Book Review - The Heart of Islam / Caged Virgin / No god But God

Cultic Studies Review, 7, 2, 2008, 175-181.

The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity

Seyyed Hossein Nasr

San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2004. ISBN-10: 0060730641; ISBN-13: 9780060730642 (paperback), $13.95 ($11.16 352 pages.

The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

London: Pocket Books (an imprint of Simon & Shuster UK Ltd, Africa House, 64-78 Kingsway, London WC2B 6AH), 2007. ISBN-10: 1416526234; ISBN-13: 9781416526230 (paperback), £7.99 (£3.99 208 pages.

No god but God: Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam

Reza Aslan

New York, NY: Random House, 2006. ISBN-10: 0812971892; ISBN-13: 9780812971897 (paperback), $14.95 ($10.17 352 pages.

Reviewed by Joseph P. Szimhart

Can terrorists hijack a religion? If they can, what do the terrorists want us to believe about that religion? Is there anything in that religion to support the claims of a terrorist? Can ancient traditions survive modernization? Are sacred doctrines mutable? These are questions I had wanted to explore regarding Islam when that religion fell under serious scrutiny since September 11, 2001. Here, I review three books by Muslim authors that I found useful in this context, and which offer intelligent and challenging views.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote The Heart of Islam in response to the negative stereotypical opinions about Islam since 9-11. The author of this highly acclaimed book was born in Tehran, Iran. He received his advanced education at M.I.T. and Harvard. He taught at Tehran University from 1958 to 1979. Since then, he has been professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University. He is the president of the Foundation for Traditional Studies. On the back cover of the book jacket, Huston Smith praises Nasr as “exactly the right man to author such a book, for I know no one else who is as solidly grounded in both authentic Islam and the complexities of the contemporary Western mind.”

Nasr offers a basic history of Muhammad the Prophet and the development of Islam, but he concentrates on the wider cultural impact of Islam, and on the sects and factions within Muslim culture. He clarifies often-misunderstood and misapplied terms such as infidel and kafir, bringing them into proper focus under Sharia law and scripture.

In his chapter “One God, Many Prophets,” Nasr reminds us that much of the animosity by Muslim sects toward secular modernism and Western values stems from “the danger of loss of identity,” or fear of extinction as a people if traditional values erode. Yet, Nasr argues, within “Quranic” doctrine “many verses concern the reality of One God and the multiplicity of revelations sent by Him.” Traditional Muslims are not so much anti-West, he says, as they are wary of importing the same vices that are destroying the morals and values of the West. He points out that the “fundamentalism” among Muslims that so many in the West fear is actually no more virulent in its proselytizing than “secular fundamentalism” is in its own way. The problem is with the extremists who do not define the “center” of “traditional” Islam. The heart of Islam shares the same quest for compassion and universal truth sought in the heart of any of the great religions or ethical systems. Nasr shares the metaphysical views of Frithjof Schuon and his “transcendent unity of religions” that is “part and parcel” of the general discourse among Muslim intellectuals worldwide. In this discussion about the essential universal message of the Quran is the hope for a better relationship among differing factions in the religious landscape, both inside and outside of Muslim tradition.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (born in 1969 in Somalia) published The Caged Virgin as De Maagdenkooi in the Netherlands in 2004. My daughter, a teacher in Australia, heard Hirsi Ali speak in Sydney at an authors’ conference in 2007. Hirsi Ali was the only speaker with bodyguards. My daughter sent me a copy of this book.

Hirsi Ali grew up Muslim in a traditional family in Somalia and Kenya, but as a young woman ran away to avoid an arranged marriage to a distant relative in Canada. She made her way to the Netherlands, applied for and was granted asylum, learned Dutch, and worked as an interpreter. There she struggled to live and gain a Western education with a degree in political science. She became a parliamentary representative, lately with the Liberal Party. Along with filmmaker Theo van Gogh, she produced the highly controversial Submission: Part 1, a 10-minute piece that features a female actor illustrating culturally mandated, cruel treatment of Muslim women living under a fundamentalist or literal interpretation of the Koran.[1] A radical Muslim murdered van Gogh shortly after the film’s release in 2004. The killer left a death threat against Hirsi Ali pinned with a knife that was stuck in van Gogh's corpse. Hirsi Ali, who has continued her mission to bring enlightenment to fundamentalism in Islam, has been under guard since.

In 2006, Hirsi Ali stepped down from the Dutch parliament to accept a position with the American Enterprise Institute. She intends to help with research regarding the relationship of the West with Islam and violence against women propagated by religious ideas. With The Caged Virgin, the author argues that if one follows the ancient tribal values and morals imbedded in Muslim scripture and tradition, then women will be forced to submit to harmful physical and social behaviors. She argues that simplistic and antimodern interpretations of passages from the Koran are more the norm than the exception throughout Muslim-dominated nations. Men are also harmed because they are raised by naïve, if highly devoted women with the same primitive values, which thus promotes a vicious cycle of rigid codes contained in Sharia law. These old tribal codes tend to promote wife-beating and, in some cultures, the mutilation of women through female circumcision and suturing the vagina to protect virginity.

Hirsi Ali also argues that a virgin bride is so highly valued and anything less so roundly condemned that Muslims will lie and cheat to sustain the illusion of virginity. If a Muslim woman commits sexual misconduct with a man and is found out, the woman receives the more severe punishment under a strict Sharia culture, according to Hirsi Ali. Much depends on the cleric’s interpretation of the crime, so the punishment can range from a whipping of “one hundred lashes” [to both the man and the woman, according to the Koran Chapter 24, verse 2] to stoning to death. The author states that many young women will find doctors to resuture their vagina after they’ve become sexually active before marriage, to convince their husbands that they are truly virgin.

