hear, and blinded by this love they have failed to be critical of her; they failed to use the quality of mind, which is ostensibly one of the greatest assets of western intellectual life.

On the one hand, Hirsi Ali attacks Islam itself by inducing blanket assumptions based on her own personal experiences. On the other hand, she idealizes and glorifies western culture, primarily its intellectual assets. However, a critical approach to her work reveals that she neither has sufficient knowledge about Islam to make the claims she does, nor is she knowledgeable about the fundamental principles of the western thought.  In other words, Ali’s weakness is not that she criticises traditional Islam, but that she essentialises Islam and equates it solely with repression and backwardness.  This indicates major shortcomings in both her knowledge of Islam and of western intellectual science, for which she claims to be fighting.

In order to demonstrate this, I have I decided to analyse one of her most controversial statements from a theological perspective. In Infidel (2007), she argues that the Koran is the work of man and not of God.  Consequently we should feel free to interpret and adapt it to modern times, rather than bending over backwards to live as the first believers did in a distant, terrible time.

Here we can ask, what makes her so certain that the Koran is the work of man (i.e., Mohammad) and not God? She obviously rejects the Moslem belief that the Koran is the word of God, descended to Mohammad.  By making such a claim, what she actually does is to argue that God has nothing to do with it as it is the work of Mohammad.  Can any other conclusion deduced from that statement?   If not, then, one can thus safely assume that when she states “the Koran is the work of man and not of God”, what she actually means is that the Koran has nothing to do with God but with Mohammad.

Now we can interact with her claim in a more effective manner and I can re-ask my initial question:

Does she introduce any support to back up her claim? No she does not.  So, one can argue that her claim about the Koran is based on a mere belief and there is no rational reasoning behind it.  Moslems, on the other hand, believe the Koran is the word of God. (I am saying this for the sake of argument; otherwise the Koran interact with this issue differently).  So it seems that these two opposing claims are based on beliefs and rationality stands outside of both.  In that sense she can not be what she claims to be: “an enlightened rationalist” since she has made an important claim without providing any reason for it. So the question is, what makes her belief superior to a Moslem belief, or where is her claim of rationality situated in this claim?

The mere fact that she thinks that the Koran can only be interpreted if we accept that it was written by a man and not God also shows her limited knowledge of the philosophy of knowledge and her even more limited knowledge of Islam. Otherwise she would have known that any text, irrespective of its author, by definition has to be interpreted in order to be understood.  In other words, discourse analysis is one of the methods for interacting with any book and in such method talk about the author of the book is totally irrelevant as the interpretation of a text has nothing to do with the author.

More precisely, the statement indicates that she has little or no knowledge of modern hermeneutics and that understanding any word requires interpretations and every text in order to be understood has to be interpreted.

Furthermore, she should have known that there are countless interpretations of the Koran which run in various directions, from totalitarian interpretations (i.e., of the Wahabites in Saudi Arabia) to the most democratic and humanitarian ones (i.e., mystic philosophers like Rumi, Mehdi Bazargan and A. H. Banisadr from Iran).  All of these wide-ranging and opposing interpretations are made by theologians and Islamists who believed that the Koran is the word of God.  Ali (the most authoritative figure on Koran, after Mohammad, famously stated:

“this Koran is the written line and situated between two covers.  It does not talk for itself and inevitably it has to be translated/ interpreted”

So, this belief never prevented anybody from interpreting the text.  Hence, once again, there is not a necessary correlation between believing that the “Koran is the work of man” and attempts to have a modern interpretation out of it. Making such statement, at least, is therefore completely futile.

Within Islamic discourses there is a distinction between the official closed corpus (the current Koran) and “Mos’haf”, which means the distinction between words that are the exact words of God and those that are open to interpretation (i.e., not the exact words).  The “Motazelieh” (rationalists) and “Ashaaereh” (theologians) were debating this since the 9th century.  The only thing, which these Islamic scholars have in common is the belief that while the meaning hasn’t changed, the context/ vocabularies and the reading of it is very much under scrutiny.

If she knew even the basics of this sort of information, she would not say that the Koran is not the work of God but of man, since the complexity of such relationship is enormous and only someone with a basic knowledge of the field can make such black and white assertion.

In addition, her conclusion fails her argument.  If her claim is correct and the Koran is the work of man and not God, then her superceding argument: “…consequently we should feel free to interpret and adapt it to modern times, rather than bending over backwards to live as the first believers did in a distant, terrible time”, is purely nonsensical.  Why? Her suggestion is aimed at Moslems who have to interpret and adopt the Koran to modern times.  However, if a Moslem believes that the Koran is actually the work of Mohammad and not God, then this by definition would mean he had lied to them, which would disqualify him as a prophet.

If a Moslem reaches that conclusion, then he/she will cease to be a Moslem and Islam will become a non-religion for him/her. It would thus be foolish to expect such a person to adapt to modern times a Book that she/he has lost belief in instead of searching for new belief system.

Finally, one should also ask who her target audience is. Moslems can not be her target audience (despite of her apparent target); she should have known better that when She issues a fatwa in which tells those Moslems that their religion is based on a lie and Mohammad was a liar, they will have nothing to do with her argument since they fundamentally disagree with it.  So by issuing such a fatwa she closes the gate of dialogue and communication with Moslems.  So again, here is the question: Who is her target audience? It can only be non-Moslems who share the view that Islam is the word of Mohammad and who have political interest in what she is saying.  Hence, they already agree with her statement and share the same point of view.  So here is the following question: Why she is preaching to the converted? She has nothing new to say to these people, but still continues to speak to them and is given ample space for it.  What does she get out of it? Why do they pretend that they are hearing something new?

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