Her concern for Muslim women came to light after she settled in the Netherlands when she worked as an interpreter for social servants who were trying to help dislocated and abused Muslim women at the shelters. The experience had a profound effect on her personal philosophy and lifestyle. She eventually proclaimed herself an atheist and a lesbian. Because of her radical position, even moderate Muslims take issue with her harsh position on the culture and the Prophet. Hirsi Ali says she is not trying to destroy the culture, as some critics claim, but rather that she is expressing the need for modernist reform of the entire culture. Her current project is the philosophical fantasy Short Cuts to Enlightenment, about the Prophet Muhammad waking up in a modern New York library where he is exposed to new and interesting ideas unavailable to him during his lifetime.

Hirsi Ali’s position stems from her privately letting go of the fear that she says Muslim culture imbedded in her as a child—fear of losing salvation over disobedience to the god of a culture that does not listen to the pleas of abused women. In contrast, she views the advances in civil rights and democracy as products of the liberal Western education that she came to appreciate. Her chapter title, “Let us have a Voltaire,” is telling. She argues that history proves her point. In their early centuries, “the Muslims created a multiethnic, multiracial culture, and universal world civilization. Yet today, compared with the Christian West, the Muslim world has become poor, weak, fractious, and ignorant” (page 50).

Reza Aslan takes a more sympathetic route to finding within Islam the essential teachings necessary for reform, and for avoiding the dangerous misinterpretations of holy writ used by aberrant clerics who influence terrorists. If you choose just one book of the three books to grasp both the history and beauty of Islamic tradition while seeking to reconcile its value in a modern context, I would recommend that you read No god but God by Reza Aslan.

The author was born in 1972 in Tehran and is a Muslim believer and an internationally acclaimed scholar of religions. Aslan is an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside. He continues to appear on television news programs as an expert commentator on Islam. In his book, Aslan recounts the controversial facts that brought the Quran into being and describes the formation of subsequent Muslim cultures that appeared during reformations. He recounts how the Prophet truly thought he might be losing his mind when he first experienced the vision to produce the Quran. Muhammad did not trust the powers of seers, yet he came to accept that Allah called him to be a special prophet. We can say “the rest is history,” but it takes a gifted and sensitive historian to bring those events into focus for modern times. Reza Aslan has done that very well in No god but God.

Aslan explains the difficulties of an ongoing Islamic reformation as traditionalists struggle to meet modern needs, and lapsed, modernized Muslims return to their family faith with novel interpretations in “garage mosques” worldwide: “Reformations, as we know from Christian history, are bloody events. And though the end is near, the Islamic reformation has some way to go before it is resolved” (page xvii). He writes eloquently about the history and splintering of Islam while carefully defining words and concepts often misunderstood in the West. He includes a glossary in the back of dozens of significant terms. For example, Imam in Shi’ism is the divinely inspired leader of the community. The role of the Imam in a Shi’ite sect is embodied in the Biblical Adam as the first Imam on Earth. The Prophet’s role was “to transmit” while the Imam “translates.”

We learn from No god but God that after Muhammad established his religion and passed on, the “Companions,” or those with direct knowledge of the Prophet’s life and teachings, created a body of oral anecdotes, or hadith. These anecdotes became a basis for much of the developing Islamic law; however, because of muddled memories and insufficient regulation, authentication of hadith became almost impossible:

By the ninth century, when Islamic law was being fashioned, there were so many false hadith circulating through the community that Muslim legal scholars somewhat whimsically classified them into two categories: lies told for material gain and lies told for ideological advantage. (page 68)

Aslan points out other difficulties Muslim scholars and clerics face. Islam is not a centralized religion—it has no Vatican or single governing body to produce a catechism of consistent teachings. Arabic, the language of the holy Quran, lends itself to various interpretations. For example, Aslan considers verse 4:34 in two differing translations, Ahmed Ali’s and Majid Fakhry’s. The final word in the verse we can render “beat them” or, equally, “turn away from them,” “go along with them,” or “have consensual sex with them.” The implications for treatment of women are profound. “If one views the Quran as empowering women, then Ali’s; if one looks to the Quran to justify violence against women, then Fakhry’s” (page 70). The author explains the development of the heretical Wahhabi doctrine that dominates Saudi Arabia with its roots in “tawhid,” or a rigid fundamentalist monotheism. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban derive their radicalism from Wahhabism. Aslan tells us of the mystics of Islam or Sufi movement, and so much more worth savoring.

In this brief review, I must overlook mentioning much of the content of all three books. I hope only to offer an indication of the respective approaches. Personally, I am glad I read and reread all three authors, who seem to agree on one thing: Islam is in a reformation period, and violence will certainly attend it. Reza Aslan reminds us that Muhammad launched a revolution in Mecca to replace an archaic, rigid, and inequitable … tribal society … It took many years of violence and devastation to cleanse the Hijaz of its “false idols.” It will take many more to cleanse Islam of its new false idols—bigotry and fanaticism—worshipped by those who have replaced Muhammad’s original vision of tolerance and unity with their own ideals of hatred and discord (page 266).

But Aslan is hopeful, as we all should be, especially if we continue to support Muslims who seek that same original vision of the Prophet. After having read these books, I can better appreciate the struggle (jihad) of good Muslims dedicated to rescuing their culture from the fanatics and angry fundamentalists who would rather kill the infidel than coexist with a more tolerant and educated civility.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2008, Pages 175-181